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Speaking to the Soul: The Good Tax Collector

Speaking to the Soul: The Good Tax Collector

by Linda McMillan


Let me tell you a story. It’s a story about blindness, and seeing, and being seen. You may think you know this story but read carefully because it may not be the story you think it is. There are surprises:


One time Jesus gathered the disciples to him and told them everything that would happen after they got to Jerusalem. He foretold his scourging and crucifixion, even including details like the fact that he would be spat upon. But, even though Jesus spoke plainly, the disciples did not understand because it had been hidden from them. They couldn’t see it.


Later, when they got to Jericho, they encountered crowds and a blind man asked someone what was going on. They told the blind man that Jesus was passing by and so he started crying out as loudly as he could for Jesus to have mercy on him. He was as persistent as the widow in the parable which we read a few weeks ago. He just wouldn’t stop. Finally, Jesus asked someone to go get him and the man asked Jesus to heal his sight. Jesus did, and the man praised God because he could finally see.


Jesus continued on his trip, and as he was walking through Jericho, he encountered more crowds because a lot of people wanted to see him. One of the people who wanted to see Jesus was a publican named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus because he was not tall enough to see over the crowd.  Of course, the crowd could have parted and allowed Zacchaeus to move to the front, but they didn’t.  See, not only could Zacchaeus not see Jesus, but nobody could see Zacchaeus either. Zacchaeus was a little like the blind man who cried out for Jesus to show him mercy, though, he was determined to see. He ran out in front of the crowd and, in an act unbefitting his dignity as the chief publican, he climbed a Sycamore tree so that he could see Jesus.


Zacchaeus knew many of the people in the crowd that day. Jericho was an old city, and the old families knew one another. Despite the fact that Joshua had once cursed Jericho, it was still going strong. There were the descendants of Rahab, followers of John the Baptist, and others whom Zacchaeus had known all his life. He had heard about it when Jesus came here to be baptized by John in the nearby Jordan a few years ago. And now he was finally going to see Jesus for himself. If his friends — if they really were his friends — wouldn’t help him then he would just settle into his perch high above it all. He could see everything from up in the Sycamore Tree.


Zacchaeus was a son of Abraham, he had been following the law of Moses, even exceeding its requirements, but for some reason, he didn’t have a very good reputation. It was because of his job, he knew it. The people in the crowd, far below him as he sat in the Sycamore tree, had decided that because of his profession, because of what they thought they knew about him, he was not like them, not at all. They had known him all his life, yet didn’t know him at all. They didn’t want to admit that they had mentally cut him out of their lives and could no longer really see him.


Zacchaeus knew that he was collaborating with his own oppressors, He wasn’t blind to that. But he also saw that everyone else was collaborating too. Oh, not everyone was a tax collector, but they did business with Rome, sold their crops and wares. It’s not as if they were innocent. Most were blind to it, though. “We’re all collaborators,” thought Zacchaeus. “It is better for me to collect the taxes honestly than to leave it to some scoundrel.” But he kept these thoughts to himself.


While he waited for Jesus — alone, because he had no friends — Zacchaeus went over in his mind all the things he did to make sure he obeyed the law. He gave half of everything he had to the poor, and if he did make a mistake he returned the balance four times over to the one he had cheated. Four times! Surely that was enough to satisfy the law, which only required that he return twice as much. Nobody knew how scrupulous he was, but Zacchaeus didn’t mind. He was protecting his community from the danger of less honest tax collectors whether they could see it or not. It was his duty as a Son of Abraham.


Finally, Jesus appeared in the distance, just a little puff of dust rising up from the ground at first. Soon enough, though, Jesus was right under the Sycamore Tree and he was looking at Zacchaeus. Everyone was looking at Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus, come down,” said Jesus, “I am going to your house.” And, in that moment, the law which he kept so faithfully and love of God kissed one another, overflowing into Zacchaeus’ great joy.


Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree to once again be a part of the crowd, but the crowd was not happy. They murmured the same way their ancestors had murmured in the desert; “How could Jesus choose Zacchaeus? Doesn’t Jesus know he’s a collaborator?” They were still blind. But Zacchaeus had finally had enough, he told Jesus — and anyone else who was within earshot —  everything that he did concerning his money and Jesus just laughed and laughed while the crowd stood there slack-jawed and stunned. They were finally beginning to see.


Last week we explored the ways in which we make Bible-characters — and all too often one another — into one-dimensional stereotypes. It arises from a failure to see the Imago Dei, or the Image of God, in one another. It’s there, but for a variety of reasons we remain blind to it. I am sure the crowd which gathered around the Sycamore Tree that day was surprised to hear that Zacchaeus was a Son of Abraham.


One of the questions we may ask this week is, “Where can we find Zaccheus today?” For those with eyes to see, Zacchaeus is everywhere. He is everyone who we declare “other.” Yet, in those whom we would rather not see, those who most challenge and offend, we are likely to find a surprise. Hidden underneath the flat stereotype of the chief publican was a generous heart and a law keeper. The brightly burning image of God was there all along, but only for those with eyes to see.


I can almost see some people nodding their heads, “Yes… the gays, the homeless, even the attention-seekers, and energy-sappers… they bear the image of God.” But, what about that family member who always remarks on your weight, flaunts their wealth, or otherwise diminishes you? How could even they bear the Image of God? Or, let’s make it really personal, what about people who aren’t going to vote for the right presidential candidate? What about those who commit heinous crimes but get off scot-free? What about those “peace officers” whose only solution seems to be violence?


The oracle of Habakkak has never been more alive with meaning than it is today:


O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous–
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.


And yet, in every single one, there is the Image of God. A surprise! Will you find generosity, kindness, a holiness of life you never expected? Are you willing to be surprised?


The story of Zacchaeus reminds us that we are complex and complicated creatures. Zacchaeus was a Roman collaborator on one hand, and a faithful Jew on the other. And if we pretend that our own lives aren’t at least as mixed up as his then we really are blind.


Look within, to the temple that is your own heart. You are likely to find two people in there:  A sinner and a saint. As we saw last week, the sinner and the saint both cooperate with grace to burnish the image of God in each one of us. We need both, just as we need one another, and Zacchaeus. And, yes, the “others” too.

Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China.


Image: from Pinterest


Some Notes of Possible Interest


You also may think, “Well, that’s not how it happened.” But, you might be surprised. The writer used present tense for the verbs “I give” and “I return.” Some Bible scholars go ahead and say that they should be understood to be future oriented, “I will…” do these things. But, others agree with our reading which is that Zacchaeus was already doing these things. It was his standard practice to give away half of what he earned and to make restitution as described. If big, important Bible scholars can’t agree about it, then I am not going to be hard-headed about it one way or the other, but this is one good and true way to read it. 


Sycamore trees were common at the time. Known for their big leaves they were often planted alongside the roadway for shade. You can read more about Sycamore trees here and here.


By climbing the Sycamore tree, Zacchaeus, the “small man,” made himself like “these little ones” in Luke 9:48. Thus, by disregarding the dignity of his office and climbing a tree, Zacchaeus actually became the greatest one there! The writer used a really generic word for “small.” Mikros, in Greek. It can mean a short distance; a short period of time; it can be an amount, like “a little leven…,” it can refer to height, like it does here; or even to size, as in the tongue is the smallest member. So, it’s an easy connection between this “small man” and “these little ones.” 


Luke 9:48… Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.


You can read more about Jericho here:
Johnson, S. E. (1989). Jesus and his towns (Vol. 29, Good news Studies). Wilmington, DE: M. Glazier. Chapter 11 — One item of note, in case you decide not to read the book, is that balsam resin was produced and exported from Jericho. So, that would have meant a lot of taxes. Zacchaeus may very well have been able to become a rich man without resorting to corruption. 


Luke 8:31… Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.
Luke 18:35… And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging:


Joshua 6:26… And Joshua adjured them at that time, saying, Cursed be the man before the LORD, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it.

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I know I’m a contrarian. But, I see the importance of the story being on who sees Jesus, not who sees Zacchaeus. [Everyone is Zacchaeus before they accept Christ, no better, no worse. ]

To me, Zacchaeus is best defined as the man who ‘ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree’ to get a superior view of Jesus.

It was in that moment of humility of running & then climbing the tree, that God gave Zacchaeus ‘eyes to see’, no longer blind, he was Born Again.

To me its meaningful that, the corrupt rich man climbed the Sycamore Fig tree (known as a humble food, that only poor people cultivated because the labor was too difficult.)

I don’t see Mr Z as being honest, generous or a faithful Jew. [Would a faithful Jew be a chief tax collector that extorted from his own people?]

It was his repentance & believing in Jesus, that moved him to right his wrongs, and help the poor and repay 4x all those he had cheated.

In Hebrew, ‘Zecchaeus’ means, ‘pure, innocent’.

Ann Fontaine

All very well but the words in Greek do not support that he changed his ways — but that he was already doing those things. Did he stop being tax collector – does not say. I think it is more a story of the complicated nature of life and how we are all complicit and are never totally pure.

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