11 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 2)

Just down the road, not far inside the gates of Jericho itself, another surprise awaited us. Suddenly, for no reason that any of us could think of, the Lord stopped again. We were under a huge sycomore-fig tree which had obviously stood in its place for many long years. He just stood there, staring up into its vast, spreading branches. It was far too early in the season for there to be any fruit on it, so what was the point of looking for any? Then we began to see what he saw. There was one branch of the tree where all the leaves were shaking. When we peered in a little harder, we could just make out someone sitting in the crook, just where the branch joined the trunk. It was a grown man!

“Zacchæus,” the Lord said to him. (To this day I can’t figure out how he ever knew his name.) “Zacchæus, come down from there right now. I’m planning to spend the afternoon at your house.”

You should have seen the way the little man managed to make his way down the thick trunk and onto the ground. “It would be an honour, sir,” he said, bowing low before the Lord and dusting the bits of leaf and bark off his clothes. “Let me lead the way.”

Around me I could hear mutterings of discontent. This Zacchæus, it seemed, was the local tax collector. He had made most of his wealth by soaking the local people for all they were worth in the name of Rome and then keeping most for himself. If it were not for his squad of Roman guards (or should I say goons?) his life would not have been worth a denarius. What, they asked, was Jesus doing with this turncoat, with this oppressor of the Jewish people? They had heard that he always stood up for common folk. I must admit I shared in their puzzlement and was kind of disappointed that Jesus did not at least take time to explain his interest in this tax collector.

It did not take us long to reach Zacchæus’ house. There we were all treated to a feast fit for a king. From the other end of the table I could see that the Lord had engaged our host in an animated exchange. Over the happy roar of all the other conversations in the room I was unable to catch more than the occasional word or two. Yet I could see on Zacchæus’ face alternating expressions of annoyance, surprise and finally what could not be mistaken for anything but pure, inexpressible joy.

In a moment he was clapping his pudgy little hands. “Quiet, everybody. Quiet, please! I have an announcement to make…” He said some words about what a deeply lonely unhappy a man he had been and about how he had learned what little satisfaction was to be found in money. Then he turned to Jesus and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

You could literally feel the hush that followed. It filled the room. No one knew what to say. People just stared at one another in amazement. It was the Lord himself who broke the silence. “Today,” he said, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a child of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to sake and to save what was lost.”

To seek and to save what was lost. That was why he had come. And what we learned that afternoon was that it was just as possible to be rich and lost as it was to be poor and lost. Whether you were a blind beggar sitting by the roadside or the owner of a mountain of cash or somewhere in between, we all need what Jesus came to bring. We had seen it with our own eyes, seen people totally changed, and nothing gives me more joy than to talk about it.

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