The Gospel of Luke tells the story like this:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10, NIV)
In modern days, we focus on the fact that he was short, and I understand why. It's a great image to think of a grown man climbing a tree to see who's passing by in a crowd. Like other gospel encounters, we read about a person who was curious about Jesus. I love how verse 3 says "He wanted to see who Jesus was." Maybe he wanted to size up (pun intended) this man he's been hearing about. Maybe he wanted to see one of His famous miracles. Or maybe, just maybe, the message of Jesus was already beginning to do a work in his heart. I'm thankful for the Zacchaeus-es of the world, who are willing to do silly things, undignified things, to see who Jesus is.
But the story isn't really about a short, wealthy man who was willing to climb a tree. The story is about the Savior who was passing through Jericho, who was surrounded by a crowd, and who knew to look to an unlikely spot to find the man who was truly searching for Him. Jesus had previously promised the people, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8, NIV). Zacchaeus was acting on these words.
Do you think Zaccheaus climbed the tree reluctantly? I don't think he climbed it saying, "Well, I guess I'll climb this tree if that's what I have to do." No, I think he was excited that a solution existed. I envision a movie moment. Zacchaeus is being pushed and shoved in the crowd, maybe getting an elbow to the head. He stands on his tip toes, but still can't see over the people around him. Then the crowds part ever so slightly, and he sees the tree (maybe there is a light shining down on it). He pushes through the people to the tree, and he's thankful that he has the opportunity to climb the tree.
When I read a story like this, I usually ask myself what I am willing to do to see Christ. I think a better question is what I want to do to see Christ. Paul tells the believers in Corinth that "you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (1 Corinthians 9:7, NIV). Similarly, God doesn't want us to climb the sycamore trees in our life "reluctantly or under compulsion." We should love climbing the trees that let us see Jesus.