He stares into space, replaying the last confrontation in his head and hating himself.
‘I want it now! You owe me now! I don’t care if you have to sleep with a thousand foul-breathed soldiers to get it! 24 hours you got. Or I swear, you’ll pay in pain.’
She’s crying, tears searing streaks into her pale cheeks. Not his fault. She knows the system. She shrinks as she slips past his man Blastus at the door, all fists, menace and broken teeth. An expert breaker, fingers, toes, legs, the lot. He’d be a thug in the army if Jews could sign up. But they can’t. So he strong-arms for the taxman, keeps things in order; but the taxman’s not sure whether he keeps the Romans informed about his business too.
Lately it’s all been unravelling, the taxman can tell because his cruelty is reaching new heights. He hardly recognises himself. Last week a family ended up living on the town rubbish tip when he took their home. The week before it was a five-year-old sold into slavery. People have debts and he won’t be short-changed, won’t be made to look small. You turn soft and everybody takes liberties. Wasn’t like this when he started, back in the hungry days. Back then he cut people slack, but he learnt the hard way. You reach a certain kind of lifestyle and have to play hardball to maintain it. And the Romans are no fools. They’ll take everything he has if he doesn’t meet his quota.
He reaches for another glass of wine. His sixth today so far. There’s a commotion outside. Blastus turns to look, the taxman drains his glass. ‘What is it?’ he growls. Blastus keeps looking. ‘A crowd,’ he grunts. ‘Shouting about something.’
He goes to the door, takes a look himself. Some kind of big shot come to town, no doubt. The locals make such a fuss about nothing. But then something grabs him, twists at his insides. Before he knows it he’s outside and running ahead of the crowd. Must be the wine, must have really gone to his head this time, because he looks like an idiot scrambling down the street. He can hear the crowd shouting at him, swearing and cussing, taking the chance now that Blastus isn’t with him. He hurls himself out of their path and up a tree. Tears at twigs and foliage as he hauls himself up. He looks down, bits of leaves in his hair and a dirty cream smear of bird dung on his left cheek. There’s a stranger down there. The height and the drink make his head swim a little.
‘Zacchaeus,’ the man calls. ‘Come down from there.’
‘Why? I’ve only just got up here.’
‘I’m coming to your house tonight, mate. I know a desperate man when I see one. And I’m looking at one right now.’
‘Wait, wait!’ Zac can hear the cat calls and insults raining down on him, as he practically falls from the tree. But he lands and he grabs the stranger’s sleeve. Something’s going on. Something strange and powerful. By nightfall he’ll be sober, and all the cruelty will have seeped from his veins.
[Luke 19 verses 1-9]