Change had been coming for a long time for my husband Zacchaeus. He’d been talking about the teachings of Moses, and wrestling with how to live justly, and in accordance with Jewish law while he still making a living for us. You see – my husband was the chief tax collector in Jericho. Jericho’s a big city – King Herod even has one of his palaces here. It’s a good place to be a tax collector, especially the chief tax collector, because a LOT of the taxes go through there on their way to Rome. So we collect taxes from the tax collectors all over this region… and there are a LOT of taxes that these Romans have. Zacchaeus is a good businessman too – I might be biased in saying that – but even if he was born into the business, you can’t get far if you don’t know how to work with people, or if you can’t tell good quality coins from the lesser quality forged coins. His wealth testified to his success. I can’t complain; he’s always provided well for his family. He gets along well with his associates and underlings.
[sigh] It can be a lonely life though, being the chief tax collector’s wife. You see, the people ‘round Jericho didn’t like us much. They thought we were corrupt, and that we stole from them. We know what the other tax collectors do, how they rob their customers blind. We never could do much about them, but we tried to live in a good way. We gave alms and didn’t steal. But it doesn’t matter, they hated us anyway, since we worked for the Romans. They saw our family as having turned away from the faith. For them, we were no better than prostitutes. They kept us out of their circles – there were no friendly smiles, or nods, or handshakes. No one invited us over. Granted, there were some of THOSE PEOPLE I wouldn’t want to be associated with anyway. How I wished they’d stop gossiping about us though! I thought I knew how THEY were; they wouldn’t ever change. I just did what I could and tried to live in a good way – as best as I could anyway, since even going to the synagogue was difficult with all their hostile stares and shouts of “sinner”.
Anyway, I’m getting away with my feelings, and you wanted to hear about my husband’s meeting with Jesus. I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a big crowd lining the roadway – everyone wanted to see this famous teacher. Zacchaeus included. He wanted to see Jesus; he wanted to get to know this man. He felt that Jesus could change something in his life… but he was a little nervous. Jesus doesn’t always play nicely with the rich ones… what was it he said? It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to get to heaven? Oh well, Zacchaeus knew that Jesus has been known to spend time with tax collectors too. So what do you think happened? The crowd wouldn’t let my Zacchaeus in! He’s a short man, my husband is, and the crowd wouldn’t make room for him to see this man of God.
Well Zacchaeus wasn’t about to leave it at that. His interest was so much that he ran on ahead; just to be sure he wouldn’t miss him, and climbed a tree so that he’d be able to see. Can’t you just see it?! MY husband, a wealthy businessman in a tree, JUST so he could get a glimpse of this Jesus person.
Didn’t Jesus see him though – even stopped right there in front of him. Can you believe it? Jesus even knew his name! “Zacchaeus!” he called, “hurry up and come down from that tree. I must stay with you today.”
OHO! Didn’t the crowd start grumbling about that! JESUS?! Who could have stayed with ANYONE, decided to stay with ZACCHAEUS?! The tax collector? The sinner?
It was too much for Zacchaeus – he felt the need to defend himself, so he told Jesus, “Look, I AM a wealthy man, but I give half of my wealth to the poor – I give alms, and I’m an honest businessman, if I cheat anyone of money, then I pay it back fourfold – according to the teachings of Moses.
And you know what? Jesus heard him. Jesus said to my husband… and to those standing around jeering at him, that salvation came to our house that day, because Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. Because the son of man came to seek out and save the lost.
I can’t begin to tell you how those words, how that recognition has changed our lives. So often we felt like nobodies, it didn’t matter that we were rich, but you know, when Zacchaeus came home, it was like a load had been lifted from his shoulders. What Jesus did – he made the community recognize that we too are descendants of Abraham, and that, we too live in a covenant relationship with God. He was asking them to recognize us as fellow members of the community, saying that we try to live just lives and in God’s way.
After Jesus left, Zacchaeus and I talked about how we would live our lives in response to that salvation that Jesus offered. Salvation can be a tricky word, but I tell you for us, it came from the act of including us as part of the community; it came from no longer being an outcast. Our lives changed forever because Jesus came to seek out and save the outcasts – the ones with diseases, the blind beggars, and the rich tax collectors. We decided we had to try to get to know our neighbours as a result.
I tell you – it’s not been easy. Prejudice and distrust runs deep on both sides. It’s not an easy path to learn how to forgive and trust those who have spoken ill about you, and excluded you in the past. To be honest, it’s darned near impossible. Change comes though, even if it is gradual. Just as an infant doesn’t start by walking, neither can we be fully accepted by the community, or fully accept the community instantaneously. We start small – baby steps. Offering a tentative smile here, a handshake there, a chat with someone else. We’ve given up listening to gossip, or passing it on. It’s just plain hurtful. Like I said, it’s not easy. Old habits die hard, but Jesus’ words have marked our lives forever. We will always know that it is God’s will for us to live with respect for those around us, and we will always know that God wants to be in relationship with us, and that God recognizes us as God’s own. That knowledge keeps us going. It helps us in those tough times when we feel like giving up.
What’s more, my Zacchaeus decided actually to follow along with Jesus. They called him Matthias for a while, and he was appointed an apostle, becoming one of the twelve in Judas’ place. Now that the church is growing, they’re putting his talents to good use and have appointed him as bishop of Caesarea. Did Jesus have any idea what he started that day when he called Zacchaeus down from the tree? We sure didn’t.
That day, Jesus truly did seek out and bring back the lost one.