When you travel with the Teacher you get used to crowds. Most people think that it is just thirteen of us wandering around. Most of the time there are at least 150 in our group. I remember when the Teacher sent out seventy people at once, and there was still a crowd around him. If it weren’t for the Teacher healing people, some towns would probably drive us off. There are even villages whose populations double when we walk into town. It is not unusual for us to walk into a town and people are lining the street. OK, in a town as big as Capernaum that might be “streets,” but in most towns it is singular, “street.”
The last time we went through Jericho the crowds were unusually heavy. People were on the rooftops and looking out of upper windows. The street was crowded. It was almost as if they knew this might be the last time they would get to see the Teacher. Or maybe everybody was in town anyway to prepare for the holiday that was coming up in a week.
Suddenly the Teacher stopped and went up to a mulberry tree. This wasn’t unusual. Sometimes he might talk to some of the boys that climbed trees along the way. I did think it a bit strange when he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down here right now.” He didn’t usually scold boys for climbing the trees to see him.
Then I saw who was coming out of the tree. It was a little, old man. Well, old may be stretching it a bit. But when you expect to see a teenager, this guy was old. Little wasn’t stretching it at all. In fact, he looked like he could use some stretching. He was no taller than a long drink of water. No wonder he had climbed a tree. He couldn’t see over the crowd. And this crowd was certainly not willingly going to let him get in front. I thought Matthew was a snappy dresser, but this guy’s outfit made Matthew look poor. He was obviously a tax collector. He had money, and this crowd hated him for it. Of course, this crowd would have hated any tax collector, no matter how he was dressed. So it was even more unusual to hear the Teacher tell him, “I have to eat at your house today.” It wasn’t unusual for the teacher to associate with tax collectors. It was just strange for him to tell a complete stranger that he had an appointment with him. But the Teacher could be like that.
Whenever we enter a town, the leaders of the synagogue and the town tended to walk near the Teacher. Perhaps they were trying to look like they were part of his entourage. Mostly, I think, they were trying to catch him in something he said. When they heard that he was going to Zacchaeus’ house, they said, supposedly to themselves but loud enough to be heard by the crowd, “This man goes to be a guest with a man that is a sinner.”
Before the Teacher could say anything, Zacchaeus looked at him and spoke loudly enough for the leaders of the synagogue to hear. “Teacher, if you check my records you will find that half of what I earn I give to the poor every year. Anyone here can tell you that whatever I have taken by false accusation, that I have restored fourfold. And that has not happened very often.” He seemed barely able to restrain himself from adding, “And they call me a sinner?”
The Teacher then said something that proved to be prophetic. “This day salvation has come to your house.” I can’t guarantee that he was calling himself salvation, but in the light of the events of the following week and a half, he could have been doing so. As if in answer to Zacchaeus’ unspoken barb, the Teacher added, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and save those who are lost.” Several times in the previous couple of years he had said it more sarcastically; “The righteous don’t need a savior.”
The Teacher went on to speak of God’s kingdom. Then we went and ate with Zacchaeus. I haven’t eaten that well in a couple of years. I was sure glad he stopped under that tree.
(Based on Luke 19)