(With permission from the artist Ira Thomas)
Jesus was going through Jericho, where a man named Zacchaeus lived. He was in charge of collecting taxes and was very rich. Jesus was heading his way, and Zacchaeus wanted to see what he was like. But Zacchaeus was a short man and could not see over the crowd. So, he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree.
When Jesus got there, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down! I want to stay with you today.” Zacchaeus hurried down and gladly welcomed Jesus.
Everyone who saw this started grumbling, “This man Zacchaeus is a sinner! And Jesus is going home to eat with him.”
Later that day Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “I will give half of my property to the poor. And I will now pay back four times as much to everyone I have ever cheated.”
Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today you and your family have been saved, because you are a true son of Abraham. The Son of Man came to look for and to save people who are lost.”
What do a homeless woman who used her babysitter’s address to get her son into a better school and a wealthy property investor-cum-TV celebrity who claimed hair-styling expenses of up to $80,000 have in common?
They are both tax-cheats. One spent some time in prison alongside other offenses, the other ended up going to a high office in the land. Sometimes cheating benefits some and not others.
In our story today, a small man with a big wallet climbs to a high place to get a vantage point that ultimately brings him down to earth. Zacchaeus was a rich man and got that way by legal yet unsavoury methods. In the Roman Empire, areas were divided up and auctioned off to tax collectors like Zacchaeus, who paid Rome a fee for the right to collect taxes in his city, Jericho. He then had to shake his own people down for their taxes to make sure he got his money back–plus quite a bit extra as profit.
It was totally unregulated–whatever tax collectors could grab, they kept. And those in power didn’t care how fairly the people at the bottom were treated if there was no unrest or uprising. Zacchaeus looked at this unjust system and said, “Okay, I’ll play along. I’m not gonna worry about what I’m taking from others, that’s their problem.”
Some would say that makes him a successful businessman. That makes him smart. This system works well for Zacchaeus until he looks around and realizes he doesn’t have any friends. And he knows the reason for this, no one has to spell it out. He knows that he has sold out his community for the sake of money, that his love of wealth has completely isolated him.
Then, he hears about Jesus who, rather than turning his back on his people and profiting off them, has devoted himself to teaching and healing people. Someone who, rather than pursuing wealth and a nice home with lots of possessions has chosen a life of poverty. But someone who, instead of being lonely and reviled, has a crowd of friends following him.
Zacchaeus puts those things together and wonders if maybe he, a rich man, can receive the one thing he’s lacking and be healed. Zacchaeus is looking for an intervention.
Zacchaeus makes a choice. The moment of Zacchaeus’ salvation doesn’t come when Jesus pronounces it, nor does it come when he says he’ll give half his possessions away.
The moment comes when Zacchaeus runs towards that sycamore tree.