Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Zacchaeus was a little man. Petty. Nit-picking. Trifling. Wealthy. Alone.
It was hard to tell if collecting taxes from his peers had made him this way, or if he was naturally small-minded, which made him such a perfect tax collector. Either way, a person can hold on to their wealth easily if he has no friends to share it with.
Once, he had been a friend of the synagogue, faithfully attending each week, exchanging pleasantries with the rabbis, even sharing in the potluck dinners. But it seemed to him the more time he spent at synagogue, the more he disliked the hypocrisy of his fellow worshipers. When he started collecting taxes, he was politely asked not to come to synagogue any more.
Since then, he was Jewish, but not a Jew; a son of Israel, but not of Abraham. The faith of his fathers meant little to him once he entered the real world. What good was a faith that equated his profession to that of a murderer? Every day, it seemed he would hear the condemnations from the fat, religious prigs, small-minded and ridiculous. There were few people he could stand to be around, and even fewer he could consider friends. But this only increased his income. It was easy to increase the tax upon people he disliked, and he disliked plenty.
Recently he had heard about a popular preacher, traveling from town to town. What he had heard of the man intrigued him. Zacchaeus was no fan of religious celebrities, but this one seemed to get in a lot of trouble with some of his least favourite rabbis. He liked that. He liked that a lot. He laughed every time he heard about the latest insult handed to them by the simple teacher.
When he heard that this man was coming to Jericho, he knew he'd enjoy meeting him. He could see it in his head: with a firm handshake, Zacchaeus would smile wryly and give him a nod. You're alright, he'd say, and the teacher would be impressed by his dispassionate coolness.
When the teacher arrived in town, Zacchaeus had never seen such a crowd of people clamoring for a glimpse of one person. Futilely, he tried to find a place from which to see the man. Though he'd long considered himself above such simple people, he'd always stood almost a foot below them. Zacchaeus was a wee, little man.
He cursed himself and his height. The more he was obstructed from seeing the teacher, the more determined he became to catch a glimpse. He was only passing through town, and would soon be gone. Zacchaeus peered down the road in the direction the teacher was going, and had an idea.
He saw some steps up ahead, just where the teacher would be passing. He struggled out of the crowd and tried to make his way there. He wasn't the only one with this idea, however, and by the time he reached the steps, they were full of onlookers. Frustrated, he cursed himself again. He looked farther ahead, and gave a second glance to one of the trees standing alongside the road. Ridiculous, he thought to himself. You'd look ridiculous.
It was a sycamore-fig tree, the kind whose fruit fed pigs. He sighed. Screw it. Climb the damn tree.
Again, he forced his way through and out of the crowd. He grabbed the lowest branch he could find, and awkwardly climbed up a branch that extended out towards the road. He perched himself as well as he could, spilling what dignity was left with each quivering of the tree branch.
He could see the teacher now, coming down the street towards the tree. He could place him only because of the men around him, twelve or thirteen, trying to keep people from pressing in him. The teacher seemed genuinely pleased to be meeting people, if not more than a little beleaguered. He was getting closer, and in the excitement of the moment, Zacchaeus couldn't help but feeling a little star-struck. When the celebrity rabbi was close enough to spit on, his heart pounded. When the celebrity rabbi looked straight up the tree and into his eyes, he almost lost his breath. When the celebrity rabbi spoke to him, he almost lost his lunch.
The nonchalant meeting the tax collector had imagined quickly disappeared, as he suddenly found his mouth quite dry. "Hi!" he said back, slightly more enthusiastically than he intended.
"I'm Jesus," said the teacher. "What's your name?"
"Zac..." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Zacchaeus. I'm... I like what you says. Said. I like what you have to say." This had sounded much better in his head.
Jesus chuckled. "Thanks. Not everybody does. So where are you from, Zacchaeus?"
"Mime from here! From Jericho. I'm from Jericho."
"So, Zacchaeus, what is it you do that affords you this fine tree?"
Zacchaeus laughed in spite of himself, perhaps a little harder than he meant to. But he quickly remembered the customary reaction to his profession. He tried not to stammer. "I'm... I collect... tariffs." It came out quieter than he intended. He waited for the teacher's face to change, to take on the inevitable coldness that always came with his answer.
The teacher's reaction was different than he expected. He laughed again. "You know, I'm getting a terrible crick in my neck like this. How about if you come on down, and let me stay at your place tonight?"
Zacchaeus stammered again as his heart picked up its pace. "Uhp...Uh.. Sure! Yeah, that would be... fgood. Fine. Good."
Jesus smiled as the little man inelegantly made his way back down the tree.
"Where do you live?" he asked.
"Just... uh... Just up... Not far from here. Are you sure you want to come?"
"It would be my honour. What's for supper?"
Zacchaues laughed as he led his new friend to his house. He didn't notice, or didn't care, about the scowling and confused looks he and the teacher were getting. For once, he felt unabashed and at ease, if not more than a little exhilerated, with this new friend.
His servants prepared a particularly delicious meal that night, and Zacchaeus and the teacher talked for hours. Zacchaeus complained freely about religion, and the teacher seemed unfazed. He nodded his head and listened. Zacchaeus listened intently as the teacher told stories of the people he'd met, particularly the poor. As he spoke, the teacher seemed to re-write the meaning of the scriptures Zacchaeus had heard recited a million times before. This man, this man's friends, the poor, seemed to give these scriptures a life he had never before seen.
Watching Jesus, he began to realize something. Life could be more than cynicism. Life could be... alive.
There was a moment of silence. His heart was pounding again as he looked intently at the teacher. You can trust this man, he thought. Do it. Do what you know you need to do. He felt something coming up from his heart. He stood, and spoke. "Alright. Look. Right here. Right now.... I give half of my things to the poor," He was trembling, but it felt good. Something more came crawling up from his newly forming heart. "And if I've cheated anybody out of anything, I'll pay it back four times over."
His eyes were red now, his cheeks wet, and he found himself sniffling. The trembling subsided as the teacher smiled at him.
"Zacchaeus, more than any rabbi I've met, more than any scribe or Pharisee I've ever known, you have shown yourself to be a true son of Abraham. People like you are the reason I came here. I came to find people like you, the ones lost in the crowd." The teacher's lip twitched a little. "To find them and free them."
Zacchaeus sniffed, smirked, and had another piece of dessert.