For the last several months we’ve been reading the Biggest Story Bible Storybook with our kids over dinner. It hasn’t been easy. Everyone seems to have to go to the bathroom when I pull out the Bible. We also have a 4-year-old who recently started singing (and I am not exaggerating for this blog) “I’m a chaotic baby. I’m a chaotic baby. I’m a chaotic baby.” But a couple of nights ago, my 10-year-old asked me a question I didn’t know how to answer.
“Why does Zacchaeus climb a sycamore? What’s the point of that detail? I would have just said “tree.” Stupidly proud that my daughter asked such an observant question, I pulled out Google to find an answer. Turns out, “sycamore” is a rare word in the Bible. It’s used in Chronicles and Kings to brag about David and Solomon’s vast material resources (1 Kings 10:27; 1 Chron 27:28). In Psalms 78:47 a sycamore burns under God’s wrath. Amos tended an orchard of sycamores before he began denouncing the corruption of the governing elite (Amos 7:1). But the Book of Luke references sycamores twice, within only verses of each other: once in the Zacchaeus story, and once more in a conversation Jesus had with his disciples about the amount of faith it takes to forgive someone of great sins.
The Significance of the Sycamore
In Luke 17, the disciples were overwhelmed by the level of forgiveness Jesus demanded toward those who had hurt and harmed them. The disciples begged Jesus to give them more faith for the task. But Jesus responds by telling them that they only need a mustard seed’s worth of faith to forgive a sycamore’s worth of pain (although your Bible might translate “sycamore” as “mulberry”) (Luke 17:6).
In the next chapter, the disciples are overwhelmed again. Jesus tells them it’s easier for a camel to go into the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s Kingdom. But Jesus comforts them and says with God, all these things are possible (Luke 18:18-34).
And that’s when we’re introduced to short Zacchaeus. A mustard seed of a man standing in a sycamore. A very rich man squeezing his way through the branches to get a glimpse of God’s kingdom. A man in need of miraculous forgiveness for the ways he was a traitor to his people, and had stolen from his neighbors. My daughter asked the right question. The word “sycamore” is supposed to hyperlink observant 10-year-olds (and all of us) to Jesus’ last conversations with his disciples. In Zacchaeus, we see the impossible: a very rich man entering God’s kingdom; a sycamore of corruption moved to repentance and forgiven by both God and his community.
Small Details, Great Truths
The longer I’ve done Bible studies with adults, teens, and now my own kids, the more I learn that it’s rare that there is an insignificant detail in Scripture. Luke didn’t use the word “sycamore” haphazardly and Zacchaeus’ height isn’t incidental to the story. The details we gloss over are often the way the Holy Spirit, through the Biblical authors, drives us to see the main point, and in this case, the kind of transformation the gospel brings to sinners like Zacchaeus.
There are few trivial details in Scripture, small details lead us to the greatest truths, and kids can show their parents things in the Word they’ve missed their whole lives (1 Cor. 1:27).
Parents, join us at Rooted 2023 to hear Syler Thomas give a “Bootcamp for Parents of Teens and Tweens.”