as retold by Tanja Cilia
It was a cool, crisp, spring morning in Jericho; a beautiful town that lay in the valley of the River Jordan, right between the river and the hills. There was a smell of baking in the air as the women made bread for breakfast, and everyone else was yawning, stretching, and getting out of bed.
“I’m so excited!” said Zacchaeus to himself. He knew that on that very special day, Jesus, the person they called The Prophet of Nazareth, was going to pass through his town on His way to Jerusalem. “He must be a special person, to have so many followers leave everything and follow him!”
Zacchaeus, whose name means “pure, clean, just, and righteous,” was very, very short. He realized that in order to be able to see Jesus, he had to leave his house early; otherwise with people standing in front of him would block his view. So he had some breakfast and put on his best clothes, an expensive cloak and new leather sandals. Zacchaeus was a rich man, so he could afford the best of everything. He had the best house in the street and ate the best food that money could buy. But Zacchaeus did not have many friends. This is because he worked for the Romans, and the Jews did not like either the Romans or the people who worked for them.
Jericho was a very important town, because anyone who wanted to go to the Big City had to pass through it. So people like Zacchaeus, who worked for the Romans, made a lot of money. They were called publicans. They collected the tax from everyone who used the toll gates and the people who lived in Jericho, but they also asked for more money than they were supposed to, and kept it for themselves. Zacchaeus loved his money, and the more he collected, the better he felt. Sometimes he minded that his fellow Jews did not really like him, but at other times he was not worried at all — just as long as he had money to buy all the things he wanted.
Like everybody else, he had heard about Jesus the Galilean, and what a good man He was. But there was something else that made him curious. He had heard that Matthew, one of the disciples of Jesus, was a publican like himself. He wondered how it was possible for a rich man to be a disciple of someone who didn’t even have a house of his own, and who owned only the clothes on his back. “How could a publican live without money, and lots of it?” he wondered.
He kept asking himself questions like this as he huffed and puffed and bustled his way towards the main road, where Jesus was going to pass.
“Oh! Bother!” he exclaimed, as he saw the crowds that had already gathered. Even though he was an important man – or so he thought – nobody would be willing to give up his position at the edge of the street to let him stand in front. And Zacchaeus knew that he was too short to catch a glimpse of Jesus from the back of the crowd, even if he stood on tip-toes. He did not want to ask people who lived along the main roads for permission to look out of their windows – he was sure they would not let him do so. His heart filled with sadness, he nearly returned home. But then he thought of something.
“I have a brilliant idea!” he exclaimed, as he struck his forehead. “I know what I’ll do; I will climb a tree and see Him from there. I will see what all the fuss is about! So the short man bunched up his robe and his cloak, not even minding that he was creasing the expensive fabric. He started climbing up a sycamore tree and the people looked at him and laughed, passing silly comments about him. Now the sycamore tree is a big tree, and at the time it was a very important tree because the poor people used to gather its fruit and eat it. Some people even used to boil the leaves and eat them like we would eat lettuce or cabbages. Poor Zacchaeus! He snagged his clothes on the branches of the tree as he climbed, and scratched his arms and legs on the twigs as he struggled to find a comfortable perch.
“He’s coming!” exclaimed Zacchaeus, when he heard an excited babble of voices and saw people’s heads turning. And indeed, Jesus and His followers were walking slowly along the street, talking amongst themselves. Although he had never seen Him before, Zacchaeus could immediately make out which one of them was Jesus. Although He was dressed in a simple robe like all the others, He had regal dignity and bearing, like a King.
Suddenly Zacchaeus wanted to reach out and touch Jesus, and to follow him like all the others were doing. But that would mean giving up all his money and his lovely house and all his things, and Zacchaeus did not want to do that. His mind and his heart were telling him different things, and he was feeling so mixed up!
Jesus reached the sycamore tree where Zacchaeus was hiding between the branches. He stopped. “What’s happening?” people began asking one another. “Is the Master tired? Does he want to sit down? Does he want a drink of water? Shall we fetch him something to eat?”
Jesus stood right beneath the branch where Zacchaeus was, and looked up. He said “Zacchaeus, come down! I want to eat at your house today!”
Zacchaeus gulped, and nearly fell out of the tree in his excitement. “He knows my name! How can this be?” he wondered, and almost slid down the branches in his hurry to get closer to Jesus.
Some of the people were angry when this happened, because they thought that Jesus should not go into the house of someone who worked for the Romans. They muttered nasty things about Zacchaeus, and said that he did not deserve to have Jesus as his guest. They all thought he was a bad man because he stole money from others. Many other people grumbled because they thought they deserved to have Jesus in their house more than Zacchaeus did. But Jesus did not judge, accuse or criticize Zacchaeus. He just invited himself over for lunch.
Zacchaeus felt special. He had been singled out by Jesus from the hundreds of people present. He bustled along the street, holding his head up high with Jesus by his side. But he had heard the grumblings of his neighbors and a new thought came to him. Suddenly, Zacchaeus was sure of what he had to do. He turned to Jesus, and in front of all the people, he said to Him “Lord, right now I am promising you that I am going to give half of my belongings to the poor. But that’s not all. If I have cheated anyone by taking more taxes that I ought to have done, I will give them back four times as much as I took extra from them. I promise you this, Jesus.”
Jesus smiled calmly as the crowd fell silent, and said “Salvation has come into this house today, because Zacchaeus is also a son of Abraham. And because the Son of Man came to look for the lost, and to save them.”