Summary: Zacchaeus, the reformed tax collector, tells his story. (Author's note: This is quite a long story, taking about 25-30 minutes to narrate. It could be split into four parts as I have suggested, but if the narrator can add ample expression then I do not think this is essential.)
Style: Dramatic. Duration: 25-30min
Scripture: Luke 19
It is late March in Jericho. The days are getting longer; it’s a pleasantly warm; the sun as usual is out; Springtime is here. Life down in the Jordan valley is good; the soil is rich; abundant water from the Eines-Sultan spring makes farms productive. Jericho has been an attractive place for people to live through the millennia, and already the town is 9000 years old.
It is not long since Herod built his hippodrome-theatre to entertain his guests, often Jerusalem’s aristocracy who came down here for winter warmth and sunshine. The modern aqueducts prove this is still a prosperous town a century after the Maccabeans built swimming pools, bathhouses, ornamental gardens and orchards for their entertainment.
A good place to live and a good place to collect taxes. Taxes for the Romans; taxes for King Herod...Taxes that always need to be collected. Taxes that are always resented, hated. Tax collectors midway between the ordinary people: farmers, traders, builders, carpenters, bakers, fishermen... and the authorities, Roman and Jewish. We tax collectors needed a thick skin to shrug off the resentment directed at us: the curses; being despised; always needing a couple of burly men at our side in case things got out of hand.
A ‘chief tax collector’ – now what do we do? I rose through the ranks and proved my quick wits at calculating what to demand and what could be afforded - although it was the demands that counted and whether or not this tipped a family into destitution really was not my concern. Indeed worrying about that would seriously hamper my ability to do my job and probably make it impossible. Quick wits, too, at spotting trouble, noticing bad characters hanging around ready to grab my money and flee. Security was a constant worry – all day and all night it hardly left my mind, and my wealth certainly did not bring me peace even though I was always well-dressed, well-fed, well-housed, well cared for by the physicians…
Perhaps well cared for – you never knew whether they were merely selling you the latest placebo as the Latin says. Some said they were simply entertaining us patients whilst Nature effected the cure.
As chief tax collector I ruled and organised the others, directed where they would work and of course took my cut of what they collected. I was therefore unpopular amongst the unpopular. What a life – if money was not just so simply desirable I might wonder if it was worth it. But then to feel the coins slip through your fingers... well, they had a strange power over me, simply drove me on for more.
The days passed, the seasons passed, the years passed. A cosmopolitan place like Jericho had plenty of distractions: travellers passing through (more taxes); entertainment, which even included invitations to Herod’s feasts. Yet ever since the occasion a couple of years earlier when John the Baptist’s head was brought in to Herod in the middle of his birthday celebrations these had acquired sickening memories, and I had actually excused myself more recently – I admit I was getting soft.
But really, if even Herod’s feast with their delicious, limitless food; inexhaustible fine wine; and beautiful girls could not satisfy me then I must be getting old. Where was contentment to be found?
To my amazement I even wondered whether religion could offer some consolation? Not that I was irreligious. I had attended the same synagogue school here in town along with other boys from wealthy Jericho families. I had made some well-publicised donations to the temple away up the road in Jerusalem, ‘just in case’, as I muttered to myself and a few others.
But even more amazing, more disturbing was Jesus. Jesus the travelling healer and teacher from Galilee in the North. Two of my fellow tax-collectors had been to a meal with him and told me how, unlike almost everyone else we knew, he was completely relaxed in their company – interested in them and their families; asking perceptive questions and well able to answer those he was asked; but looking sad and sometimes sighing when they described their possessions and desire for more. I would pay good money, a substantial amount of money, to share a meal with Jesus. ..... Well again, that is not exactly true. What would be interesting would be to see him, to hear him, observe him. But from the edge, unnoticed, watching but not really being seen. There is simply too much inside, in my heart, that I would not want Jesus to see: the turmoil; the lust; the hurts and insults I have borne; the loneliness; the relentless addiction for money; the drive to simply be secure and not vulnerable. [Sigh]
Gosh, me sighing now. Jesus may be a healer but he could not heal those things. Besides how would he understand: he who seems to have found contentment in poverty; who utterly unlike myself was easy in other people’s company and never failed to have countless people around him? To see Jesus but not be seen by Jesus, that would be the thing.
And then the day came. The day came and he came. Jesus came.… I had heard that he was around here in the Jordan valley. I found myself listening for any hint of where he was, and then my heart actually skipped a beat when I heard he was on his way to our own town, the great Jericho itself.
Jesus comes to Jericho
Annoyingly, I was busy that morning, the queue of people to see me never lessened. For the first time I ever remember I found myself cutting deals: rather than extracting the last shekel I told people to pay me a smaller amount but pay me now. I actually let one man off completely when I saw his blind daughter clinging to his cloak. The sight of them pierced my armour like a shaft of light. I sent the two men who guard my money back to my house without re-counting it myself - can you believe that?! I closed my booth and rushed off, scarcely caring about my dignity and blind myself to the stares of others.
Where was he? The crowds were milling about and I could not tell anything from them. Being short-ish, I climbed some steps to see better but that didn’t help. I asked several people but, seeing me alone and unprotected they shunned me, turned away. I found that hurtful, could they not see that I was searching for Jesus? How blind were they?
Blind – the word came up again. Finally a man I knew stopped and told me Jesus was not far away. And on his way into town he had healed the old blind beggar whom everyone knew, it seemed partly because the man was persistent and would not shut up when people told him to be quiet.
So that was encouraging and made me realise that Jesus liked some response from people, some spirit, not passivity nor a ‘what will be will be’ attitude.
Suddenly there he was. Actually I could only catch glimpses of him as he moved on with the crowd around him. He did not have any guards of any kind, although I saw several rather rough-looking fellows who looked typical fishermen not far away. You will want to know what Jesus looked like – well I’ll tell you something strange. You will have seen him, or rather seen his expressions, which is the main thing. You’ll have seen his likeness as you have seen concern for others in people’s eyes; seen delight in the glories of the created world around us; noticed eyes moisten as they hear sad news; laughed heartily at the ironies of life or sheer funny stories. Mankind is made in the image of God – that’s what the rabbi taught us boys all those years ago. I think I might know now what he was telling us.
But from the profound to the practical. Where was Jesus going to stop? How could I get closer to him? (I had some coins in my pockets which usually got me where I wanted to be.) But my concern turned to worry and then almost to panic as I gradually realised he was ‘passing through’. Passing through Jericho - didn’t he realise it is an important place; all sorts of dignitaries he could meet, influence, teach, even rebuke. We could have a civic dinner to which I was sure to be invited and given a place of honour, although never as honourable as I thought I warranted?
But he was indeed, unaccountably, ‘passing through’. For a split second I almost stopped and sulked away. But a vision of the blind man and his persistence came to mind and my legs were off. For the first time in decades I was actually running – me, a chief tax collector, running. And what is more I never noticed everyone’s stares, their sniggering, ridicule, catcalls. I could see the Jerusalem road out of town where Jesus was heading and I ran down it not feeling the sandal I lost along the way.
I was starting to notice my panting when I spied a tree with some thick, low branches which I could climb with a little effort. Jesus was now some way off so I scrambled up and found a place where leaves would largely hide me from sight. I might have forgotten my dignity but I was still sure I wanted to see Jesus but not be seen by him.
Minutes passed. My breathing slowed, the sweat became uncomfortable. Jesus was not in any hurry. Jesus had stopped by the man with the blind daughter I had dismissed earlier. They might have been begging but they got a lot more time from Jesus than they had got from me. Suddenly a cry went up from the crowd – had Jesus healed the little girl too? And I had missed it, too far away.
On they came, whilst some people headed back to town. Nearer and nearer: 50 cubits; 30 cubits; 10 cubits; 5 cubits; very close now and about to pass by and.… He stopped. It all happened so quickly. I was delighted – I could see him very clearly now, ‘I could see who Jesus was’. Still he couldn’t see me. But then he turned and looked up, right into the tree, right at me. The leaves might have been made of glass. ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today’.
So as you know I came down at once and welcomed him gladly. Like these things are I never gave it a moment’s thought at the time, but since that day I have often mulled it over.
Jesus at my house
‘Zacchaeus’ – he addressed me by name. How did he know me? Was it because he was so special? As the Son of God, as I came to believe, could he just do any remarkable thing like knowing the names of people he did not know? Or had the father of the blind girl told him; had he mentioned my name as he spoke to Jesus? And why does that bring a lump to my throat; why had the moment’s view of that blind girl and her father been so important in the melting process in my heart that had brought me to where I am today? I’ll never know, I never saw them again. I did ask Jesus about the incident that evening but he merely said, ‘You did what you could’', and then moved the conversation on, as if the flash of kindness on my part (and it was infinitesimally small, I must grant you) was better left behind by me.
‘Come down immediately’' – a funny thing to say. I was not going to stay up in the tree was I and carry on a bizarre conversation from there? But what if I had, if I had hesitated, preferred to keep my distance, wanted time to think, started ‘negotiations’? Actually nobody told me, a chief tax collector, what to do, so Jesus completely took me off my guard and so I simply did what I was told. Actually it was very good for me: in all the years that have passed since that day I still hear his voice, hear him telling me to be kind, be generous, be less in a rush, less eager to state my point-of-view, to remember to say ‘thank-you’. I learnt right then that it is best to respond promptly to Jesus.
But even stranger, ‘I must stay at your house today’. ‘Must’, what an odd word. Surely ‘I would like to’ would have been more normal (even though the circumstances were far from normal)? Certainly more polite, although I saw that Jesus was not always what we would call ‘polite’.
‘Must’ – must for who? Must for Jesus – surely he could have stayed with umpteen other people in Jericho? Must for me – yes, if not then, when? I needed Jesus that day and although so did all the other people for miles around, that was not my concern. Why me I’ll never know. Why he chooses us and what about all the other people is not told us. Presumably we don’t need to know, and probably we are better off not knowing.
So down I came right there and then and obviously I was glad to welcome Jesus. But I must point out what you might call a technicality. When you welcome Jesus in you don’t just get him, you get a load of other people who are following him around too. Some of these characters are what my old father would have called ‘hangers-on’. Jesus seemed perfectly happy with them and as a rule he was not happy with questions about them. The idea was that if he had accepted them, so should you.
Take the fishermen whom I mentioned earlier, for example. I had dealings with fishermen from my first days in the tax office and you never knew where you stood with them. Unless you were prepared to stand by the shore of the Sea of Galilee as dawn broke you would not know how many fish they had caught and what they were worth, and so how much tax they owed. Someone told me months later Jesus had met them on the sands as day broke, but to give and to share breakfast, not to take from them.
In Jesus came and so did his retinue. Now I had some extremely fine furniture – note ‘had’, by the way. In an instant they were actually sitting on it, cushions were on the floor, feet up on chair arms – my place looked like a bazaar. Immediately I saw the situation was irretrievable, I was seeing the wider ramifications of, ‘I must stay at your house today’'.
Nevertheless, I tried to create some order out of chaos and I quickly had my servants rushing around bringing food and drink. I must say that my house manager rose splendidly to the task. I could see that he was going to take his cue from me, so for the first time he had ever seen I was down in the store house bringing out dried fruit, salted fish, loaves of bread. I was serving people, yes even the fishermen, and realising that this was far better than I had thought possible. Not that it was easy to be gracious, especially when some seemed to take it all for granted, but I learnt that a smile and, ‘You’re welcome’, worked wonders, not least in my heart.
Up until then I had been a firm believer in ‘behind closed doors’. The gates to my courtyard were high and passers-by could never catch more than a glimpse of what I had or what was going on. No more. The gates had been left wide open swinging on their hinges and all and sundry could gaze in, and often wander in too. Everyone saw and I started to pick up criticism. Criticism on the most radical day of my life. I was doing my best but in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, was muttering and grumbling. The main phrase was, ‘He’s gone to be the guest of a sinner.’
So it was not criticism of Jesus, nor of me, it was both of us! Me for being a sinner, something I did not deny although I still had a long way to go in realising the coldness of my heart; Jesus for coming to be my guest. What had Jesus’ choices of where he went and who he stayed with got to do with them? Only for a fleeting moment did I hear that muttering in his hearing but it seemed to sail over his head. That was amazing, too, when I thought how upset and hurt and annoyed I was by it all.
Anyway, time passed and finally we started to slow down. At last I could sit down myself and have a drink and some food from the little that was left. It gave me the chance to look round the room and out into the courtyard. I realised my heart was aching – the contrast was in front of my eyes: all my possessions now looking a bit the worse for wear, and tear too in some cases. And these people: far more people and much more diverse people than had ever been here before. Did I want to be open to caring for people wherever they came from?
I had wanted to see who Jesus was; to see him but not be seen. I had got what I wanted. Actually Jesus had said very little to me in all the time he had been in my house - not that he was ignoring me, he just was engaged with others. Sitting talking for a while, then getting up and slipping out. Only later did I realise that he had made time to go and talk to all the servants and my manager too, thanking them for their serving and asking about their lives. He had amazed them by winding up buckets of water from the well as they were getting tired and had nursed a small baby who was crying from colic or something – all beyond me I have to say. Some youths were making a nuisance of themselves and being stupid but when Jesus had talked to them light-heartedly for a couple of minutes they settled down and actually made themselves useful.
And for a few minutes I was undecided; the attractions of my possessions versus the needs of others. Finally I decided that it was now or never. I stood up, cleared my throat and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’
You could cut the silence with a knife! It took what seemed like ages for the enormity of what I had done to sink in. Why half? Surely a tenth would have been sufficient, would have shown I was obedient to the Law of God? I had thought about that, but somehow it did not seem enough, did not reflect the One who had come to be my guest.
But the repayment of four times the amount I had cheated anybody out of – that was straight from the Jewish Law but an admission of my guilt as one who had cheated people out of money, someone who was no better than a thief. Me, a thief.… Thieves were punished harshly. Indeed I had heard that right then two men had been caught stealing and were awaiting death by crucifixion in Jerusalem just before the forthcoming Passover in order to show everyone what happened to thieves... It makes my blood run cold.
And Jesus? He said to me and to everyone, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’
What did he mean? Obviously there is the contrast: the many people who said the main thing about me was that I was a sinner; Jesus telling everyone I was a son of Abraham, part of The Family of God.
Salvation has come to this house........ Jesus, the One who could and would save us from ourselves had come. But his salvation fully came when I responded, and others, too, responded as I learnt later. My example had actually helped them, hard though that was to believe.
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost... So all the time I was seeking Jesus he had been seeking me! I never remember giving any thought for God when I was collecting taxes and my interest in Jesus started as a mere spark. But that tiny spark was blown upon by the Holy Spirit of God, and a small flame came which grew and grew until my whole life, my whole self was ablaze. But the really odd thing is that that I did not disappear in this fire from God, I became more myself. I can never explain that, I can only refer you to Jesus who said that if we give ourselves away: our time, our opportunities, our possessions – well, we keep them. Odd, very odd, but true.
What happened next? Jesus indeed stayed at my house and that evening I talked to him for a good while. He was absolutely firm, what I had promised I must fulfil. I had wondered if he would give me many other commandments and rules to follow, just like the Teachers of the Law did. But no, it was plain my path was to keep my promises. I had not wanted Jesus to see me, but it was clear that he had done so. “Zacchaeus, you’ve done well today,” he said, “you’ve served others better than you have ever done. Therefore you have come closer to God. But you have a way to go. I’ll be sending others to you now and whatever you do for the least of them you will be doing for me.” I went to bed exhausted, on the floor, with those words ringing in my head.
What happened next?
The next day Jesus was up early; disappeared for a while; then left, heading the 15 miles to Jerusalem. I was disappointed and wondered if I could go, should go with him? But he simply said I should walk with God where I was, in Jericho.
To my shock and grief I heard that less than a fortnight later he himself was crucified with the two thieves, just as if he was taking the place I had deserved.
But I did not have long to mull things over. The ‘half of my possessions that I had given to the poor’ had to be sorted out. I quickly worked out what this meant, wrote it on a small clay tablet and carried it around with me as a reminder when I felt like not fulfilling what I had promised. I tried to be unobtrusive about what I gave away and remarkably, and to my complete surprise, this worked. At times it seemed that God who had opened the eyes of the blind through Jesus was now keeping other eyes closed. I was tempted to let others know what I was doing, but I had the feeling that God was strongly prompting me to keep quiet.
Those I had cheated were not so easy. I realised I had caused people considerable hardship, even destitution, and some were very bitter and said cruel words to me – and actually I did not blame them. Sometimes I had to exceed the four times the amount I had cheated out of them; occasionally I thought less than this might be sufficient, but then I never felt truly easy about this so I stuck with my promise.
Over time my money dwindled. Some old, so-called friends started to keep their distance. The tax-collection system was reorganised and I found there was no place for me, but I was far less worried than I would have been since by now I was busy looking after several orphans and frail old people.
My ability with maths never left me and I could see a day was coming when all my money and all my possessions would be gone. Anxiety grew within me but I tried to hide this from those who depended on me. But then, one day as my fears seemed to be rising out of control, a merchant whom I had known long before came my way. We greeted each other and sat and talked in the customary way. It transpired he was about to make a long journey to a far off land.
Suddenly he brought out his purse and counted out five gold talents. “Keep these safe for me”, he said, and then he was off.
What was I to do? It slowly dawned on me that God was giving me back what I had given away, not wholly so but even better, enough but not an excess that could lead me into sin. I could use this money to feed and clothe us, and if I was wise and conscientious the amount I had been entrusted with might even grow over time. And so..… well, that is another story for another day.
© Copyright John Holden, all rights reserved. The script may not be reproduced, translated or copied in any medium, including books, CDs and on the Internet, without written permission of the author.