One of the most endearing stories of the New Testament, I think, is the story about a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, who realises that he needs to see Jesus (Luke 19: 1–10). This realisation changes his life.
But, let’s back up a bit: the Romans were famous for “pax Romana”. It was, however, a peace created through conquest. Having conquered vast amounts of Europe and western Asia, including the Middle East, and north Africa, by the time of Jesus they had established a well organised system of installing local leaders and using locals to collect taxes for the Empire. You need a lot of money to run an empire! As a tax collector you also could make a lot of money, simply by collecting your commission. Some tax collectors were corrupt. All of them had the might of the Roman Empire at their disposal. The tax collectors would be accompanied by armed Roman soldiers. You were forced to pay, with the ever-present threat of violence, if you tried to refuse or didn’t have enough to pay your debt.
The locals who cooperated with the Empire in collecting tax were seen as collaborators. They had sold out their own people. In the case of the tax collectors in Roman Province of Judaea, they were profiting off the suffering of their fellow Israelites. Zacchaeus would have been seen as a collaborator, a sinner, someone who had sold out to the enemy. Worse, he was a chief tax collector: the worst kind. He would have been hated by his fellow Israelites. If he attended worship in the local synagogue or the Temple in Jerusalem, he would have been ignored, at best, and prevented from entering, at worst. His friends would have stopped inviting him to dinner, because even to associate with him socially would affect their own standing in the community. He was an outsider.
Somehow, Zacchaeus has heard about this wandering teacher, Jesus. Somehow, he knows that there is more to life than he is experiencing. Somehow, he realised that he is not getting the most out of life. There is something missing in his life and, intuitively, he knows that this popular teacher might just have the answer. So, he takes the amusing, or, as I like to think of it, endearing step of running ahead of the crowd and climbing a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by.
Zacchaeus has a moment of absolute clarity. This interant teacher might have the answers he is searching for in life.
I wonder if you have ever experienced a moment of clarity. A simple metaphor: in the July holidays this year Mrs McCall and I travelled to Cairns and enjoyed several days there, escaping Adelaide’s winter. While we were there, we hired a car. Driving back from a restaurant one evening, I became aware that I could not read the white writing on the giant green road signs until I had almost driven past them. “Ok, I might need to get my eyes tested!” I visited the optometrist when we got back and, yes, I was prescribed distance glasses. The good news is that, technically, I am still ok to drive without them, so, if you see me driving without them, don’t worry, I won’t run you over by accident!
When my new glasses arrived, it was a revelation. Suddenly I was able to look at the stained-glass windows in our Chapel with a new appreciation. Suddenly I realised that leaves on trees have definition, and that lights at night-time also have definition – they’re not just bright blobs. It was extraordinary. I suddenly saw what I had been missing.
Zacchaeus has this moment. He sees that there is a new way to live and that Jesus might just be able to give it to him. He realises that he doesn’t have to live the way he has been living. Jesus might be able to restore him to his community, to his fellow Jews, to his friends – to his people! All will be forgiven.
Jesus does just that. He stops under the tree, looks up at this short little man, and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” This is a great honour: Jesus will go to his house. This is a mark of respect and is Jesus’ way of saying, “Welcome home. Welcome back into the fold.” Zacchaeus, to his credit, has the courage to climb down out of the tree, into the middle of the crowd, who hate him and are grumbling about that fact that Jesus is going to stay with him, and says, “I will give away half my possessions and pay back four-fold anything that I have defrauded from anyone.”
In that moment, Zacchaeus’ life changes. His courage, and Jesus’ compassion, saves him. I like to think that Zacchaeus remembers who he used to be, before he was a tax collector, when he still had friends, when he was still welcome in the synagogue. He has a moment of clarity: he sees what he has to do and he does it!
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall