I came outside to an almost empty street. A large crowd stood at the gates of Jericho, cheering and praising God. The crowd began moving slowly inside of the gates, and a small girl came running by me. “Pardon me, Talitha. What is happening?”
Breathlessly she stopped and said, “Jesus! Jesus of Nazareth! He has come to Jericho! And he has made Blind Bartimaus see!!”
Before I could question the girl further, her mother swiftly walked up and grabbed her by the arm, dragging her away. I could hear her spit my name like a curse, fussing at her daughter, “That’s Zacchaeus. Don’t ever talk to him.”
That sort of thing usually doesn’t bother me, but this was inconvenient because I wanted more information. I had heard murmurings around town that Jesus would be coming, and everyone had plans to go out and meet him and guide him to Simon’s house. Simon was the head Rabbi at the synagogue, so it only made sense that this rumored prophet of God stay at his house.
How I wished that I could have gone out with the crowd to meet Jesus! I had heard so many marvelous things about the man, and to think that he actually did a miracle outside our city gates made me heartsick because I missed it! What was he like? Seeing him in the crowd would be my only possibility of seeing Jesus, but even that was a slim possibility for me. I’m short, so standing at the back of a crowd would do me no good. But going into the crowd is way too risky. A quick flash of steel, and I could fall, with no one to step out and aid me.
I’m not liked much in Jericho. I’m a tax collector; “wretched collaborator with Rome,” or so the people say. I never meant to be that. I needed work, and one day a Roman official came to Jericho seeking a man for the job. Of course, no one wanted to do it! Collaborating with Gentile Romans caused instant defilement. My mistake was making eye contact with the official. Before I knew it, he had pointed me out and assigned me the job. It didn’t seem as much a request as a demand, and before I could think about resisting, the townspeople made the decision for me. They began spitting at me and cursing me until the Roman official had a soldier draw a sword to restore order. The official looked at me and said I could charge as much over as I needed to cover my own expenses, and that I should consider adding a surcharge for every time I was spit and cursed at. He shoved a bag with a ledger in it and walked off laughing. After a few months it became clear to me I was the town pariah, as no one would dare step foot into my house since it too was defiled because of me.
At first I did start charging more, out of spite. But then, I got used to the extravagant way of living. If I was going to be hated, I might as well be able to buy anything I could imagine. But even Blind Bartimaus had it better than me socially, and that’s not a lot – but now look at him! If what I just heard was true – he can see! And he got to see and talk to Jesus! Of course, a man like him deserves that. He’s been oppressed his whole life. I don’t deserve that kind of mercy from God – not after what I’ve become; an oppressor to God’s people.
I know I won’t be permitted to go to Rabbi Simon’s house. He hasn’t spoken to me in over a decade. I look back towards the crowd, and am surprised to see that the crowd has moved past Simon’s house, and is getting closer to where I stand. That must mean that Jesus is not staying in Jericho, which means I may just have a chance to get a glance of him, if I move quickly!
I run as fast as I can to the Sycamore tree just outside of town. It has wide branches for climbing, and the leaves are so large, I should be able to remain hidden once I have settled in. This is the perfect spot for me to get an unhindered view of Jesus.
I hold my breath as the crowd starts emerging from the backside of the city. I’m straining to figure out which one is Jesus, and just as I think I’ve figured out which one he is, I hear a child yell, “Look Papa! There’s a man in that tree! Look at that silly man!”
I sigh. Middle Eastern men do not climb trees. I’m not going to be able to go unnoticed after all. People start straining to look my way, and I hear my name. “It’s Zacchaeus, the filthy collaborator!” That brings forth an anonymous onslaught of insults and curses. I even feel a rock or two bounce off my legs. I close my eyes and hold my breath, praying for mercy, that the crowd will move on and that Jesus won’t notice the small ruckus I have created.
As I’m wishing that the earth would just open up and swallow me, I notice that a hush has fallen over the crowd. For a moment I think they must have moved on, but when I open my eyes, I almost fall out of the tree. Just below is Jesus, looking right at me! I see the smirks on everyone else’s face, and I brace myself for a strong condemnation from this man of God.
“Zacchaeus! You need to come down from that tree! I must stay at your house today!” It was the first time in a long time that I had heard my name spoken with love and such delight. He seemed excited! Shock and joy burst in my heart and I practically fell out of the tree getting to the ground so that I could take him to my house.
As we walked along, I could hear the crowd murmuring against Jesus. He had taken the heat off of me. It didn’t matter though. I was taken in by his love. I couldn’t stop staring at him in wonder. He didn’t seem put off by the crowd’s disdain at all, and smiled and winked at me for reassurance. I still couldn’t believe he had rejected the offer of staying at the Rabbi’s house (or Jericho at all), but changed his mind when he saw me! He had to have heard the curses being thrown at me. He knew who I am – an oppressor, and yet, he has seen me and has given me such a great mercy! He is going to stay at my house, at risk of being defiled by me, and it doesn’t seem to bother him. I am filled to the brim with his acceptance of me, and I burst. “Lord! I will give away half of my income to the poor, and anyone I have cheated, I will restore four times worth of damages!”
He smiles long at me, and addresses the crowd, “Today salvation has come to this home, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
In that moment, I knew I wasn’t lost to God anymore, no matter how anyone labeled me. Salvation indeed had come to me, in the form of Jesus, and through his full acceptance of me. And I was changed because of it.