There was a knock on the door. I went to open it. There stood Zacchaeus. A sense of dread overcame my already troubled mind. Why is he here now? Is it already time to pay the taxes? Do I have a large default somehow? Is it not enough that I will have to sell my house to pay my debts? Why else would the chief tax collector pay me a visit? As these thoughts raced through my mind, Zacchaeus offered me a pouch and said, “Shalom Eliezer!” It was then that I noticed that he was smiling. Not the sinister smile, I had often seen at play on his face at the tax office. It was a smile that sprung from deep within; a smile that sprung from peace and happiness. Seeing my confused look, Zacchaeus said, “I have come to return the excess amount you had paid in taxes.” Mechanically I extended my hand to receive the money bag. “Excess amount in taxes?” I repeated. “Yes,” said Zacchaeus. “I am sorry. I did collect more than required.”
“Thank you,” I said, looking at the money bag, still trying to comprehend what was happening. Once again, Zacchaeus smiled and went on his way. Everyone knew that tax collectors charged extra. And Jericho’s chief tax collector was known for changing the figures to feed his greed. Then why did he come back to return the money, I wondered. I looked at the pouch in my hand and realised it weighed quite a bit. It was not just a month’s excess. I figured that it was much more. “Father, who was it, at the door?” called out my 14-year-old daughter Martha. It was then that I realised, I hadn’t even greeted my guest, nor asked him to come in. As I came inside the house I replied, “It was an angel of the Lord.” Seeing the money purse, she squealed in delight. “Is it ours?” I nodded. “We don’t need to leave,” she jumped. “Let’s go and get Mama from Granny’s!”
The money had been a blessing indeed. It was sufficient to pay back the mortgage on the house and get few basic items for the shop. I was at my lowest point in life. Business failing and taxes increasing, I had to sell my ancestral shop and house in Jericho, one of the most important trade centres in the area. I had planned to shift to a small village near Judea, where my wife’s parents lived. I had thought that it would be cheaper to maintain a family of five and start a new business there. I would have had to forego the good business network I had in Jericho. My family had been doing business in this city for four generations. I was very uneasy about leaving it behind, but I had no choice. How great are the works of God? He is truly the Lord who provides, “Jehovah Jireh!” Even as I was setting my things in order, I couldn’t forget the look on Zacchaeus’ face. I wanted to know the reason behind this. Benjamin, my neighbour said, “Leave it. Why question Providence?” He got to redeem his ancestral candle stand after almost one decade, with the money that Zacchaeus returned to him.
However, I couldn’t let it rest. A few days later, I saw Zacchaeus near the market place. He looked different. The same calm and a sense of humility marked the tax collector. He was a short man with an authoritative look, but now his persona had somehow changed.
“Zacchaeus, Shalom!” I called out. He turned and returned my greeting with a smile. “The money,” I said “It was a blessing. Thank you very much.”
“That was your money justly, my friend,” he replied. “Why thank me? If you must thank somebody, thank Adonai.”
“How did you know that I needed the money?” I questioned as we started walking down the street together.
“I did not know. God knew you needed the money.”
“I don’t understand,” I persisted. I simply wanted to know the reason for this change.
Zacchaeus sighed and smiled. He stopped walking. Turning to face me, he said, “He changed me.”
“Do you remember two weeks ago there was a huge crowd at the gates? A preacher, called Jesus was here in Jericho,” Zacchaeus started.
“I remember faintly hearing about the crowd,” I said. “I was busy trying to gather enough money to pay off the mortgage.” It was a difficult week. I had paid little attention to what was going on. My mind had been filled with anxiety and worry. I remember hearing about a miracle worker in Jericho. My thoughts were then on the miracle that I needed — to find enough money to keep my business afloat within a short duration.
I did not believe in miracles. God has given man enough strength to work hard. This had always been the maxim of my life. No time for miracles. Even now, there must be a logical explanation as to why, Zacchaeus returned the extra tax money. A small doubt lingered in my mind. Was it a miracle?
“Well, I heard about this man Jesus,” Zacchaeus continued. “I have heard that he is a holy man and performs a lot of wonderful things. I also got to know that he was coming to Jericho. I wanted to see him; to know if all they say about him was true. Now this man was said to be a holy man. And I on the other hand, despised by everyone at the synagogue, as you know,” he said with a wry smile. “So I had it all figured out. I would meet him when he enters the city, before he gets a chance to move to places where I might not be entertained. But when I went near the gates, I saw that there was a huge crowd. This made me want to see him, even more. Who is this man that throngs of people are waiting to meet him? I had heard that a group of strange people followed him. There were fishermen, labourers and tax collectors who were among his disciples. I had heard rumours about Matthew, a fellow tax collector, joining this group. He had apparently left everything to follow this Jesus. I had met Matthew in Jerusalem a couple of years ago. A promising young lad from Capernaum, he was on his way to becoming the chief tax collector at such a young age. I was greatly puzzled by this change. He was full of ambition when I met him. What was in that Jesus? And why would Matthew leave such a promising career to wander from one city to another with this band of misfits? I wanted to see this Jesus. When I saw the crowd, I knew I wouldn’t get a chance to get even a peek at this man. So I climbed a sycamore tree.”
I smiled at the thought of the chief tax collector climbing a tree.
Sensing my amusement, Zacchaeus chuckled. “Yes!” he said. “That is how much I wanted to see him. And it was worth it all.” His face reflected profound satisfaction when he said this. It was as if had found something he was looking for his entire life.
“I climbed up the tree,” Zacchaeus continued. “Just a glimpse of him is all I need. I thought to myself. Am I not a great reader of faces? Don’t I know, when the people deny they have enough for taxes? I see through their lies and get the highest profits for the Roman empire in this region. Yet, even then I knew of that sense of emptiness in me. Whatever I do, how much ever I earn, this void doesn’t leave me. So, curiosity and restlessness made me climb the tree. I spotted him coming towards the gate at a distance. He was quite tall and had this sense of authority as he walked towards the city, surrounded by his disciples. I saw Matthew too. He looked rugged and unkempt, as a traveller would. Now, Matthew was usually this well-groomed young man, who took his position seriously. The way he dressed and the way he held himself spoke of his position as an influential government official. And here he was, walking behind this Jesus, looking perfectly happy, conversing with his Teacher now and then. What made him so happy?
I looked at Jesus again. His authority, however did not come in way of his compassion. A lot of people tried to inch closer to him to get a chance to speak a word or two. He patiently listened and gave his complete attention to each and every person as he walked down the road. There was this magnetism which seemed to pull people towards him.”
Zacchaeus drew a large breadth and continued “People spit at me when I pass by, my friend. I remember when I came to your house, you were frightened and confused to see me there. So much so that you did not even greet me.”
“I was bewildered,” I tried to explain. “Your visit, during the exact moment when I was packing to leave the city for good, left me speechless.”
“Don’t bother,” he said waving his hand. “I understand. I am used to seeing people run away from me. When this man, Jesus, was surrounded by big eyed, genuine followers, it left me amazed. People were willing to leave their family, jobs, and possessions, just to be by his side. Who was this man? My mind was trying to take in the profound meaning of this sight as he came closer to the tree on which I was seated on.”
There was this fire in Zacchaeus’ eyes now as he continued. “It was then that it happened. When he was just below the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus.” He called me by my name.” Zacchaeus held his hand to his heart as he said this. “He called me by my name,” he repeated.
Engrossed as I was in the narrative, my cynicism did not leave me. “He must have heard it whispered. The sight of the chief tax collector on the tree is sure to have created a bustle.” I said with a shrug. “Or, Matthew must have told him.”
Zacchaeus smiled at my sarcasm, and said, “I do not wonder at his knowing my name. It is the way he said it.” We had reached a street corner by now. The tax collector sat on a small stone nearby and gestured me to sit by his side. “When I was little boy, I used to get into a lot of scrapes,” he continued. “Not surprising,” I ventured. The talk made me feel closer to him. Here, I was, a devout Jew at a prominent street corner where all could see me with the chief tax collector. I wasn’t afraid of him nor was I ashamed of being seen with him. Was this the miracle?
Zacchaeus chuckled and continued. “There was this one time when I was playing in a hilly area with my family’s flock of sheep. I had wandered far away from home following the sheep. The shepherd was on the other side, tending to a wounded animal. I went on ahead with one particular lamb that went frolicking towards this steep hillock. It was a mountainous region and the sheep wandered towards higher ground, climbing deftly the clefts on the rock. Knowing that I couldn’t do that but wanting to compete with the sheep, I climbed up a tree that was close by. And only when I looked down suddenly, I realised that I had climbed higher than I had intended to. I did not know, how I was going to get down. The height terrified me.” I could see Zacchaeus shiver as he said this. “No one knew I was around. I could not even shout. I was petrified and closed my eyes in fear, thinking of the consequences. That was when I heard someone calling out to me, “Zacchaeus.” I opened my eyes, as I recognised my dad’s voice calling to me from below the tree. “Come down,” he said. There was a look of compassion in his eyes. He was not angry that I had wandered far away from home. He was not angry with me for climbing trees. He sought me out when he found that I had not returned home. He found me on top of the tree. Seeing him gave me the courage to go down the tree. I knew that he would catch me even if I were to fall. I went down quickly to him and he held me close as I rushed towards him. My father did not scold me that day.” He turned to look into my face once again and said, “It was the same look. Jesus did not judge me. His compassion was free from judgement. He was just waiting for me to see him.”
Zacchaeus, slightly lowered his head as he said, “He knew that I was a betrayer of my own people. Jesus knew that I took more than required. He knew of my greediness and my desire to be in control of others. Still he did not judge me. He also knew of the void.”
“What happened then?” I asked, as I recognised the emotional upheaval as the tax collector recounted his tale. His honesty about this encounter was visible.
“I scrambled down from the tree as Jesus spoke to me, “Hurry and come down,” he said, “for I must stay at your house today.” A Jewish Rabbi, staying at my house. I was excited. I welcomed all of them – Jesus and his disciples. I quickly went home and had a feast prepared in no time. I could hear the people grumbling around me. They hated me but kept from saying anything because Jesus was there. I threw my house open to all who wanted to be there with Jesus. It was the first time there were so many guests at my place. Even when I was busy with organising his stay and food, I realised, that void I felt in my heart was filled. His love, that shone through those merciful eyes, pierced my soul. I realised my unworthiness. I felt the urge to wrong my rights. I thought hard about it and realised reparation was the answer. Seeing the forgiving gaze, I realised, that’s what he wanted too; for me to be at peace. I realised one more thing, that I had the allegiance to the wrong person. Caesar was no longer my Lord. I declared loudly of my decision, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
I was astonished. We Jews did not use the word Lord freely. We addressed only our ‘King of Kings,’ Yahweh! Even those who called, Caesar, Lord were whom we considered betrayers. Reading my thoughts as he looked at my wide open eyes, Zacchaeus asserted, “Yes, he is Lord.”
The tax collector continued his story not minding my reaction, “Then Jesus said to me, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Then with a grin Zacchaeus added, “Everyone was surprised. Much like how you are looking at me now. A lowly tax collector saved?”
I found my voice at last, amazed at this Jesus and his authority. “Who is he that he speaks of salvation?” I questioned. “Who is the Son of Man?” When Zacchaeus had come over to my place last week, I was speechless. Now the questions came tumbling out.
“Who is he?” Zacchaeus repeated looking into my eyes. His intonation and shining face as he repeated my question changed it into a rhetorical one.
“It cannot be!” I quickly said gauging his meaning. Yes, we were all eagerly waiting for the Messiah. But it surely cannot be him. “Did you not say that he was from Nazareth,” I retorted. The scorn I felt for the place reflected in my tone. “How can Jesus from Nazareth be the Messiah?” Even though I was logically trying to piece the scriptures together, I was confused at the effect this teacher seemed to produce on really tough people.
Zacchaeus replied passionately, “Who else could bring salvation to my house?” “Who else could fill the void in my heart with a look? Who else could tell me I was wrong? Who else could change my heart and bring me heavenly peace?” The chief tax collector’s voice grew softer and with a piercing look he challenged me, “Who else could know, Eliezer, that you needed the money?”
My logical mind still resisted and tried to find explanations. “Oh! That must surely be a coincidence.” I faltered sensing that that the reasons in my head sounded vague and incomprehensible.
Then I looked at Zacchaeus, sitting next to me, his eyebrows raised, waiting for my answer. This man considered a sinner by Jews, was telling me of the Messiah! He hadn’t stepped inside the synagogue in years. He went to Jerusalem to meet Roman officials, not for the temple festivals. I did not even know if he followed our rules, if he followed the Sabbath. Now, he points out the Messiah to me a devout, hardworking Jew?
Yet, now his repentance was sincere; his peace of mind visible to all. The rich tax collector testifying the reason for his transformation did not confine to the worldly logic that I was looking for.
Then the words of Prophet Isaiah sounded in my ears. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” The encounter that changed Zacchaeus – the discussion that led him to return the money to me, at my lowest moment came as Jesus, the Rabi called him by his name.
Who else could intervene in the dire situation that I was in. The words of the Psalm came tumbling into my memory, “The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Who else had the power to make the impossible possible.
I remembered what Zacchaeus said of when Jesus was walking towards the gate, surrounded by people. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” I saw the promises fall into place. I felt my heart beat fast as I realised the truth. Breaking my prejudices and preconceptions about people and places, I looked at Zacchaeus. His transformation was a powerful witness in itself.
I returned his look, the excitement I felt bursting forth my usual serene and cautious disposition. Zacchaeus noting the change exclaimed, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.” I joined him in the Psalm of praise, “I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.”