Encounters With Jesus: Zacchaeus

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

Late one morning in the town of Jericho, a man named Zacchaeus happened to find himself up a tree.

He hadn’t set out that morning planning to climb trees. In fact, it had been a long time since Zacchaeus had climbed a tree, though it brought him back to his childhood, running and playing around the village with the other kids. He wondered briefly what they were up to these days. Zacchaeus had long since left that village for the customs hub of Jericho, and he had rarely looked back.

No, it had started out like any other morning, as Zacchaeus set out to make his collections. He noticed that the main part of town, by the road that led to Jerusalem, was awfully crowded that morning. He stopped to ask a bystander what was going on.

“Jesus of Nazareth is coming through!” the man said. Then the man realized who he was talking to, and his face clouded over.

Zacchaeus was used to that kind of reaction, but to tell you the truth it was getting to him these days. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Actually, he was a chief tax collector, in charge of a bunch of lower-level tax collectors, and that made him relatively unpopular with the masses. It wasn’t just because people liked to grumble about the inefficiency of the public sector. It was because being a tax collector meant collecting money for the Roman Empire, the occupying power.

Sellout, they called him.

In cahoots with the enemy, they said.        

And worse names, too: Cheat. Fraud. They accused him of skimming some off the top for himself. Sometimes they spat the words of the prophets at him, words about trampling the poor under your sandals.

Zacchaeus narrowed his eyes back at the man, then turned around and kicked the trunk of a nearby sycamore tree.

He had heard about this guy Jesus, who was on his way into town.  He had heard he was a healer and that he told stories about the Kingdom of God. People even claimed that when you were with him it was like being in the presence of God Godself. Zacchaeus hadn’t really put much stock in any of it. He was more of a realist than a romantic. You know what was real? Money. Money was real.

Still, if Jesus was coming right through his own town, he figured he might as well stick around.

People were continuing to gather and Zacchaeus pushed his way to the front of the crowd so he could see. It seemed like Zacchaeus spent his whole life fighting his way to the front in one way or another: fighting to prove he was as tough as the tall kids, fighting to leave his village and make something of himself. This time he happened to jostle a woman in the process. She looked over to glare at him and when recognition dawned, she glared harder. “Traitor,” she muttered under her breath.

Zacchaeus felt anger rising up in his chest like a fire. He turned around to storm home. He stopped to kick the sycamore tree again as he went. Then he had an idea.

And that’s how Zacchaeus found himself up a tree that morning.

He felt a little silly at first. But he also breathed a little easier once he was slightly removed from the crush of the crowd. From his perch on a strong branch, he surveyed the scene and felt a wave of bitterness rush through him. There were people talking, laughing, little kids jumping up and down and sitting on their fathers’ shoulders. It was a scene that was familiar to him, one he would have fit right into, once.

But he was poor, then, too.

Zacchaeus sat in that tree and had a fight, in his head, with all the people down on the ground. They wanted to call him a sellout for working for the Romans? Well, who maintained those roads they walked on every day? Who provided security and protection against all the nations around them? Hypocrites, he thought, always complaining when they don’t even know how much they benefit from Roman rule.

Oh, fine, it’s not that the Romans are perfect, he thought, still fighting with the people in his head. But it’s a rough world out there, and a man has to make his way in it somehow. Everyone was jealous, he knew, that Zacchaeus had managed to make a life for himself, that he had found his way out of the poverty they lived in – that he dressed well and could afford to throw a nice dinner party now and then.

Any of them would have done the same if they’d had the opportunity, he said to himself.

And the cheating? Well, Zacchaeus wasn’t saying it was true, but if he demanded extra from his guys, who demanded extra from the people they collected from, it was just because the guy above him demanded extra, too. It’s just the way the system worked, he didn’t make it up. You had to live in the real world.

Zacchaeus sat in that tree, justifying himself.

“I’m a good person,” he finally said aloud, to people who weren’t listening and didn’t care. He heard how it sounded coming out of his mouth, the absurdity of it.

He shook his head and almost went home. Who needed Jesus, anyway. He would probably just judge him like everyone else. The religious ones were always the worst.

But just as he was about to climb down, the crowd erupted in cheers, and Zacchaeus looked up. He could see people running up to someone a ways down the road, trying to lean in and touch his robe. That must be him!  He could see the man on the road leaning down to a hug a child.  He could see him stretch his hand out to bless someone. And for a moment, Zacchaeus allowed himself to get swept up in the excitement, and he felt a strange feeling: maybe hope, if he remembered what that was.

Jesus drew closer and closer until he was almost under the tree where Zacchaeus sat. Zacchaeus shrunk back, seeking safety in the anonymity the branches provided him, and waited for Jesus to pass.

But Jesus didn’t walk past.

Instead he stopped. 

And he looked up.  Right into Zacchaeus’s tree.

Zacchaeus’s eyes inadvertently caught his.  Zacchaeus quickly looked away.

But Jesus didn’t move.  So Zacchaeus looked back, half waiting for Jesus to call him out.  Sellout. Fraud.

But Jesus just stood there for a minute and then he called over the sound of the crowd, “Zacchaeus.”

Zacchaeus suddenly wished that instead of being up high in a tree, he could sink into the ground. He didn’t know how Jesus knew his name, but his reputation must have preceded him. He braced himself for the words to follow. He prepared to fight with Jesus in his head. I’m a good person, he muttered to himself. He felt that fire rising up in him again.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “come on down from there.  I’m coming to your house.”

Zacchaeus paused, wondering for a moment if he had heard correctly. But Jesus stood there, looking up. And, since he didn’t know what else to do, Zacchaeus climbed down and stood before him.

And, in a complete surprise to himself, he started to cry.

And instead of justifying himself Zacchaeus suddenly wanted to say, no, no Jesus, you can’t come over, because it’s true, what they say, all of it, I’m a sellout and a fraud, a traitor to my people and a disappointment to God.

But Jesus just stood there, and somehow Zacchaeus sensed that Jesus knew. But he wasn’t looking at him with judgment. He didn’t wear that same cloudy expression Zacchaeus was used to everywhere he went.

He knew who Zacchaeus was. And he wanted to come over anyway. 

The crowd seemed to catch on to what was happening. “You can’t go to his house,” came one voice.  “Don’t you know who he is?”  “He’s a sinner!” another voice said.  “Sinner!” came more voices.  The voices echoed and blurred in Zacchaeus’s ears.

And though Jesus had only asked to come to his house, without even thinking, Zacchaeus blurted out the only thing he could think of to make the voices stop: “I’m going to give half of what I own to the poor!”

The crowd got quiet for a minute.  Zacchaeus had surprised even himself again.  For a split second he regretted it.  He wondered if he could take it back.

But then he saw a little smile begin to form on Jesus’ face.

So he didn’t take it back.  Instead, Zacchaeus took a deep breath, and he said, a little shakily this time, but with resolve: “And if I’ve cheated anyone, I’ll pay them back four times over.”

He was surprised to find that it felt good to say it.  He felt lighter, somehow, like possibilities were opening before him, like things could be different, and he didn’t have to fight so hard anymore. He looked Jesus in the eye this time, and laughed. Not because it was funny, but because he was free.

Jesus laughed back.  “Child of God,” he said, “this is what salvation feels like.” 

He put a hand gently on Zacchaeus’s back, and on they walked, down the road to Zacchaeus’s house.

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