Updated: Mar 26, 2021
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This morning I watched the live streaming video of the local Baptist minister. He preached about the story of Jesus seeing Zacchaeus in the tree in Jericho. In his sermon, he made reference to Zacchaeus being “short in stature” and therefore unable to muscle his way through the crowd to see Jesus. He “went up ahead” and there he climbed a sycamore tree.
It was there that the preacher made a mistake, which is commonly made about Jesus and crowds. Because here in America there are still a large portion of the population [albeit a shrinking majority] who call themselves “Christian” and think Jesus’ last name was “Christ,” there is a tendency to think, “Oh my gosh! If Jesus were to come to my town, well I swear it would be bigger than the pope visiting New York City. Everybody would be there. Oh my, what a crowd!”
That, relative to the times of ancient Judea, is incorrect. For the most part, Jesus only drew the crowd that was his disciples and followers. In Jericho he was an unknown entity.
Imagine the disciples running ahead of Jesus yelling, "Get out of the way! Jesus is coming!"
Here are some verses written by Saint Matthew, all of which address the presence of a “crowd.”
1. “Kai ekporeuomenōn autōn apo Ierichō , ēkolouthēsen auto ochios polys .”
[Matthew 20:29] That literally translates as: “[Important] were departing from they
from Jericho , accompanied him crowd large .” The NRSV translates that as saying,
“As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.”
2. “Ho de pleistos ochios estrōsan heautōn ta himatia en tē hodō ;” [Matthew 21:8]
That literally translates as: “This now very great crowd spread themselves those
cloaks on the road ;” The NRSV translates that as saying, “A very large crowd spread
their cloaks on the road”.
3. “Hoi de archiereis kai hoi presbyteroi epeisan tous ochlous hina aitēsōntai ton
Barbban ,” [Matthew 27:20a] That literally translates as: “They now chief priests
[importantly] they members of the Sanhedrin urged their crowds in order that him
Barabbas ,” The NRSV translates that as saying, “Now the chief priests and the elders
persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas”.
From closely examining these three verses [or fragments thereof], where “crowd” is repeated twice and “crowds” is a plural form that implies a “mob” or “multitude of people,” which is “a crowd,” it is easy to see all of these as referring to those Jewish pilgrims, all of common blood, not people of high rank, who were “a crowd” because of the Passover feast and the festival of the Unleavened Bread.” By simply seeing that, the three verses can be explained as such:
1. Matthew 20:29 says Jesus and his disciples walked the road out from Jericho,
which led to Jerusalem. At that time, Jesus and his disciples were far from the only
ones deciding to make that trip. Rather than the crowds following Jesus, as if any of
them knew who Jesus was, they were all simply going to the same place, at the same
time, for the same reason – the Passover. The word translated as "followed"
["ēkolouthēsen"] equally says "accompanied," such that all were going the same
2. Matthew 21:8, when one understands that all roads leading to Jerusalem were
packed with pilgrims, becomes less a statement about strange pilgrims being willing to
line a dirt road [probably dry and very dusty] with their cloaks or outer garments,
because they were common Jews who did not travel with any more clothing than
necessary [as far as extra cloaks and materials to repair cloaks soiled by donkey
dung]. Thus, the verse needs to be read as metaphor, where it says there were so
many pilgrims along the path of Jesus, his disciples and a donkey colt, they were
spread so thickly [at the walls of Jerusalem] the appeared like a cloak of Jews spread
over the road. Those Jews knew the symbolism of Jesus riding a donkey colt, so the
following segment says “some cut branches from trees and placed them in the road.”
Therefore, the adoration was for a prophecy of Isaiah, not someone they did not know,
who was riding a donkey colt.
3. Matthew 27:20a can then be seen as the Jewish pilgrims packed inside a public
arena [the Fortress of Antonia], where Pilate was to offer to free a prisoner, as some
arrangement made to act like Roman forgiveness [a pseudo-Yom Kippur]. According
to historians, there was no such customary release associated with the Passover; but
it could have been something allowed the governor of Judea, whenever the Jews of
Jerusalem passed notes saying the natives were restless. As such, this whole scene
would have been set up by the Sanhedrin, after having arrested Jesus and turned him
over to Pilate, where they would themselves gather easy pickings from the “crowd”
and usher them in to cast a vote for a strong Jew who had fought against the Romans.
This, once more, says the vast majority of the “crowd” of Jews visiting Jerusalem [a
tremendous number of foreigners present] knew nothing of what Jesus had done,
even if they had heard him preach a little in the Temple.
I believe this makes a good argument that says Jesus was a needle amid a haystack of Jews, the exception rather than the norm. God sent His Son to begin a movement that would spread like wildfire after his death and resurrection, with the popularity he had in Galilee not matched when he went to Jerusalem. Jesus was actually a wanted man, in the sense that the Sanhedrin had attempted to catch Jesus and punish him multiple times before that Passover festival. Jesus had gone to the other side of the Jordan to be out of reach of the Sanhedrin’s manipulation of Pilate, as Pilate had no authority in Herod Antipas’ territory. That means any recognition of Jesus being back in Judea, especially if pointed out by large crowds, would have made it easy for the Temple Jews to arrest Jesus before the Passover thongs reached town. Once he reached Jerusalem, however, they had to act much more discretely, to keep from turning the "crowd" against them.
In the Baptist minister’s sermon, he pointed out that Jesus knew the name of Zacchaeus, calling to him by name. The preacher marveled at how popular Jesus had become; but that is his opinion, one that is unfounded. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas says young Jesus was tutored by a young man named Zachaeus [slightly different spelling], who Jesus told, “Not knowing the meaning of aleph? How can you teach the whole alphabet?” If that Zachaeus character was young and getting his first opportunity at teaching, around twenty years of age [a failure that would send him into a career as a tax collector], he would have heard the rumors of young Jesus having grown up and coming to town [Jesus healed two blind beggars in Jericho, so word gets around fast when that happens].
By seeing how Zacchaeus knew Jesus years before and knew Jesus had healed men known to be blind [most likely by cataracts], he wanted to show himself to Jesus, because he had made a fortune cheating the people. He knew Jesus could help him with the guilt he felt from that wealth. He climbed a tree knowing Jesus would stand out in a crowd of strangers. Therefore, the crowd was not his signal where to look; Jesus would only be the glowing slither covered up by the common people – the needle in the haystack. To see that, Zacchaeus needed a higher vantage point.
When it was Jesus who called out the name of Zacchaeus, saying he would dine at his house, it was Zacchaeus who then stood out, as the only short man on a tree branch. Having known Jesus as a boy under the age of ten, Jesus would have changed significantly [growing a beard, for one]. Zacchaeus probably still looked much the same [they say small people seem to age slower], therefore he would have been recognized by Jesus, if Jesus did in fact known him from his youth.
The Baptist minister talked about it being a sign of appreciation in the Middle East, to invite oneself over to someone's house. Jesus was doing that. Still, nothing implies a crowd of Jewish pilgrims stayed with Jesus, as if the only reason they were there was to follow Jesus. Had they done that, then there would be need for another miracle feeding of a multitude, even if Zacchaeus was a rich man. I believe it is safe to say the crowd was completely uninterested in a conversation between a short man in a tree and some other stranger in the crowd.