I told this story at Prestbury Methodist Church on Sunday 31 October 2010
Zacchaeus killed my father. Every time we saw him in the street or walked past his house Mom would stiffen; Sam & I would just grit our teeth and look the other way. Mind you, no one liked him. He was Jericho’s tax collector. Like so many, power and greed went to his head and he took what he wanted, whatever the cost to anyone else. His job was to collect taxes for Rome. Whatever extra he could squeeze out of the rest of us, he got to keep. He wouldn’t rob the rich, mind you; wouldn’t do to rock the boat too much; the world is a rich man’s club after all. But the poor? What do we know? What power do we have? None at all.
Well, if everyone hated Zacchaeus, we hated him more. Zacchaeus killed my father. Oh, not directly, of course. He wouldn’t get his hands dirty. But he killed him just the same. That was ten years ago, and we still hated him with a passion. But, of course, every year when we had to pay our taxes it was, “Yes, Sir. No Sir. How much should we pay, Sir?” with stupid grins on our faces. But what else could we do? Show any sign of dissent and he’d find a reason to take another 10%.
My father had a small business in Jericho. It wasn’t much, but it kept us fed and clothed. One day some men came with some Roman soldiers and took my Dad away. My mother screamed at them. Just as well Uncle John was there. He held Mom back and stopped her doing anything violent to the men. I knew Mom could get angry; she’d been angry with Sam and me often enough, but this was wild. The men searched the house and took stuff away with them—even Mom’s special Passover pots.
“It won’t cover what he owes,” one of the men said.
My Brother Sam (he’s three years older than me) tried to stop them but the man pushed him out of the way. “That’ll teach your father to steal,” he said.
“My father didn’t steal anything,” Sam spat back.
I didn’t know what was going on. I was only 13 and I was so scared; but I didn’t dare ask Mom, so I asked Sam.
“Dad didn’t steal anything,” he said. “Those dogs cheated him.”
“But what were they talking about? How come they took him away?” I wanted desperately to understand.
Sam told me that some men had persuaded Dad to do business with them. “Help them out,” they said. They gave him some money; he was to buy some donkeys or camels or something. Mom was furious when she heard, but Dad said it was ok, there was nothing wrong.
“Then that thief heard that Dad had money,” Sam said.
“What thief?” I asked.
“The tax collector, Zacchaeus, of course. Dad tried to tell him that it wasn’t his money but he wasn’t interested. I mean, have you ever tried to reason with a tax collector? He made Dad pay tax on it and forced him to pay more because he said Dad had obviously been hiding extra income.
“The men who’d given it to Dad weren’t anywhere around. But they came back last week and they demanded their money. Dad tried to explain, tried to take them to Zacchaeus, but they weren’t interested. And Zacchaeus wasn’t interested; he had his money. Now they’ve thrown Dad into prison until he pays up.”
It was a huge shock for us all. Mom struggled to keep everything together. Uncle John and Aunty Martha helped, but they couldn’t pay off the debt. Worst of all was the shame—especially for Dad. He couldn’t take being branded a thief. They wouldn’t let us visit him. Eventually he just stopped eating and he died of shame. That was about four months after they took him away. I cried and cried. Mom just seemed to turn in on herself.
As I said, that was ten years ago. The men who started it have long gone but Zacchaeus is still here. He must have known. And I hated him because he didn’t care. My family was destroyed in front of him but, instead of admitting his mistake, he turned his back. He killed my father.
Sorry, I didn’t want to tell you about all that. I wanted to tell you about Jesus. Like most Jews, well among the poorer classes anyway, we longed for the Messiah. The rich said all the right things of course, but they wouldn’t want a Messiah to come and free us from the Romans. People like Zacchaeus, and even the Priests, depended on Rome for a living and for their power.
But we prayed often, and longed for the day that God would rescue his people. Then Jesus came. He wasn’t like any of the others who had raised our hopes, and nothing like we imagined. He never said anything about the Romans; just got angry with the Priests and Pharisees. But it wasn’t about who he was against. That’s what was so different. It was about what he was for. He really cared. He cared about the sick, about the poor, about sinners, about ordinary people. He seemed genuinely to love them all. He never recruited a following; people just followed him. He never tried to raise money.
We first met him when John was baptising in the Jordon about three years ago—“John the Baptist” they called him. We were there when Jesus came to be baptised. John was clearly in awe of Jesus, and for John to be in awe of someone; well, he didn’t care a fig for King Herod even, and he called the Pharisees, “Snakes”!
Later we were up in Galilee and saw Jesus a few times. Then he came to Jerusalem for one of the festivals and we heard him there. Sam went up to Galilee and spent the whole summer there last year. He went around with the crowd that followed Jesus. He came back full of amazing stories.
Jesus was so different from the religious leaders. And, although he was also different from what we expected the Messiah to be like, he made such sense. He spoke with such authority. He didn’t go for an outward show of religion but spoke of a real relationship with God.
FRIEND OF SINNERS
“He’s a true friend of sinners,” Sam said once.
“Friend of sinners?” my Mother queried.
“Yes,” Sam said. “Friend of sinners. He doesn’t mind who he mixes with: the poorest of the poor, lepers, even Samaritans.”
“Friend of sinners,” I thought.
“Is he going to get rid of the Romans?” Uncle John asked.
“I don’t think so,” Sam said. “He keeps talking about the Kingdom of God, but not like it’s a rival to Rome. It’s like a relationship. It’s like we’re all in God’s Kingdom together. Not fighting each other, not pointing fingers, just forgiving and accepting each other.
“They brought a woman to him once,” Sam continued. “She’d been caught in adultery.”
“What about the man?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Sam said. “It wasn’t really about them; it was about catching Jesus out. Anyway they said that, according to our law, she should be stoned to death.”
“What did Jesus say?” I asked.
“He said that the one who was without sin should cast the first stone.”
“What did they say to that?” Uncle John chuckled.
“Nothing!” said Sam. “They just crept away.”
“Then Jesus asked the woman whether there was anyone to condemn her, and there was no one. So he said, ‘I don’t condemn you either. Go and sin no more.’ ”
I look at Sam, amazed. “Friend of sinners,” I said.
JESUS IN JERICHO
When we heard that Jesus was coming through Jericho on his way to the Passover, we went to meet him. The whole town seemed to be there. We even saw Zacchaeus. He was trying to get through the crowd.
“Always pushing in,” I thought. I must confess that I was glad to see no one let him through. Why he was there I couldn’t imagine. Then Jesus arrived and everyone was so excited to see him.
Suddenly Jesus stopped just under the sycamore fig tree near where we were standing; the one by the Synagogue. He was looking up into the tree. I looked and couldn’t believe my eyes.
“It’s Zacchaeus.” My mother hissed in my ear.
He was up the tree. Why was he so desperate to see Jesus? Was he going to tax him for passing through?
The crowd stopped. For a few seconds there was silence; you could feel the tension in the air. One word from Jesus and I think the crowd would have gone wild and torn Zacchaeus down and trampled him underfoot. I’m pretty sure the years of pent-up hatred would have overcome the fear, and Zacchaeus wouldn’t have survived.
After what seemed like ages, but was only a second or two, Jesus greeted Zacchaeus like an old friend.
“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said. “Come down. I’ve come to visit you. Let’s go to your house.”
We were stunned. Did we hear him right? Did Jesus really just invite himself to the home of the most hated man in all Jericho? What was he thinking? Of all the people…..?
We were too shocked to talk and we walked home in silence.
“How could Jesus do that?” I later demanded of Sam, as if it were Sam’s fault. “There are so many good people here; people who’d love to see Jesus. There was so much excitement. Why did he throw it all away?”
Sam thought for a while. “They call him ‘friend of sinners’, you remember?” he said.
“But…” I tried to protest but the words wouldn’t come.
“If he’s going to befriend the adulterer, the Samaritan, us, then I guess he’s could even befriend Zacchaeus,” Sam suggested.
“But do you think he knows who that…man is and what he’s done.”
“Oh, yes,” said Sam. “I reckon Jesus knows a whole lot more than you think.”
“Well then,” I said. “It’s all very well befriending ordinary sinners like us, or that woman caught in adultery, but…but…him! There’s got to be a limit somewhere.”
“Maybe Jesus thinks there’s hope even for Zacchaeus?”Sam tried.
“Oh, please! He’s so hard-hearted nothing will make a difference to him. Not even when he dangles over the fires of hell.”
I went to bed angry. I woke the next morning realising we had expected too much from Jesus. Not the Messiah after all; just an ordinary man overwhelmed by the temptations of power and wealth.
“Oh how sad,” I thought.
We had just finished breakfast when there was a knock at the door.
It was Zacchaeus!
“He saw us in the crowd.” I panicked. “He must have seen the hatred in our eyes or something. Now he’s come to punish us.”
In spite of my fear I heard myself saying, “What do you want?”
“I…I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said. “…I know I’m not welcome here, but…I’d like to talk to you all please.”
“Why?” I asked, still shocked.
Sam joined me at the door. Mercifully my mother had gone to Aunty Martha’s.
“I saw you yesterday with Jesus when I was up the tree,” Zacchaeus said. “I guess I must have looked a bit stupid.”
I didn’t trust myself to reply to that.
Something in Zacchaeus’ voice made Sam invite him inside; he was carrying a satchel. We sat down very uncomfortably.
“I don’t know why I so badly wanted to see Jesus yesterday,” Zacchaeus said. “But I just had to. Did you follow the crowd to my house?”
“No,” Sam said. “We came home.”
I thought, “Well, at least he can’t blame us for anything that happened there.”
“Jesus came to my house,” Zacchaeus said. “And he sat down with us to eat the mid-day meal. He picked up the bread my wife had baked for us and he broke it. Then he looked at me…and passed me the broken piece.”
I was expecting pride in his voice but was shocked to see tears in Zacchaeus’ eyes as he recalled the scene.
“As I took the bread I thought of all the people whose lives I had broken, and how their brokenness had fed me, clothed me, and made me rich. And right there in front of Jesus, I did what I haven’t done in 40 years; I broke down and cried.
“I looked at Jesus and told him I wanted to heal some of that brokenness. I don’t have any great talents but I could use the one thing I do have, my money. I told Jesus I’d give half of it away then use the rest to repay those I’d particularly harmed.”
He looked up at Sam and me and he said, “And when I thought about those I’d hurt, I thought about you. I can’t hope to fix the hurt I’ve caused, and I can’t bring your father back. But I have been to the Rabbi to clear his name at the Synagogue; they know your father wasn’t a thief. And I have begun investigations to find the men who loaned him the money that started all this. While it was almost certainly stolen money they wanted to avoid taxes on, I shall pay them back what they gave your father when I find them.”
Zacchaeus got up to go.
“And I want to leave you this,” he said, handing Sam the satchel; it was clearly very heavy. “There is a formal letter there confirming that the contents have been fully taxed. I am sorry I can’t do more. Perhaps, one day, we will meet…not as friends, perhaps, but as friends of Jesus, who certainly seems to have a way with sinners.”
With that he left.
We sat in silence for a while, then I heard Sam whisper, “Friend of sinners.”
Lord, we have turned our backs on some of your friends. We have shunned some and ignored others because their sins are too great for us, their pain too much for us, their burdens too heavy for us.
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, thank you for carrying our burdens, sharing our pain, and dying for our sins. Show us how to love your friends, to open our hearts to them, to welcome them into our circles, so that your Kingdom may come in our time, in this place.
Year C – 23th Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
- Oh Look, It’s the Actual Tree Zacchaeus Was In! (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- Was Zacchaeus Really That Bad? – From Children’s Books to the Real Story (hackingchristianity.net)