Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man
Every night it was the same.
The man reclined at an empty table, leaning in to reach his earnings from the day. That’s what he called them anyway. The people who paid him, they called the piles of dull coins he amassed something else.
He dropped three into a worn pouch and slipped it back under his belt. He didn’t like to be caught short if he needed provisions on his day trips. Zacchaeus glanced up to see light from dying embers playing on the polished bellies of the spice jars that lined shelves around the room, imported from all around the East.
He made sure the window shutters were closed, then lifted a board from the floor under his chair and removed a smooth wooden box. He wiped the dirt from the top, opened the case and slid the larger pile into his savings cache, the clinking of metal against metal echoing hollow in his empty room.
He stared a while at the third pile, fingering a silver coin. This stack was smaller. Exactly one-tenth of the day’s total. With a sigh, he gulped down the last of the wine from his goblet and and stepped away from the table. Zacchaeus climbed on a stool, opened a cupboard and pulled out a large sack. He dropped the coins in, one by one, and put the pouch away, leaning his forehead onto the closed door.
Why did he bother setting these aside? The priests at the temple never accepted his portion. They called his tithe unclean, just like him, closing their hands and lips tight and looking off into the distance whenever he approached.
He went back to the fire and fumbled around for the needle and thread, cursing the tailor as he took up the hem on his one-size-fits-all robe.
A Wee Little Man Was He
There were sinners — the folks who did all the things that the righteous folks only fantasized about. And there were prostitutes — the ones who sold themselves to the highest bidder.
But then there were tax collectors.
They were the ones who sold the people to Rome.
They were worse than collaborators. They not only took from the people to feed Caesar’s insatiable appetite for empire, but they took a little extra from every hard-working household for themselves. They wore the heavy boots of Rome to step on the Hebrew’s head, then ground the leather sole just above the ear to crush his skull.
Rome didn’t pay the publican to steal from the Jew. The Jew had to pay to be pillaged, it seemed.
The observation that Zacchaeus was “small in stature” far outstretched his diminutive physique. His wealth should have cast him among society’s elite, yet he remained smallest of the small, spent his nights alone, with no one daring to share in his tainted spoils.
Among the publicans, he was the chief. The highest among lowest.
He Climbed Up in a Sycamore Tree
What caught his imagination, though, were the accusations.
The Man, he brushed up against the fringe folk.
The unclean, outcast, despised.
He had no disease needing healing, no friends to raise from death. He had plenty to eat all by himself. But yet this was a Man he had to meet. This was a Man who was not afraid of getting Unclean all over him.
When he heard the Rabbi was coming through town, he rushed to the street to see him. Smaller than the crowd in every possible way, he shimmied up the sycamore, the only thing he could think of to get past the bustling mass of bigger people. If he could get even a glimpse of a Man who would look back at him as a man.
The Lord He Wanted to See
Zacchaeus saw the Rabbi.
And as he passed the sycamore tree, the Rabbi saw Zacchaeus.
Today is my day to be a guest in your home, he said.* Not in the tree, but in your home. Where you live.
The Man of Sorrows and Jericho’s chief crook and scumbag walked off together, leaving a grumbling religious elite to rub together clean, but empty, hands.
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Photo: one of the last leaves of autumn in NE South Dakota, not from a sycamore tree. Scripture text from The Message*, Luke 19:5