I used to wish I were tall. All the other children were bigger. They were stronger. . .faster. I was a shrimp and it used to bother me. I used to lie in my bed at night wishing I was the biggest kid in town. Then nobody would push me around. None of the other children could beat me up. None of them would ever call me names. None of them would ever give me any trouble again. Yeah, I wanted to be tall, but…
As time went along, of course, I stopped worrying about it too much. As we get older, we learn to stop being concerned about things over which we have no control. Anyway, whenever those old dreams about being tall would cross my mind, I would just content myself with thinking, ” It doesn’t matter. When I sit on top of my money, I am the tallest one in Jericho. Ha!”
Yes, I do have some money. I admit that it all might not have been obtained in the most honest way. But we tax collectors don’t make our living by being particularly conscientious. And I know that is at least part of the reason that people have hated me, they say I got my money dishonestly. Well… perhaps yes, perhaps no. But they know how it works. If tax collectors took only what was due for the emperor, we would have nothing for ourselves. I sometimes wonder whether these people of Israel would rather have a Roman coming around for the empire’s portion rather than one of their own, another Jew. At least another Jew is going to have some feeling for our people, a Roman would have none!
I have to admit that I probably went into this tax-collecting business for more than just the money. In a way, I probably wanted to get back at some of my neighbors, the ones who bullied me when I was growing up. If I had been a little taller back then, they might have left me alone. But I wasn’t and they didn’t, so when I got old enough to choose a career, tax collecting didn’t seem like such a bad thing, I could make a lot of money and stick it to the people who were mean to me. I didn’t have to worry about how tall or short I was because if they gave me any trouble, I could call the Roman authorities. Short doesn’t matter if you have tall protectors.
Of course, outside of tax collecting, being short still matters sometimes. It mattered this morning. There was this incredible teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, coming through town. Now, I admit I’m not the most religious person, far from it actually. But I was curious about this rabbi. I had heard of some tremendous things he had done. .. Healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk. Who wouldn’t want to know about someone like that? I wanted to see him.
Apparently, half of the people in Jericho felt the same way as I did, and they were all gathered on the road waiting for this Jesus to pass by. That was when being short mattered again. I couldn’t see above the crowd. No one would let me through to the front. And when they saw who it was that was trying to get past, they crowded all the closer.
Finally, I got fed up. There was no way I could fight the mob, and if I had stayed where I was, I would have seen nothing. So, I went down the road a little and climbed up a tree alongside the road. It had been years since I had climbed a tree. I’m probably lucky that I didn’t fall and break my neck. But I perched myself up there and thought, “Ha, I’m the tallest man in Jericho now.”
It wasn’t long before Jesus came. He was surrounded by a mob, folks crowding in, hanging on his every word. I really couldn’t hear him very well until Jesus and the crowd got right near me and the sycamore tree. What happen next, I will never be able to explain if I live to be older than Methusaleh. As the group made their way under the tree, Jesus stopped. He looked at me and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I am coming to your house today. (Luke 19:5)
I could hardly believe my ears. He knew my name. Who would have told him? And why is he coming to my house? The house of a tax collector? Someone so hated by everyone that they wouldn’t even let me get a glimpse of him until I climbed that tree? Jesus was coming home with me? Incredible!
Within a short time, we had arrived at my home. My mind was still reeling at the fact that this famous stranger had invited himself to my house. We made our way through the open courtyard and came into the house, leaving the heat of the crowd and the midday desert sun behind us. The servants had already heard we were coming because word went around Jericho like wildfire that Jesus was coming home with that rotten little Zacchaeus. But at a moment like that, I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. It didn’t make any difference; I was about to eat dinner with Jesus and somehow that seemed to make everything in my life all right.
As we ate and talked together, it soon was apparent to me that there was nothing I could hide from this man. He knew me, inside and out, seemingly better than I even knew myself. I wondered why he would want to spend time with me, but he said something to me that I didn’t understand at first, but now that I have had time to reflect on it. I think I know what he meant. He said, “The Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).
Here’s what happened. By the time our meal was over, I was convinced that I had been wrong in what I had been doing for all these years. Not the tax collecting, because somebody has to do that. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a tax collector. No, what I had done wrong was to seriously overcharge people, to cheat them for my own gain. It was stealing and our Jewish commandment says “Thou shalt not steal.” So I stood up and told him I would make restitution. I would return all the money I had taken illegally and pay a 300% interest penalty. I also realized that I could and should do more to help those in Jericho who were less fortunate that I, so I said I would give half my goods to the poor. I had plenty. I could afford it. Then I sat down.
There was a kind of stunned speechlessness in the room. Everyone looked at me. Here was that old thief Zacchaeus saying something that was so incredibly out of character that no one could react in any way other than astonished silence. I really felt good about myself at that moment. . Better that I had in years. It was almost as if a great weight had been lifted from me. I had done something actually good and without even being forced. Jesus didn’t make me do what I did. But somehow, just eating with him made me want to do right. That’s when he said what he did. . .about seeking and saving the lost.
I was lost…lost in my own interests, my own greed, my own self-pity. Then down the dusty road came Jesus. He looked up at me on that sycamore branch and invited me to dinner with him. Suddenly, little lost Zacchaeus had been found and I will never be little or lost again.
Note: This monologue was adapted from Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit by Davin Leininger. It first appeared in Storyshare, an internet preaching service of CSS Publishing.