Testimony of a Tax Collector
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
When you're short, everybody looks down on you. It's been
that way my whole life. I was always the last person anyone picked to be on a team. People would say to me, "Hey, Zacchaeus, why don't you stand up? Oh, you are standing." Ha, ha, ha.
That's when I vowed to be somebody. If I couldn't be tall,
I was going to be rich. No one looks down on a person with money.
But if you live in Judea under the Romans and you don't own
land, there's only one way to be rich. You got to be a tax collector. The Romans assigned us a certain amount of taxes to collect from each person, and whatever we collected over that amount was ours to keep. I called it a collector's fee. Don't you have-what do you call them-processing fees? Same for me. Only mine was a sliding fee. Those who wanted protection from the Romans had to pay a little more.
Even then, I didn't keep all the money for myself, see. I
used some of it to grease the palms of the Romans. That's how I got promoted. Eventually I became the chief tax collector for whole district of Jericho. Then people started greasing my palms.
I got very rich, but I still had no respect. People called
me a scab for working for the Romans. They said I was a traitor. The Pharisees put me in the same category as thieves and prostitutes. Women grabbed their children and crossed the street when they saw me coming.
I expected the same treatment from Jesus. I'd never seen
him preach, but I'd heard a lot about him. He said things like, "Woe to you rich," and "It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." I guess that takes care of me.
Still Jesus was a celebrity of sorts, and we didn't get many
celebrities in Jericho. So when I heard he was passing through town, I went down to take a look. I didn't want to meet him, you understand, I just wanted to see what he looked like.
Turns out that wasn't so easy. The crowd was swarming
around him like insects. I couldn't see over their heads. So I got an idea. I ran ahead to where there was a tree growing beside the road. I climbed up the tree and sat on a branch, partly obscured by the leaves, and waited for Jesus to come by.
It wasn't hard to pick him out. The crowd clumped around
him like iron filings around a magnet. He got to within 20 feet of my tree when he stopped and looked up. I wondered what would have happened if he had kept going. My life would have been very different.
But he stopped and looked up. I'd never had anyone looked
up to me before. He said, "Zacchaeus, come down here."
I almost fell out of the tree. Zacchaeus? He knows my
name! What else does he know about me? Does he know I am rich? Does he know how I make my money? Does he know what other people think about me? I wanted to run away, but I was-you might say-out on a limb.
"Zacchaeus," he said, "come down from that tree. I want to
stay at your house today."
How do I explain what that was like? Jesus wanted to stay
with me-a despised tax collector. Everyone else treated me like a homeless panhandler. They averted their eyes; they crossed the street to avoid me. No one had ever picked me for anything, but here was Jesus, the most famous preacher in all Israel, choosing to have dinner with me.
It's hard to keep your dignity when climbing out of a tree
in robe. But at that point I wasn't worried about my dignity, because even before I got to the ground the crowd turned ugly. There were boos and cat-calls, and people shouting things like "Sinner! Traitor! Away with him!" I half expected to see a rope thrown over a tree branch with a noose on one end to be placed around my neck.
But then I realized the crowd wasn't shouting at me. They
were shouting at Jesus. The crowd was angry with Jesus for going to the house of a tax collector. In their minds he might as well have been going to a brothel.
While the crowd turned on Jesus, I escaped, jumping the last
five feet to the ground and sliding around the edge of the crowd unnoticed as I hurried toward my house.
On the way I tried to figure out Jesus' game. What was he up to?
What did he want? I hadn't paid him off, like I paid off the Roman officers. I hadn't done anything for him. Or said anything. I didn't break down and confess my sin. I didn't ask for forgiveness. I didn't promise to change my life. I didn't promise anything. Before I took a single step, Jesus accepted me, and paid for that acceptance by enduring the hostility and anger of the crowd that should have been directed at me. To enter my house he had to pay the price for my wrongdoing.
I hadn't ask Jesus to come to my house. He invited himself,
which seemed to me like an odd form of hospitality. But even in my own house it seemed like Jesus was the host and I was the guest, like he was the head of the family to which I was welcomed as a long lost son.
All through the meal I waited for Jesus to tell me what to do. But he
never said a word. I heard that a rich man once came to Jesus asking what he had to do for eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. I expected Jesus to tell me the same thing. But he didn't. He just sat there through the whole meal smiling, as if he enjoyed my company.
That's when I realized Jesus didn't want my money. He
didn't want my campaign contributions. He wanted me-Zacchaeus-the little despised tax collector. Jesus wanted me to be part of his family in his eternal kingdom.
I didn't know what to say. Finally, I stammered out, "Lord
.." It did not seem enough to call him rabbi or teacher. I said to him, "Lord, half my possessions I will give to the poor."
I paused and waited to see if he asked for the other half. But he
didn't. He just smiled as if realizing how out of character this was for me. And he was right. I had never given anyone anything unless I thought they could do something for me in return.
So I kept going. I said, "And Lord, if I have defrauded
anyone, I will pay them back four times as much." I pictured the people of Jericho lining up to get their refunds, and I wondered if I'd have anything left when I was done.
But I decided it didn't matter, because I finally had the
thing I had always wanted most. Isn't this what I wanted my whole life: to be accepted, to belong, to matter? And here I was accepted, belonging, and mattering to the very person in the entire universe whose opinion counted most.
Finally he said something. He said, "Today, salvation has
come to this house." Today! Not just in some distant future after we die, but today I have started the new life that he came to bring.
I'm still short, I still live in Jericho, and I'm still a
tax collector. I'd thought I would have to give that up, but I didn't. I just had to do it differently. So now I have a different sliding fee scale. I slide the fees down for those who can't afford to pay. The Romans don't care, as long as I make up the difference. It's sort of like what he did for me: paying the price for my acceptance, bearing my shame, so I could share his glory.