Come Down Zacchaeus!
Zacchaeus looked expectantly at the man. There, silhouetted against the noonday sun, waited the first taxpayer to pay his fee. Somewhere, among the long line winding around his station and down Jericho’s main street, he expected a complaint or challenge. His dagger hand twitched and back arched. He walked over and looked out his window to gauge the size of the line. But nowhere in this group were these reflexes justified. Today, not one voice was raised in protest as he began his work. An undercurrent was there, waiting for the cue. Looking out over the crowd, he could see it in both the idlers and those waiting to pay: that fierce desire for freedom and justice so typical of the Jews. Ever since the uprising, Galilee had been a hotbed of revolt, a place were no gentile, especially a publican, was safe. But this was Jericho, not some desert village, and he didn’t expect problems here.
Slowly, with the faintest tremor in his hands, he motioned for his first customer, who waited impatiently at the entrance, to approach, eyeing his assistants on each side of the table and the guards posted on each side of the door. After signaling nervously to his assistants, he motioned for the collection to begin. Since he was collecting new taxes, he expected idlers to be loitering outside his office, grumbling about the latest Roman abuse. These townsfolk were delaying paying their taxes. Many of them would wait until the deadline—that point when soldiers from the fortress would pay a visit to their homes.
Everyone living in Jericho was on his list; no one was exempt after he turned it in. As Unculus and Regalus gathered their money, he would cross off each resident’s name only when he or she paid their fee. But there were always those idlers like the ones he saw now, who hoped to see dissention in the ranks. Too often there were one or two rowdies among them just waiting to set them off.
With trepidation, therefore, Zacchaeus walked momentarily away from his table. His assistants temporarily drew back. The line came suddenly to a halt. Looking carefully out his window now, ready to dodge a stone or rotten piece of fruit, he wondered why it was so especially quiet at such a time. Was this just a well-behaved crowd? He wondered…. Or was their mischief afoot?
A ripple went through the crowd as he peeked out, like a stone dropped into still water. Eyes flashed, heads slowly turned, until finally they focused upon someone in their midst. A commotion grew within the gathering of idlers and the line waiting at his door, as shadows stretched down the path. There came a tap-tap-tapping and rustle of gravel as two figures now emerged from the crowd: a young boy beside a spry, stately looking old man.
In the publican’s eye came understanding and a measure of relief. This old man was obviously a man of authority here. If it was not for his presence, there might be trouble now. The publican knew the crowd was hostile about the latest tax, and the old man’s reputation probably kept it at bay. With a subtle signal or facial gesture he could just as easily create dissention, though it seemed unlikely that the townsfolk would actually attack.
Zacchaeus now found himself looking up at his visitor. He was at least a head shorter than the old man. It was discomforting for him to have someone come so close, especially when he had to look up. It was as if the stranger knew him from somewhere and was about to make a scene. For a few moments after the old man and boy entered the room, the two men stood there in silence appraising each other, Gentile face to face with Jew and publican eye to eye with town elder: two worlds and two lifestyles—as far apart as men could be.
Somewhere in his wanderings he was sure that they had clashed; he could see it in the old man’s eyes and his faint but crafty smile. For his part, recognition came more slowly. Such busybodies, the keepers of public morality, included priests, rabbis, rich merchants, and Pharisees. Normally, they were no threat to him. He had found them everywhere in Palestine: in major cities, out-of-the-way towns, small villages, and often on the road, shaking their heads, clucking like chickens amongst themselves, blaming him behind his back for the latest dues, toll, or provincial tax.
The main difference between his present station and his outposts before was the sheer number paying taxes. There were a lot more clients in a city like Jericho. Compared to posts in Galilee, these Judeans were a peaceable lot, even though they were much too quiet. In Galilee they were stoning tax collectors on sight. These folks seemed to be waiting for just the right moment, perhaps until the old man arrived. Now that moment was here, and a low buzz of derision began in anticipation of what was in store. If he was lucky, there would not be a riot today and no one would be killed. Otherwise, if his instincts were wrong, he was in grave danger and the quiet he was receiving was merely a lull before a storm.
His small attachment of guards, which would have served him will in a small village, now seemed meager against this mob. Again he thought of his dagger. His hand twitched. But, given the size of the crowd outside, the impulse seemed ludicrous and, had the action been carried out, quite insane.
It seemed as if every idler in town had gathered for this event. He would just have time to kill this old fool before they tore him to shreds. If things got out of hand, the guards, he was quite sure, would drop their swords and run. Already, they were probably searching for an avenue of retreat. A similar situation occurred in Nain: a hellhole of brigands and vagabonds. At Nain, though, he had been given Roman guards. If a problem had arisen, they would have cut a path through this vermin, until they were safely on the road. His protection today, he reminded himself, were Syrian cutthroats, without an ounce of Roman blood. They barely knew what end of the sword to hold. Most of them, he was sure, would show their backsides after leaving him to the mob. How he ever thought he was safe under their protection seemed incredible now.
After coming forward a few paces to get a better look at the old man’s face, he felt foolish. Backing slowly away into the shadows, trying not to show cowardice, he reached behind himself to make sure his assistants were still there. Sure enough, he could feel Unculus’ garlic-ridden breath at the back of his neck and feel his hand holding the hilt of his sword. But, after looking askance both ways, he realized that Regalus was nowhere in sight.
“Where is he?” he growled under his breath. “He was just there a moment ago. Where did Regalus go?”
“He is behind me sir.” Unculus whispered shakily. “We’re no match for this mob! It’s not like it was on the road. Now there’s nowhere to escape!”
“Get up here beside me, you scurvy dogs!” the publican gnashed his teeth. “I expect this from those auxiliaries the Romans sent me, but I’ve paid you both good money!”
“Abner,” the old man declared “this little fellow is our new publican. His name is Zacchaeus. I met him in Jerusalem many summers ago, collecting dues in front of the temple. As you can see by his eyes, he is a Greek—the smallest one I’ve ever seen. As you can see by his tools, he’s a Roman. And yet truly he is neither. You see Abner, Zacchaeus is a slave of the Romans, too, just like us, but he likes it. It makes him feel important—like a big man!”
“Slave?” Abner smiled at Zacchaeus. “He doesn’t look like a slave grandfather. But he is, like me, small for his age. He’s wearing gold necklaces and rings. He has a big money box full of coins.”
“The boy’s right.” the publican smiled at Abner. “I’m not a slave. I’m a free man: a citizen of Rome. Unless you’ve come to pay your taxes, please remove yourselves from this room! Let me do my job!”
“All men are slaves,” the old man continued, “but all slaves are not men. It is questionable if you are a man Zacchaeus; you’re much too small! At least you are proud of what you are. Yet you are worst than a mere slave; you’re a parasite! Even to the Romans, that is the lowest form of life!”
“Ah, I remember now. Zacchaeus gave him a crooked smile. “You’re Ibrim Bar Samuel, that old scribe I met in Jerusalem! Fortunately for me, I was only an apprentice then. You gave my master a tongue-lashing! I remember the spittle flying out of your rabid mouth!” “Shame on you Ibrim!” he wagged his finger good-naturedly. “You create trouble everywhere you go!”
In the center of Zacchaeus’ teeth as he spoke, Abner spotted a gold tooth. On each of the publican’s earlobes there dangled gold baubles, which jingled as he moved. It reminded the boy of one of the desert nomad princes he had seen shopping in town. Clearly, this was the richest man Abner had ever seen, and yet he was defending himself against an old man who, after making poor investments all his life, barely had enough to buy himself a new pare of shoes.
Far from being repulsed by Zacchaeus’ profession, Abner quietly admired the man’s gold. The taxes they paid, he learned from his friend Sylvius, were raised just enough to give the collector a commission, which was his only pay. His father, who had been a good businessman, had taught him the value of riches, only to lose it all when he died. Grandfather’s business sense, grandmother many times complained, had evaporated their funds. By following the strict guidelines of the Torah, he had let opportunities pass him by. By investing in the welfare of his people, he had deprived his family of their inheritance, which would force his grandson to start at the bottom where grandfather was now.
One of Grandfather’s big investment, the local synagogue, which he thought would endear him to his neighbors, had brought him acclamation but not a mite for his own purse. Day by day, as their funds dwindled and grandfather invested in other unproductive projects, Abner watched the old man still struggling to earn a wage for them as a scribe while hoarding what little they had left, trying to convince him that men like Zacchaeus were wrong and he was right, even though Abner knew it was tax money that kept cities like Jericho alive.
As the old man lodged his complaint about the new civic tax, Zacchaeus, in the comic gesture of a mime, pulled out a parchment and wrote it down. Whenever Ibrim harassed Eusybius, the previous publican, the tax collector would grow livid with rage and demand that he leave. Zacchaeus was different than grandfather’s other victims. Although his servants and guards were edgy, he kept his head. He was going to show these bumpkins who was in control.
While listening to a general attack on his office, Zacchaeus continued writing down his complaints with exaggerated strokes. Then, without saying another word, Ibrim pulled the boy out of Zacchaeus’ office, as if it were suddenly unclean, and resumed a dignified gait outside through the crowd. Abner tried not to laugh as Ibrim began tapping his walking stick rhythmically on the cobblestones below. It was clear to him, however, that his grandfather was upset. He had finally found a publican with a backbone and a sense of humor, who seemed proud of what he did.
What impressed Abner most of all, however, was the man’s diminutive size. Zacchaeus was small, just like himself. In spite of his grandfather’s imposing presence, the little publican had faced him down. During mere eye contact, he forged a link with the boy with the faintest of smiles. It was a look, which told Abner that size was not the measure of a man.
When the crowds were safely behind and they were within a few meters of Ibrim Bar Samuel’s gait, grandfather finally spoke.
“Abner!” he snapped. “Wake up boy, you act like you’re in a daze!”
“Yes, grandfather.” the boy looked up into his glowering face.
“Answer me honestly boy,” his eyes narrowed to slits “you admired that rogue, didn’t you?”
“No, grandfather.” the boy lied, but it was as if grandfather had read is mind.
“I saw him smile at you. Don’t try to deny it!” he said accusingly. “You kept staring at his money chest and the jewelry he wore!”
“I stare at many things.” Abner said evasively. “I heard you tell him that he was a para….”
“Site, boy, parasite!” the old man tapped him gently with his cane. “I also called him a blood-sucking, depraved lackey. Don’t forget that. I could’ve said a lot more!”
“Yes,” Abner nodded his head impishly “… and you also called him a slave.”
“A figure of speech.” grandfather continued to frown. “What I meant was that he was a captive of his own greed, like the drunk is on wine or the epicurean is on food.”
“What is an epic-epic… curean?” Abner made a face.
“An epicurean is someone like your poor father who eats too much fine food.” grandfather explained, unlocking the gate and ushering the boy in. “Our God gives us food to sustain our bodies and wine for our feasts; he doesn’t want us to act like pigs. He also gives us enough so we can live comfortably, yet he doesn’t want us to take advantage of our neighbors or friends, like Zacchaeus is doing now.”
“Mother said father’s heart gave out.” Abner murmured to himself. “… My father was a good man!”
“Yes, he was a good man.” grandfather sighed by the entrance, seeing his wife greet him at the door. “But his money did him no good!”
Abner had always listened to grandfather’s wisdom in the past. The old man had taught him the Ten Commandments and the tradition of his people, at least as much as he could understand. But his hatred of wealth had never made sense to the boy. Many of his friends in school were from rich parents. Sylvius always had a fine lunch to eat between classes, and he always wore a new pare of shoes. His companion’s parents, like father once did, ate the best meats and sauces and the finest cakes. Zacchaeus, he believed, was richer than them…. He even had gold in his teeth! And yet he was small, just like himself, the smallest adult he had ever seen!
As Abner’s family sat down for the noonday meal, the boy listened to grandfather utter “Here O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord!”, break off chunks of bread, and pass them down the line.
After the Shema, staring at the piece in his hand, Abner heaved a broken sigh.
“I wish we had some butter,” he blurted out now.
“We’ll have butter at Shavuoth.” his mother smiled sheepishly. “Grandmother is also going to make honey cakes with nuts.”
“Wonderful!” Abner made a face, as he picked at his crust.
“Your son is an ingrate!” the old woman scolded, giving her daughter-in-law a disapproving look. “The Bedouin children live on olives and goat’s cheese. The poor beggars in the street eat garbage and sometimes starve!”
“Abner remembers the feasts given by his father.” she replied with melancholy. “The boy’s friends taunt him with their rich foods.”
“He should be thankful for what he has!” Grandmother said, gnawing at her own piece of bread.
But Abner wasn’t thankful. Something had awakened in him today. He began wondering how many sweetmeats, cakes, and other delicacies he could buy with Zacchaeus’ gold.
Perhaps due to their poverty, Grandmother was an unimaginative cook. Mother had always relied on servants, until father died. Unlike Sylvius’ parents’ meals, which included several kinds of breads, meats, sauces, varied fruits, and cakes, their meal now was simple and unchanging. The closest they came to eating meat was fish: fish for breakfast, fish at midday, and fish for supper too. Rarely did they eat lamb or fowl. When they ate bread, it was always the same flat, round, and course loaves eaten at supper, with the exception that there was less of it. Butter was scarce, except on special occasions and for holidays such as Shavuoth, and cheese was limited to the crude form Grandfather loved. There were no fine sauces, vegetables, or fruits, except the bitter and hard-to-eat pomegranates from grandfather’s garden. There were no fine wines or fruit juices as in Sylvius’ house either. What he had in his mug to drink was the same thing everyone else at the table was drinking: water from Grandfather’s well. When the meal was over, Grandmother did not bring out sweetmeats or cakes as Sylvius’ mother did, except on special occasions. She would shoo he and the old man away while she and mother cleaned up their mess.
He couldn’t even snatch a piece of fruit when they weren’t looking. There were no fig trees, berries, or grapes to pick freely as at Sylvius’ house. Grandfather would occasionally pick him one of his awful pomegranates then expect him to peel it himself. What Abner would give for one ripe fig! What price would he pay to taste fresh honeycomb or a Lebanese pastry, instead of this burnt fish and moldy bread?
At Sylvius fine house, everyone sat around on silk cushions, listening to the sound of the fountain nearby. Servants would bring out course after course in the manner of the Romans. Occasionally, a musician would play something softly on a lute or even sing as they ate. Here in Grandfather’s crowded little house, there was not a fountain or servants. The only sounds allowed at Grandmother’s strict table were the sounds of slurping, munching, and a frequent belch.
The fine manners and lifestyle he admired at Sylvius’ house, he realized, were purchased by money, not ancestry or tradition. Whereas Sylvius was what Grandfather called a Hellenized Jew, with little knowledge of his heritage or tribe, Grandfather as well as Abner belonged to the tribe of Judah, in which came kings and from which the messiah would be one day be born.
Grandfather was very proud of his tribe and his standing in town, but Abner was tired of being poor. When he thought about the publican, he felt ashamed for admiring his wealth. But Zacchaeus was not ashamed. Zacchaeus must be far more wealthy than anyone he knew, and he was not even a Jew!
What demon had grabbed a hold of him to make him yearn for gold, instead of his people’s tradition? Why did he, living as he did in grandfather’s house and sitting at his table, suddenly want what his Grandparents considered forbidden: fine clothes, fine drink, and fine food?… Was it so wrong to want to be rich as they once were?
That evening grandfather took Abner for their usual walk. In the past, the boy had enjoyed exploring Jericho’s market district. Even though they couldn’t buy what they saw, it gave him a chance to dream about what he once had. His father would often buy him the most expensive treat he could find. But grandfather, even when he still had some of father’s money left, had always been stingy. On occasion, as this evening, he would take the boy to the bakery downtown and allow him to smell the aroma’s filtering out of Yusef Bar Zadok’s shop. Only once, during Abner’s long captivity with his grandparents, did he buy him a roll.
This evening little Abner craved a pastry, even a cheap, unsweetened roll to make him feel as if his life was worth something. The summer recess for school was coming to an end; soon he would be walking that way with his friend Sylvius, so that he might occasionally mooch a meal off his parents before he got home. But he couldn’t wait until then. Those additional weeks he must spend without those culinary delights seemed unbearable now.
“Grandfather!” he suddenly cried. “I know now how the beggars and Bedouin boys feel! Please buy me a roll!”
“Very well Abner.” replied grandfather, stroking his long, white beard. “For all her goodness, your Grandmother is a terrible cook! This afternoon I shall buy us each a roll and a dip of honey to kill the taste of that fish!”
Abner was surprised and delighted by his Grandfather’s action. Tempering his thankfulness was the lecture the old man gave him about human greed. He had heard it before from the old man, a variation of which he heard today after their encounter with Zacchaeus, the publican. He could scarcely hear him this time, as he munched his sweet roll. As they walked back to Grandfather’s house, the sun still sat high in the sky. The crowds were still thick on the main road, and were particularly dense in the square where Jericho’s fountain and garden sat. Curious by this commotion, Grandfather looked down at Abner and scratched his beard.
“Let’s go see what it is,” he announced, giving Abner’s hand a yank. “Zacchaeus’ booth is down that way. I hope it’s not another riot or incident.”
“Why do men riot?” Abner wrinkled his nose. “What’s an incident?”
“Desperate men do foolish things,” Grandfather said cryptically.
Grandfather’s answer was totally insufficient. Not wanting another long-winded lecture, however, Abner shrugged, chewing the last piece of his roll with relish. After a short distance, a woman scurried past them, a rapturous look on her face.
“He is a great prophet!” she cried breathlessly. “I must tell my husband and parents. He looked right at me, into my very soul!”
“What’s she talking about?”
When they reached the building used by the publican, the door was shut. Zacchaeus had been looking out the window that moment. Withdrawing behind a curtain to avoid another encounter with the old man, he cursed his luck. He should be home now in his sumptuous estate instead of the tiny domicile assigned to him by the Romans. Now, in broad daylight, it seemed to be too late. The Roman guards, who picked up his chest of coins (minus his share), had arrived late. Meanwhile, after collecting the taxes, the crowds had increased, rather than decreased. Something was afoot in town. During the wait, Unculus and Regulus, so typical of hired ruffians, slipped away like jackals, leaving him alone, with no protection. He felt especially vulnerable after collecting taxes and the spectacle made by that old man. Many of Jericho’s citizens would recognize his face…. Now something was happening in Jericho. Was it another insurrection as he had seen in other towns? Had those troublesome Jews found another leader like Judas, the Galilean, to incite rebellion? Zacchaeus hoped this wasn’t true. Considering the large Roman presence in Judea, such a revolt seemed like madness to him,… but then, he reminded himself, the Jews weren’t like the Greeks, Romans, and Syrians. There were many hotheads like that old man, many far worse, who translated words into action.
In his current state of mind, the old man’s voice outside jolted him. Though it sounded irrational, he expected several knocks after hearing his voice. Then he realized that he wasn’t calling to him; he was talking to a woman in the street. Listening beside the window, his ears perked up when he heard the old man question her:
“You say this prophet speaks of a different kingdom—not of this world?”
“Yes, I don’t understand what he means, but he promised us if we believed we would not die but have everlasting life.”
“Rubbish!” the old man scoffed. “Another wild man from the desert. The Roman authorities better not hear that.”
Clearly, the old man, a Pharisee, was ruffled by this news, and yet the boy accompanying him appeared to be in awe.
“Let’s go hear the wild man, Grandfather.” He jumped up and down.
“No, Abner.” The old man shook his head. “I was foolish to suggest such a thing. I’ve seen enough prophets. Your head is filled with enough nonsense.”
Hanging his head in despair, Abner was led home by his grandfather. Catching a glimpse of the publican in the window, he waved sadly and smiled. A strange urge filled Zacchaeus to find out who this man was. Ironically, his untutored mind failed to see the connection the old man had made between the preacher in town and the other rabble-rousers troubling Rome. Drawing his hood over his head, he slipped out quietly, and walked quickly toward the town square from which the noise appeared to emanate. Few people were heading in the opposite toward them direction now. Everyone was traveling north to the town square.
When he arrived behind the huge mass of listeners, he could hear the voice of the preacher, but he was too small to look above the unwashed heads. Moving around the crowd, he tried to wedge into the smelly Judean horde but found the taller men and women jealous of their vantage point. He was too frail to bully his way in. After being elbowed this way and that, Zacchaeus spotted the large sycamore towering over the square. Momentarily tempted to give up his effort to see the preacher and take this opportunity to go home, he stood there in a small clearing of bodies, looking up at the tree. The last time he climbed such a tree, he was a child in Alexandria, escaping punishment by his stepfather. Now, well passed his youth, he wondered if he could manage such a feat. Drawn to the ancient trunk, he noticed a knurl half way up to the first major limb, placed a foot on the knurl, and then climbed up carefully, until he could grab a branch. For an instant he almost lost balance and tumbled onto the ground, but, as he slammed back onto the trunk, by sheer well, he reached up far enough to grab the branch. Scratched and bleeding, he cursed his folly, as he pulled himself toward the limb. The ragged bark allowed him just enough footage to reach his destination. Straddling the limb, he was rewarded with a perfect view of the preacher who stood on a flat stone—a remnant of the ancient wall destroyed by Joshua, his voice loud and resonant.
Unseen, Zacchaeus had heard the man preaching. Words such as Kingdom of God, salvation, and paradise were logical abstractions to his pagan mind. That very moment, though, as Zacchaeus cupped his ear to hear, a Pharisee from the crowd, similar in sound to the old man he had encountered earlier today, stepped forth and asked him a soul-jarring question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Even at a distance, it appeared to Zacchaeus that the preacher was being tested. There had been sarcasm in the Pharisee’s voice. The man turned to the speaker, pausing only a moment as he thought of a reply. “In our scriptures,” he asked the Pharisee, “what is the essence of our belief. Though a man of the law, how would you read this?”
“Do not sin. Obey the commandments,” the Pharisee answered quickly.
“Wrong.” The preacher shook his head.
“Love God and shun evil,” the Pharisee tried again.
“Wrong again.” The preacher laughed softly.
“Your question is too general,” complained the Pharisee. “I could recite our laws and traditions. I have even remembered scriptures word for word. Teacher, what exactly do you mean? What does this have to do with eternal life?”
The preacher’s voice had a note of irritation. “It has everything to do with it. Look around at your people, whom you serve. Think about your loved ones. What are your feelings toward God? Your thoughts are lost in the law. One word escapes you. The answer is written in your heart, not in the law.”
The audience, which had been mumbling amongst themselves, became deathly silent, as the Pharisee responded. His cynical tone had vanished entirely. “I remember now,” his voice was filled with emotion. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.”
“And what else?” the preacher shot back. “What is the second half?”
Without hesitation, the Pharisee declared, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus said with great conviction. “Do this and you will have eternal life!”
The Pharisee stepped back, with bowed head as if in thought. In his place, Zacchaeus recognized by his clothes, a scribe, who asked in a mocking tone, “Who is my neighbor? We have many races in Jericho: Jews, Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, and Romans.”
“All men and women are your neighbors,” the preacher explained, looking out at the crowd. “All people are children of God.”
That very moment, after that statement, which caused a collective gasp, he seemed to look over the heads of the listeners directly at Zacchaeus. Instead of preaching again, he told the crowd a story that stirred Zacchaeus deeply.
“Verily I say unto you.” He raised three fingers. “A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and then went away, thinking he was dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. And yet a Samaritan, whom the Jews considered unclean, happened to be traveling that way, arriving at the location where the man was. Unlike the priest and Levite, who, like the victim, were Jews, the Samaritan took pity upon him when he saw him, He went immediately to him, bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and left him in the care of the innkeeper. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Continue to look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Turning to the Scribe now, he asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The scribe remained silent, pondering the meaning of his story but said nothing. The Pharisee, however, looked up and said, in a husky voice, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Reaching out to grip his shoulders, the preacher replied in a loud voice, “Go and do likewise!”
Zacchaeus sat on his limb, staring with illumination at the preacher. It was as if the preacher was speaking directly to him and all the other Gentiles in his audience. What made it directly and suddenly personal was when the preacher moved through the crowd toward his tree, and stopping beneath its alms, called up in a loud voice, “Zacchaeus, come down!”
“Teacher.” Zacchaeus broke into tears. “I am a sinner—a publican. What do you want of me?”
“You are rich man, Zacchaeus,” He said, raising his arms as though he might just pluck him from his precarious position. “The Spirit of the Lord brought you here. My disciples are weary. I am weary. Would you give us supper tonight?
“Yes, Teacher, I am honored,” he sputtered. “My house is your house. I am your servant. I shall run home, alert my cook, and make you a fine feast!”
At this point, many people in the audience were scandalized. The very thought that a Jew, let alone a religious teacher, would eat in the house of a tax collector and Gentile, to boot, caused them to grumble and shake their heads. Zacchaeus knew very well what this meant, but it didn’t matter to this man. The Pharisee and scribe had disappeared into the crowd, but there were many other men in religious raiment, including priests, and other Pharisees and scribes, who pushed forward to protest and shake their fists.
“He’s supposed to be a righteous man, and yet he will be the guest of a sinner,” cried a Sadducee.
“This man isn’t righteous,” a portly Pharisee shouted. “He consorts with Zacchaeus, a bloodsucking tax collector—an agent of Rome!”
“All people are sinners,” the teacher began preaching again. “All fall short as Adam. They who reject the Samaritan, are not righteous. No one is saved by the law!”
This last insult to the old order rankled the Pharisees, scribes, and priests the most. Zacchaeus was now fearful of leaving the safety of his tree. Who was this stranger, who challenged the law of the Jews? In the accusation against him, the Pharisee had mentioned Zacchaeus personally. Would they stone the Teacher? Would they also stone him? What followed impressed him almost as much as the story about the Good Samaritan.
“You challenge our laws,” the Pharisees cried out in a wounded voice. “All of you heard it; he claims that no one is saved by the law. That’s heresy and blasphemy. You arrive off the desert with your unwashed band as if you are a prophet and great teacher. No prophet of our faith would say such a thing!”
Several other men shouted similar charges. One man, Zacchaeus identified as a priest, even tore his raiment and shook his fists. Zacchaeus counted twelve men standing closest to the preacher, whom he thought might be his followers—all of them were as frightened as himself. Most people in the crowd appeared to be simple folk, both men and women and a few children. After observing the classes of taxpayers arriving at his booth, Zacchaeus knew that there was no love between those pompous doctors of the law and priests and the common folk. Clearly by their expressions, the preacher had struck a chord with most of them. He hadn’t attacked their faith, only their rigid laws, which Zacchaeus found tedious.
Rising above the dissenters in the crowd, the preacher’s deep, resonant voice drowned out the loudest critic.
“I haven’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” he argued. “I’ve come to fulfill them. Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
When he paused, the publican realized his first words had been aimed at the highborn and educated. Taking this opportunity, a scribe called out spitefully, “You can’t fool us, teacher. Your honeyed words belie your intent to corrupt these good people. Who are you to speak for God?”
Then, ignoring the last outburst, Jesus turned to the crowds, taking in the common folk and his disciples at glance. “You heard him,” he uttered a sour laugh. “The scribes, priests, and Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head of tables at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called priest or rabbi. But don’t call anyone rabbi. You have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. Don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don’t let anyone call you ‘teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees? Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees? Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees? Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, and yet you swallow a camel!
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees? Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees? Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees? Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’
“But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started. Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?”
On that note, the crowd broke into cheers. The object of his scorn—the Pharisees, scribes, and priests—were beside themselves with rage, but they were greatly outnumbered.
“I agree with this man,” an old woman shouted. “He is indeed a prophet.”
“Yes,” a young man
shouted, “and he’s one of us!”
The preacher’s last words were aimed at one particularly nasty Pharisee. Zacchaeus could barely see him as the townsfolk surrounded him. Until he finished his sermon, the publican felt trapped on the tree. Somehow, after the preacher was finished, he would obey his command and come down from the tree, but for now he would take no chances. A tingling up his spine and lightness overtaking his head told him his tax-paying days had ended in this town. Every word the holy man had said had made an impact on his rustic mind. Finally, as the crowd dispersed, two of the men who stood next to the preacher approached the tree.
“Zacchaeus,” a tall, swarthy fellow with a graying beard, called up to him. “I am Peter, a disciple of Jesus.” “This is Andrew, my brother,” he pointed to the smaller man. Let us give you a hand climbing down from the tree.”
Lowering himself down, clutching a branch, trembling with expectation and fatigue, he stepped down upon Peter’s shoulders, and then found his small frame cradled in the arms of Andrew, who spoke gently to him, as if he was a child, “Come, join us. We’re on our way to Jerusalem. Don’t be afraid, Zacchaeus, we were all frightened once. Jesus is guarded by the Most High…He’s the Messiah and Son of God!”
That evening in the home of Zacchaeus, Jesus and his twelve disciples sat around a sumptuous table of lamb, lentils, savory soup, and sweet meats. Looking around the table after the Shema had been spoken and the food blessed, Jesus focused upon his host, speaking to all, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, Zacchaeus, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus knew his life would never be the same, and yet he didn’t know what to make of this strange man. How could any mortal be the Jewish Messiah, let alone the Son of God? Who was the Son of Man? Was Jesus a prophet…or a new god? As the preacher and his disciples slept in his house, he walked into his garden and stared up to the sky, wondering where Jesus would lead him now…. He was certain of only one thing: he must follow this holy man. His voice had been a balm to his troubled mind. It gave him peace and an inexplicable sense of purpose. The prefect would have to find someone else to fleece the Judeans, he decided. In the morning he would inform Glaucus, the local centurion and dismiss his guards. He would bring a bag of gold with him to give to the disciples and the poor. This would please the preacher, and help make up for all those years he served Rome.
In the morning, as his guests rested up and Jesus chatted with a friendly delegation of townsmen, Zacchaeus excused himself quietly and left to take care of his affairs. The prefect was quite upset with his decision to quit his post. Zacchaeus, who was not a convert yet, told him that he must leave Jericho and return to Alexandria to care for his ailing mother. It was, of course, an outright lie, but he wouldn’t dare tell the prefect the truth. Retreating from the garrison, he ran back up the Jericho road back into town until he reached the house of the publican, where he left a written note to his guards, weighted down with a small bag of denarii. Satisfied with himself, he looked back once more at his office, at the long, checkered road leading to his post, shut the door for the last time, and began walking back to his house. That moment, he heard a small, high-pitched voice, and turned to see Abner staring up at him.
“My grandfather said you are a bloodsucking lackey of Rome,” he said calmly. “Is that true?”
“Where is the old fellow?” Zacchaeus looked around self-consciously. “You shouldn’t be by yourself, Abner. The streets aren’t safe for children. Does he know where you are?”
“Grandfather is visiting the Rabbi,” he spoke rapidly. “Uriel is sick. Grandmother brought the Rabbi some soup.”
“So you snuck away, eh?” Zacchaeus chortled, scuffing his hair.
Glancing at Zacchaeus’ sachel, containing his writing materials, Abner’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you going on a trip?”
“No, I’m going home.” He sighed wistfully. “I have guests: a great teacher and his disciples. I might just join up.”
“Is it that her-a-tic?” Abner struggled with the word.
“He’s not a heretic.” Zacchaeus frowned. “Who told you that, Abner—your grandfather?”
“Uh huh, he said he was a blast-feemer, too.”
“Do you even know what those words means?”
“No,” the boy replied thoughtfully, “but they must be bad.”
“Your grandfather’s wrong,” the publican said with great conviction. “The teacher’s a good man. I’ve never heard anyone like him. It was as if he was talking directly to me.”
“Can I meet him?” Abner looked up expectantly. “Grandfather wouldn’t let us hear him. He thinks he’s a bad man.”
“Listen to me Abner,” Zacchaeus embraced his shoulders. “My house is considered impure to men like your grandfather. I would need his blessing to take you there. It would get you into trouble. Go back to your grandfather. Tell him nothing of this.” “But don’t worry, Abner, you’re going to hear more about him. One day the whole world will know this man!”
With a downcast look, Abner stood there looking down the road from which he had heard the commotion the previous day. “What is his name?”
“His name is Jesus,” Zacchaeus answered, taking his hand. “He comes from a small town, I scarcely heard of: Nazareth.” “Come on Abner.” He pulled him along gently. I won’t let you return to your grandfather alone. “Someday, I’ll come back and tell you everything I know about Jesus. All I know now is that he’s changed my life…. I’ll no longer collect taxes and serve Rome. I’ll serve Jesus. How I’ll do this, I don’t know. Jesus has attracted fisherman, servants, a tax collector like myself, and even a scribe. I’ve met his disciples. They range in age from a mere youth, like John, to an old man, called Bartholomew. Peter, the chief disciple, told me that there are even women and many more men among his followers. I’ll fit in with them quite well…. Maybe someday, Abner, you can follow Jesus, too!”
As they approached the Rabbi’s house, no one seemed the wiser. Abner looked up at Zacchaeus one more time, mumbled goodbye, and ran into the house. Zacchaeus then retraced his steps up Jericho’s main road to begin a new life as a follower of Jesus. Unsure where His path would lead him, his Gentile mind overflowed with questions, and yet he was filled with inexplicable certainty that Jesus was more than just a teacher…. He was introducing to the world a new god, greater than Zeus or the harsh god of the Jews.