When Jesus passed through the town of Jericho (in Luke 19) and came out the other side he encountered a little guy up a tree. He called out to him and invited himself round for a meal. It’s one of the first Bible stories I remember hearing. We used to sing about it. ‘Zacchaeus was a very little man, and a very little man was he…’ a song that included that intriguing line – ‘I’m coming to your house for tea.’ I guess ‘tea’ rhymes with ‘he.’ But it conjured up a picture of Jesus with a cup and saucer sipping Typhoo, maybe with a digestive on the side. And, to put it gently, how wrong it was.
Jesus had never met Zac before. He didn’t know him or his profession. Yet somehow he is able to grasp both as he stands there looking up at the sycamore tree. How come?
It’s most likely that the answer lies in Zac’s job. He’s a tax collector. A rich tax collector. A rich tax collector working for the Romans. The enemy. A collaborator. And in general, collaborators are hated people. If you have seen footage or photos of the treatment of collaborators at the end of world war two you’ll have some idea.
In Jesus’s day prominent men like Zac did not run or climb trees. It just wasn’t done. It made you look stupid. And Zac did not want to look stupid, he wanted to look powerful. But he also wanted a good look at this Jesus guy. So, when he couldn’t see over the excited crowd, he ran ahead of everyone and shinned up a sycomore tree. Trees like this usually gave good cover. But for some reason this one didn’t quite work. As the crowd spilled out of town they were already well-miffed that Jesus had decided to keep moving and not stay for the banquet they’d planned for him. Then someone spotted the taxman up the tree and their frustration refocussed on Zac. Usually the people had no chance to backtalk to him, not in his office. But this was different. Zac was alone and looking stupid. And the people were all anonymous, hidden in the crowd. And so the insults started. And the swearing too. And Zacchaeus was on the lips of most people, along with unrepeatable descriptions of his notorious job. And so Jesus found out who the man up the tree was.
Now if Jesus were any good as a Messiah he would lay out in minute, finite detail all the rules that Zac should follow to clean up his act. That would please the crowd and get Jesus and Zac back in their good books. But Jesus ain’t bothered about that. He believes in Zac, he sees beyond the taxman front.
So instead, having refused the feast the others had offered him, he now backpedals and invites himself to Zac’s place. Zac, who is defiled, unclean. Everything in his home polluted by corruption and greed. The furniture, the food, the conversation. Everything there would make Jesus as bad as Zac. But Jesus is adamant, instead of letting the community decide who should entertain him, he decides he’s going back to Zac’s. And not just for a cuppa and a Rich Tea, for a banquet and to stay the night. It’s all wrong. And so the crowd’s brooding anger, so recently aimed at Zac, now turns on Jesus. He makes himself the focus of the simmering violence and veiled threats.
But what the people don’t realise is this. In saving Zac from his own destructive greed (at the party he throws, Zac resolves to pay back those he’s cheated) Jesus is rescuing the town too. They will no longer be under the oppressive ways of the taxman. He is reforming. Zac is learning the ways of justice, kindness and humility. Everyone will benefit.
(Inspired by Ken Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes)