What do the following men all have in common? Napoleon Boneparte, Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army, Charlie Chaplin, Attila the Hun & Ghandi. Maybe this joke will help if you haven’t got it …
Short people: We maintain a positive attitude on life because we’re always looking up.
Yep. You guessed it. They’re all short. Very short. Folk say that sometimes short men have an attitude problem. It’s as though they have something to prove.
I wonder if that’s what was with Zaccheus. You can read his story in Luke 19. He was, as the old Sunday School song puts it ‘a very little man’. And it’s true that I’ve known plenty of short men with a bit of a chip on their shoulders, something to prove. It might be that that is why Zachary was a tax collector. When you’re thinking about a tax collector in bible times, you really need to abandon all ideas of respectability, of a nice little office, a desk job and a comfortable living. Jewish people in Jesus’ time paid their taxes in two ways. If you owned land you’d pay the land tax through local officials, usually through a percentage of your expected crop yield. Not always easy as you had to pay the tax in advance, and you might be in trouble if there was a poor year
Then there was the other kind of tax, collected by the tax ‘farmers’. These were licensed goons who stopped merchants on the highways and byways, inspected their cargo and took a cut. They paid their Roman overlords for the privilege of this role and could basically ‘charge’ whatever they decided was fair. Think more state-sponsored highwayman than VAT inspector. And Zaccheus? Well, he was the highwayman type of tax man. In fact, he was the chief highwayman for the area for the city of Jericho, an important oasis in the desert that saw a lot of trade going through.
So it’s not surprising that he wasn’t very popular with the local people. We might think we’d let a short person through the crowd, to the front, if there was a celebrity coming to town. But what if there short person were a thieving bully who was in league with an occupying army? It’s not really surprising that Zaccheus had to shin up a tree to get a reasonable view of Jesus.
I wonder why Zac was a tax farmer? Did he struggle because he was short? Did he already have the feeling of being an outsider and someone for whom life was a struggle … and so taxing people was a way of getting his own back? Or was the rejection just because of the job? I guess we will never know, but it was clear that the people hated him.
Some in the crowd doubtless had an idea that Jesus was coming to free the people from the tyranny of the roman invaders, so when Jesus stopped and ate with this collaborator you can almost feel the shock of the crowd. Here, once again, Jesus does the unexpected. He breaks with convention, breaks with respectability, and honours the little man that everyone loathes.
And the encounter changes Zaccheus. We don’t know the conversation that Jesus had with him. Did he challenge the extortion of his trade? Did he reveal some deep insight into Zac’s hurt and insecurity? We aren’t told. Maybe it wasn’t even the words. Maybe it was just Jesus honouring Zac by coming to his house, accepting his hospitality. In that one act, Jesus is saying, yes you are worth getting to know, you are worth spending time with. You are not a waste of space, beyond redemption. In the very fact of encounter Jesus brings a connection which shows this vagabond that he is loved with a totally undeserved grace. The effect on this damaged man, this cracked pot, is astounding.
Zaccheus promises to pay back four times what he has stolen. This may seem generous, but here he is just keeping in line with the Old Testament law. That what the book of Exodus says you should do. But the really radical, really generous thing he says is to give away half of all he owes to the poor. It does make one wonder if Jesus had challenged him in the day way as he did the rich young ruler. Here, Jesus proclaims that salvation has come. Not because Zaccheus prayed a prayer or made a pledge. Not because he performed some religious ritual. But because he changed direction. And what a change it was! This cracked pot, a little man with a big problem was loved and accepted and changed by meeting with Jesus Christ. And many of us have that experience too. Meeting Jesus makes all the difference… to everything.
Tradition has it that Zaccheus became the first bishop of the town of Caesarea Maritime, a seaside city port in the north of Israel … the place where the gospel was first preached to non-Jews. How great that this outsider was able to identify so closely with others who were at first unusual outsiders.
And how great that the gospel is for those who don’t fit it. Those with an attitude problem or a godless lifestyle. If salvation can come to Zaccheus it can come to any of us. By God’s Grace there is nobody so cracked that Jesus cannot change our lives around, even today.
This is a part of the Cracked Pots series of blogs.