The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one, Jesus is coming to town and Zacchaeus wants to catch a glimpse, but he’s too short to see over the crowd and the people don’t move to let him in front, so he does the best he can: he climbs a tree to get above the crowd. We’re the same, when a dignitary comes to town everyone rushes down to watch the parade, if we don’t get a front-row seat then we do what we can to see. We put out kids on our shoulders; we shove our cellphones in the air to, hopefully, record the event; we try to get into a high rise and peek through a hall window. Anything to get a view of this remarkable person or event.
But, what about Zacchaeus’ status in the community? To be honest, this is going to be some conjecture using modern society when looking back, kind of the opposite of what I try to do here, but I think it bears scrutiny.
Luke’s gospel is the only place where Zacchaeus is introduced, and most churches spend little time on his tale. The Eastern church puts it at the very beginning of the pre-Lenten season, in fact, if the season is shortened because of the proximity to Christmas, the story is dropped entirely. Luke tells us three things about Zacchaeus, that he is a tax collector, that he is very wealthy, and that he is “short in stature”.
To be a tax collector (a Publican) in ancient Rome you had to be wealthy, very wealth. The reason is that the tax collector would buy the right to collect taxes for a particular region, the cost of this right is the estimated value of those taxes. If he collected more than the estimate that was his profit, if he collected less then it was his loss. Rome didn’t care because they go their money upfront, so the empire was assured of the money it wanted. To be sure, this was no the Jericho of OT times, that city had been nearly destroyed by the Persians, the new Jericho was built in the pre-Herodian era, under the rule of Alexander the Great, as a lush garden outside the royal estates. The people who lived there were neither wealthy nor influential, but they serviced the needs of those who lived and visited the estates. That made tax collection difficult, Rome expected much, but the people had little. To get the money Zacchaeus spent for his position he probably had to tax the wealthy of the city more than their fair share to make up for those who didn’t, or couldn’t, pay the tax. Add to that the Jewish people weren’t thrilled with the idea of paying Roman taxes at all, and Zacchaeus was both unpopular and ostracized from the Jewish community.
Now, let’s add to this the other thing that Luke tells us: “(RSV) he was small of stature”. According to archeological studied of 1st C skeletons in the region the average Jewish person was about 5′ 1″, to be so short that it would be worth noting in the story it is entirely possible he would be considered either a dwarf or a little person by today’s standards. This would make his life difficult, both physically and emotionally. Anyone who falls outside the “norms” are usually treated poorly by the “normal” people, especially in their youth (kids can be especially cruel).
To have grown up with some anger towards those who made his life miserable would not be unexpected, and to seek revenge in some way would be understandable. The best way for him to do this would have been through the taxation system by exaggerating the taxes a person owed. Did he do this? The people certainly thought so with their remark, “(RSV) He (Jesus) has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner (Zacchaeus).” Zacchaeus’ response can be seen two ways, a promised atonement of a wrong knowingly committed, or a claim that he never, intentionally, defrauded anyone and was, in fact, a good Jew, “(RSV) “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
Lent is a time for reflection, and the entire pre-Lenten season in the Eastern church is a time to prepare for that reflection by showing us the different ways in which we fall short of a perfect Christian life, along with how we should, ideally, respond in different situations. Zacchaeus, the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, the Final Judgement, and Forgiveness, form the five weeks prior to the start of Great Lent. The purpose of Zacchaeus is to show us how we treat and judge other people, especially those who are different than us, whether in appearance or perceived behavior. Do we prejudge people we see/meet for the first time? Are we guilty of bullying (physically, emotionally, or, these days, on social media)? Do we dislike/hate others because of what we perceive them to be? Have we wronged anyone through our own prejudices? This is the time to make things right.