Jericho, queen city of the Plain of Jordon, “place of fragrance” abundant with lush foliage and vast groves of palm trees. Jericho, gateway to Western Palestine, powerful center of regional trade, a city bustling with economic and cultural vitality. It’s strong walls, built and rebuilt over the centuries, now reinforced by proud Roman garrisons, gave security to the wealthy and powerful whose homes bejeweled its skyline. Notable among its structures was the large, venerable-looking square tower known as the House of Zacchaeus. There was good money to be made under the Roman occupation. Like in any town that hosts a military installation, there is food to sell, horses to shoe, laundry to do, entertainment to provide. The stigma of “giving comfort to the enemy” was more than compensated for by the profits one could make at the Romans’ expense. Nearly everyone in the Jewish community could rationalize this arrangement. But there was one job that no self-respecting Jew would ever touch — tax collecting! Publicanus, the Romans called it. It was a highly desired profession among Roman occupiers since a percentage of revenues was kept as a collection fee as well as the much larger bonus — “penalties and interest” which were set at the publican’s discretion. On occasion Jews applied for the position, Jews whose greed out-weighed their self-respect and ethnic loyalty. Zacchaeus was such a person.
Zacchaeus may have been a social pariah to his fellow Jews but at a secret level one had to admire his shrewdness. Not only had he gained access to the inside ranks of Roman government, he had successfully worked his way up to the position of “chief” of all tax-collectors in the region. It was an enviable position if one could endure segregation from Jewish society, if one could derive enough comfort from his material possessions and the servants whose loyalty he could buy.
The buzz all morning in the Jericho streets was that a Galilean teacher some claimed to be the Messiah was on his way to the city en route to Jerusalem. He had done all sorts of miracles, even raised a couple people from the dead, it was rumored. No telling what he might do as he passed through town. No one wanted to miss seeing a miracle performed. The crowds jammed the streets ahead of the teacher as he entered the city. Zacchaeus could see the commotion from the vantage point of his towering home but was too far removed to get a good look at the teacher. Like every other Jew, he had been indoctrinated from earliest childhood in the prophesies of a deliverer coming to re-establish an independent Israel. Over long years of isolated living, Zacchaeus had constructed his own fantasies of the role he could play in a new Jewish state. As an insider in the Roman system he had intelligence that would be quite useful to an insurgent government. His resources, which were substantial, could make him a very valuable player in a new Jewish establishment. Overnight his public image could morph from “despised” to “revered”, if he played his cards right. Stupid musings, he chided himself. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to get a closer look at this newest, brightest rising star.
There was no hope of pushing his way through the crowds for a view — too much risk for a little man like himself to get trampled under hostile feet. But perhaps, if he could beat the throngs to the intersection where his street met the main thoroughfare, he could position himself in a mature sycamore, have both a good view of the teacher and relative safety from the crowds. It was worth the risk, he told himself.
The plan worked well but not quite as Zacchaeus had imagined. His view turned out to be perfect. The teacher passed right under his perch. Not a very messianic-appearing figure, Zacchaeus thought to himself as he studied the young Galilean. And then the unimaginable happened! The teacher looked up, stopped dead in his tracks, caught Zacchaeus’ eye, and called out his name. The teacher knew his name! How could this be? As if this wasn’t astounding enough, the teacher asked him to come down from his perch and, and this you won’t believe, asked if he could spend the day with him at his home. A Jew, a rabbi, possibly even the messiah, inviting himself into the home of a publican! Scandalous! Euphoric!
It was a day Zacchaeus would never get over. It was absolutely life-changing. The teacher seemed oblivious to the muttering criticism that emerged from the crowd as the two headed for the fine, ill-gotten house on the hill. What a price the young teacher was paying to associate with a publicanus! Most of what transpired in that house that day has been lost from history. What we do know is that Zacchaeus was affirmed by the teacher as a “son of Abraham” (what gracious generosity!) and that he had an amazing change of heart. He made a commitment to repay fourfold restitution to all those he had defrauded, and then became the city’s leading philanthropist. There is no record of what became of his tax business but what we do know from the archives of the Clementine Homilies is that a Zacchaeus became a close companion of Peter and was eventually appointed bishop of Caesarea. What unpredictable twists and turns unfold in this Kingdom the Teacher introduced! Still.
PS: As Jesus left Jericho later that day he healed two blind men. The crowds finally got what they came for.