Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus. Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.” Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. The Human One came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:1-10, Common English Bible).
I think I was the most miserable person in all of Israel. I was not alone in that opinion. You could ask just about anyone. “What do you think of Zacchaeus?” The resulting answer would be, “He is a miserable little shrimp who sides with the Romans and robs people of everything they own for him to just get ahead. If he were to drop dead the world would be a better place.”
I know that is what they would say. I heard it enough times. Rare was the day that I didn’t hear five people say it. There was never a day, unless I didn’t leave home, when I didn’t hear it at all. While I didn’t agree with what they said in whole, it was because of this opinion people held that I was totally miserable. I had no friends. I was a tax collector and EVERYONE hated me for it. Would you have a friend who worked for the Internal Revenue Service?
Well, things were even worse in those days. I know, I know. You think you get robbed when you pay your taxes but those who are collecting those taxes at least draw a salary for their work. When the Romans recruited me for the job they promised me great wealth. What they didn’t tell me was, my salary wasn’t paid by the Roman government but directly from the tax-payers. My salary came from the purses of the citizens. The government would tell me how much I had to collect for the government’s purposes but they didn’t tell me how much to collect in total. I could collect all I could get and whatever the difference was between the amount I collected for the government and the amount I actually got from the tax payer was my pay. I would line my pockets with money collected from people who ranged from the very poor to the very rich. Regardless of how rich or poor, no matter how much I might or might not collect, the people believed they were cheated and I was personally responsible. The government wasn’t responsible. I alone was responsible; at least I was responsible in the eyes of average people.
At first I thought it was cool, not so much collecting the money and not because everyone hated me, but it was cool because for the first time in my life I always had money. I could do anything I wanted, anytime I wanted. I always had enough money. But one day I realized that while I could do what I wanted when I wanted, I had no one to do it with. I could even invite people to go out with me, I could invite them to my home and no one was willing to come. They weren’t even willing to be with me when I offered to foot the bill. The end result became, it was harder and harder for me to go out in public. I had all this money but nothing I could do with it. I even tried going to the synagogue and while the priests there were more than willing to take my money they made it clear I wasn’t welcome inside.
As it turned out, I was good at my job. I was VERY good at my job. It wasn’t long from when I had started before I had surpassed other tax collectors to become a chief tax collector. That only served to make my co-workers angry with me. Few people want to spend their time hanging out with their boss.
So, I stayed home. I stayed home with all my money. Then I decided to put my money to work. I found ways to do what you would call investing. I couldn’t spend the money so I might as well do something with it. At that point it never occurred to me to collect less. I didn’t think about giving people, particularly the poor people some of their money back in order to make things easier for them to live. The only person I seemed to think about was me. Nothing else, no one else mattered.
I did well in my investments. I went from being well off to being a rich man. I had more than I needed but it still wasn’t enough. I kept collecting and I kept investing and I gained more and more.
I decided I needed to hire some people to do work around my home. I needed people to cook and clean and wash my clothes. And, I had plenty of money. I would never have to eat my own cooking again. Looking back on it, I am not sure if I really needed or even wanted the help as much as I wanted to have people around me. I was becoming more and more lonely by the day. Still, though I hired workers and paid them well, they really didn’t want anything more to do with me than to do their work and get away from the sinner as quickly as possible.
As I was out collecting one day I heard talk about a man from Nazareth named Jesus. I heard people talking. If I came close and tried to ask questions or otherwise join in the conversation they would quickly become quiet and the gathering would break up and head elsewhere. So, I would stay at a distance waiting and listening and gathering information about Jesus’ pending visit. What I learned was, this man Jesus was coming to for a visit. He was in town to teach and heal. I heard people talk about how much he loved others, even those no one else could seem to love. He even loved and ate with sinners.
He sounded like he was just the kind of person I needed to meet. I wanted to meet him in the worst way. I still wasn’t very sure he would like me or want to be around me. After all, he was a man and I was still a tax collector that nobody liked or wanted around. Could he possibly like me when no one else did? I had to at least try. I had to see if there was a possibility.
When the day of Jesus’ visit finally came I made my way toward the city gates. I was walking down the street. I was trying to make my way toward the city gate. The streets were so crowded. They were much more crowded than usual. I was also getting shoved around. It happened all the time but because of the crowds it was much worse that day.
It finally reached a point I could no longer move closer. We were getting pushed out of the road so traffic could make its way into the center of the city. There were many people that day trying to get to the market place. There were people on foot and people in wagons, carts and horseback. Soldiers were there and kept pushing us back further and further out of the road.
When we started being moved out of the road I wasn’t at the center so, when everyone reached the edge, I was further back. As you can tell, I am not the tallest man around. Today, my now grown sons, they weren’t even born at this time, I wasn’t even married at this point in my life, but those sons today are all several inches taller than I. Most of the men in my family and my wife’s family are taller than I. And trying to get a view of a parade when you are short and hated isn’t an easy thing to do. No one wanted to give me a break.
I knew that when Jesus got to where I was, there was no way I was going to be able to see him. All these people around me weren’t just several inches taller than me, I would swear they were at least part Philistine and direct descendents of the giant Goliath. Remember, he was nine feet tall.
What was I to do? I had to see Jesus. I wanted to talk to him but that really did seem to be an impossible dream. But I was determined. Somehow, some way, I was going to see Jesus. I thought, I will buy my way to the front and the edge of the road. I pulled out some money and started trying to get some people to let me in. Cost was not going to be an object.
What I quickly discovered was, cost was an object. People were unwilling to sell me their place at any price. I walked over and leaned against a tree. I was so disappointed. I came all this way and now it appeared as though I would never see Jesus.
As I stood at the tree, I curled my hand into a fist and began to hit lightly on the tree. It was a sycamore tree. I wasn’t going to hit the tree hard. I was frustrated but not an idiot. But then, suddenly, an idea sparked in my mind. I started to really look at the tree closely. It seemed strong. It looked to have several very strong limbs. I hadn’t climbed a tree in years, but this seemed like it was the only way I was going to see Jesus. And, this tree had one strong limb that extended to just past the edge of the road.
Climbing that tree was a good deal more difficult than it had been when I was a kid, but I managed to get up in the tree and then made my way out on the limb. Then I sat and I waited. I had a bird’s eye view of what was to come. I found a way, and as I thought back then, it didn’t cost me a dime.
As I sat on the limb, I heard a stir toward the city gate. I shifted myself in the tree so I could focus that way. I couldn’t quite see that far but I knew this had to be Jesus. As he came more into my view, I saw a man who looked extremely happy. His face seemed to be filled with joy. There were others all around him. When I was eavesdropping on conversations I had heard he had disciples. Some people said there were a few, I heard numbers as low as three. Others said there were twelve and still others said there were many more that followed Jesus.
It turned out that those who said there were many who followed Jesus were right. There were lots of people surrounding him. As they came closer it became very clear to me who Jesus was. He was laughing with some people. He would pick children up and give them a hug. And, all those people were around him but it was also clear there were some, I counted twelve that were men he seemed to know better than the others. He seemed to trust them more. These had to be some of the disciples I had heard about. One of them was even a familiar face to me. Though I didn’t know him well, one of the twelve was another tax collector. I had seen Matthew around.
Additionally, even within that those twelve, there were three who seemed to have a much closer relationship with Jesus than anyone else. I found myself envying those three.
As I sat perched in my sycamore tree, enjoying at least having a view of Jesus making his way into the heart of Jericho, suddenly everything stopped. Jesus stopped and so did everyone with him. And, as quickly as he stopped he started looking up. He was examining my tree. Suddenly he found me sitting in the tree. We made eye contact. He looked at me and he smiled.
“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “You need to come down from the tree. You need to come down now. You may not know it, but I am actually on my way to your home. We are on our way to eat and to talk.”
I know the story sounds ridiculous. I really thought the whole thing was a dream. It seemed that way. How could Jesus possibly know I was in that tree? Even more, how could he know my name? Sure someone could have told him but how did he know the guy in the sycamore tree was Zacchaeus. But the thing that was really hard to believe? He invited himself over to my house. Oh, don’t think anything of that, I really didn’t mind. I wanted to talk to Jesus and now I would have my chance.
I got up on my tree limb and before I could make my way back to the tree’s trunk I almost fell out of the tree due to my excitement. “Be careful,” Jesus said. “I’m hungry and I have to eat at your place today.”
I made my way down from the tree. Jesus was there waiting for me and he greeted me with a hug. “Zacchaeus, let’s go to your house and eat dinner together. We have much to talk about.”
Before we could walk three feet the grumbling from the crowd started up. “There Jesus goes again. He is going to go and be the guest of a sinner. He is going to actually eat with the man.”
At that moment, overcome with emotion because of what I was experiencing, I could no longer take the grumbling of people. I turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, I am a very wealthy man. I am going to take half of what I have and give it to the poor. But, more than that, with what is left, if I have cheated anyone, not only will I pay them back, I will pay them back four times what I took.” I couldn’t believe what I was saying. My money had always been so important to me. Half of my money was going to the poor and I was going to pay back people I had cheated? And make no mistake, I had cheated some people. I am not sure why I said it, but I was committed at this point. I would follow through. I may have cheated people, I may have been a sinner, but I was not going to lie to Jesus.
Jesus kind of gave a chuckle and we started making our way to my home. As we traveled Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” I knew that somehow I had found my place.
When we arrived at my house, I had my servants kill the fatted calf and we had what you might call a good old fashioned Texas barbeque. There was so much food and such a good time.
Jesus and his disciples stayed with me that night. The next morning they rose and continued on their journey. As he was leaving he told me I was blessed by God and because of my commitment, my life would no longer be the same.
After he was gone, I went out with my money and started working to make a difference. People didn’t trust me, and with good reason. I maintained my position as a tax collector for a time, but it was mostly to have a way to get people to talk with me. And, as I collected the taxes, I only collected the amount people owed the government. Additionally, for some of my poorest neighbors, I didn’t charge them anything. I would pay their taxes myself. It was part of my giving half of what I had to the poor. I also bought homes and had homes repaired. I made sure people, particularly people with children, had food to eat.
It was on one of those visits I met the woman who would become my wife. Sapphira’s husband had died, leaving her with three children to raise and little ability to do so. Her family struggled. When I went to collect her taxes before, I took all she had, every time.
When she saw me coming, she ran from the house to meet me. “I have nothing to give you she said. There is nothing. There is nothing even which to buy food for my children.”
Things had changed with Jesus. Before, I had no compassion. Now? Now my heart broke. I told her I would take care of her taxes. And, before I left, I told her to expect something more. I traveled back to the center of the city, back to the market and bought food. I arranged for it to be delivered to her. She later told me, it was the best her family had ever eaten.
For the first time in my life, I was in love. Still, like so many, it took a while for her to trust me. I understood. Eventually we did marry. I raised her kids as if they were my own and we had two more children of our own.
In the days following Jesus’ departure I developed a new personal practice. I would rise early in the morning and leave on an errand. Then return a few hours later. After Sapphira and I married, she became curious and followed me one day. She saw as I stopped and picked up a bucket. She watched from a distance as I went to the well and filled my bucket. She followed until she saw me stop at a sycamore tree. I began to rub the bark. Then I bent down and picked up a bit of trash and weeds from the trees base. Then I picked up my bucket and poured it around the base of the tree. As I was pouring Sapphira came out and asked what I was doing. I said, “This is where I met him. This is where my life was forever changed. This tree is like a place of worship to me, because here I am reminded of Jesus.”
As my life continued, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, I grew to know the twelve much better. I left the service of the Romans and started working with the disciples, particularly the newest disciple Matthias. Because of my work with the twelve and the work that caused them to move all over the known world, I was blessed to be selected as the first bishop of Caesarea.
One day Matthias said something to me that let me know for all time that my life had truly changed. “Zacchaeus,” Matthias said to me, “There were two rich men who had encounters with Jesus. One was a rich man who went away sad. He walked away without salvation because of his unwillingness to turn loose of his possessions. The other was you my friend. When you pledged to give up half your possessions to the poor and to pay back those you defrauded four times over, you found salvation Jesus said. In you, we see Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
I have seen God. I have seen God from up in a tree. I have seen God in the faces of poor people I have since helped. I have seen God in the face of my beautiful Sapphira. I have seen God in the faces of my children. I have seen God in the faces of the countless people who serve God in so many ways. And, as I stand here this day, I see God in the faces of many of you.
I challenge you this day, examine your heart. Is your heart pure? You need it to be because, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.