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Standing Tallby Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Of course, some people didn't approve of the way Zacchaeus raked in his money. The tiny entrepreneur was a small but increasingly important cog in a great revenue machine that channeled money from the far-flung provinces of the empire into the coffers of Rome. He had started as a common tax collector. He had been given a certain area from which he was obligated to bring in a specific amount of tax money each year. And he had worked hard for his money. Farmers and fishermen didn't part with their money easily.
The little man would have to prod and plead, threaten and cajole. He would declare an outrageous value on some personal property only to bring it down a bit when he saw enough fear and anger in the client's eyes. Yes, he had worked hard. But the beauty of the system was that whatever money he could bring in over his allotted quota was his to keep. And money helped this small man live somewhat larger than life.
Power helped, too. The threat of Roman soldiers breaking in and confiscating a merchant's entire stock had won many an argument. And a few years ago he had been promoted. As chief tax collector for the district, he had several collectors working under him now. They would skim the money from their clients, he would skim the profits from his subordinates, and the rest-- always right at the precise quota amount--would find its way up the chain to the Roman governor, and from him to Rome itself. Power elevated the little man.
Of course, power had its price. "Dirty Roman traitor," people would whisper as he scurried through the narrow streets of Jericho. Rotten vegetables would splatter his robe as he turned into a doorway. Long ago the synagogue had formally excommunicated him. No self-respecting person would enter his door.
But money and power did buy wonderful parties. His guests would be some of the other "sinners" in the area, of course, but "You're a force to be reckoned with," he would tell himself. "You're a big man about town."
For such a big man about town, it was strange the excitement that possessed Zacchaeus when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was headed into Jericho this dusty, summer afternoon. No matter that he had figures to check and money to count. He must catch a glimpse of this itinerant preacher who had caused such a stir up and down Palestine.
People raced past him to the edge of town to welcome the Master, but Zacchaeus took this opportunity to climb unnoticed into a large, spreading sycamore-fig tree that shaded the main street. His shoulders ached as he pulled himself onto a branch, but he didn't notice. He could see Jesus at the end of the street now, mobbed by hundreds of townspeople, clouds of dust rising as the multitude came closer.
When the throng had nearly reached Zacchaeus' vantage spot, the Master stopped dead in his tracks. Zacchaeus chuckled as distracted followers ran into each other behind Jesus, one after another, until the whole crowd stood still. Maybe I'll get to hear him teach, thought the little man.
Then Jesus' head turned upward until his eyes met Zacchaeus' eyes. And the eyes of each person in the crowd looked up, too. Jesus smiled a peculiar, won't-this-be-fun smile, and spoke quietly above the hush of the crowd.
"Zacchaeus," he began. How does he know my name? thought Zacchaeus, turning red all over. How does he know me?
"Zacchaeus," the Master continued, "come down right away. I just have to stay at your house today."
Zacchaeus almost fell out of the tree. His house? Of course! Jesus would be impressed with his house. But then the little man's stomach knotted up within him. Jesus was a holy man. He was a sinner. How could Jesus come to his house. Didn't he know?
Jesus did know. He could hear people in the crowd mumbling, "He's going to the house of a sinner," but Jesus just smiled again, and motioned him down. He does want to talk to me. He knows my name. It doesn't matter what people say, Jesus cares about me.
By the time Zacchaeus reached the ground, tears of joy had begun to flow down his cheeks. The crowd had parted a bit, and he darted to where Jesus stood, falling on his knees at Jesus' feet. He felt a warm hand on his shoulder after a moment, and an arm helping him up. He thought he could see the trace of a tear in Jesus' eyes, too.
He stood up. "Lord," he began, "here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor." It just poured out of Zacchaeus. People gasped in disbelief. Skinflint Zacchaeus? But Zacchaeus wasn't finished. "And if I've cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."
"He means it!" muttered one man who was close enough to see it all. "He'll do it!"
The crowd began murmuring as the news of Zacchaeus' words were passed person to person from the center out to the edge of the crowd. Few people were able to hear Jesus' words as he hugged the little man. "Today salvation has come to this house," he said joyfully, "because this man, too, is a son of Abraham."
At those words Zacchaeus pulled himself up to full height and beamed. A son of Abraham! The Master himself had said it. I am a son of Abraham!
Jesus looked around to the bewildered crowd and spoke with such conviction and force that it seemed as if he were trying to distill his entire life's purpose in a single sentence: "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."
"I swear," said one of the disciples, watching Zacchaeus half-walk, half-dance beside Jesus as they made their way to the tax collector's home. "I swear, he doesn't look so little, so wizened up after all." He scratched his beard. "He looks taller somehow."
And to tell the truth, Zacchaeus felt ten feet tall.
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