The King James Version of the bible has many faults. But the one I enjoyed most, as a small boy, was the direct translation from Latin of the tax-collector as a publican. The mental image of some poor bartender polishing glasses up a tree amused me no end.
But the Latin word ‘publicani’ meant either to be contractor of public works or farmer of the Roman taxes. This confirmed that Zacchaeus was sub-contracted to collect customs duties and other taxes in his neighbourhood.
Now history tells us that he would have won this lucrative franchise from the Roman authorities at auction. Once that was done, he only had to collect dues at least to value of his up-front payment. In essence, his purchase price was treated as a loan to the Romans.
However, the danger was that the taxes collected would be less than had already been paid out. So, these collectors weren’t inclined to leniency. More to the point, anything he made on the side was his to keep. As a result, tax farmers would have lived a very good life with temptation for corruption never far away. Unsurprisingly too, these revenue men were pretty universally loathed. So we can imagine him singing the old pop song – let’s make loads of money.
Therefore, Zacchaeus’ conversion to the side of good was not just to be welcomed it was a miracle. No wonder his change of heart would have been not just a matter of rejoicing, it would have been greeted with astonishment. For he was now singing another Pet Shop Boys’ hit:
When I look back upon my life
It’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame
For everything I long to do
No matter when or where or who
Has one thing in common, too
It’s a sin
What a great sight Zacchaeus now has of himself!
It was if he was the blind man, in the first lesson, who wanted to see and had his sight restored by Jesus.
But that regained insight begs the questions – what are people not seeing today and why are they not seeing?
Certainly, the disciples could not see. They could not see the reason for our Lord’s passion. To them this talk of insult, injury and death were an anathema. This just wasn’t the way the script should be played out. Thus, we read – the meaning was hidden from them.
Yet here I suspect the gospel writer was being rather charitable. Since they probably were hid the meaning from themselves. For none of us willingly hear bad news. All of us what purely good news. All of us wants lazy ways. All of us want simple answers.
Therefore, in these troubled times, if we are not to fall into the same blinding trap, we need to start where the blind man was. We need to cry out to the Son of David with an open heart. We need to rush with expectation. We need to shout out – I do want to see. Because that is the only way to grasp the future as Christ sees it – the future not just of passion but also resurrection. That is the only way to face a future of pain as well as joy through God’s support and encouragement. For that indeed is the only way to run towards a saving vision with all the vigour of Zacchaeus, all the abandon of Zacchaeus and all the contrition of Zacchaeus.
Yet why not remain comfortable in the easy and simple solutions so readily on offer?
Why take the trouble to be persistent in seeking the Lord’s saving power?
Why be cured of our deluding blindness?
Well those questions have is a least one clear and honest answer. For it is through Christ alone will we be free of fear of the real future that awaiting us.
Shokoi Yokoi spent 28 years in a prison. Not a prison of walls, but a prison of fear. When the tide in World War II began to turn, Shokoi was a Japanese soldier on the island of Guam. Fearing that defeat meant certain capture and death at the hands of the American forces, Shokoi ran into the jungle and hid in a cave. He later learned that the war was over by reading one of the thousands of leaflets that were dropped into the jungle by American planes. But he still feared being taken prisoner, so he remained in his cave.
For over a quarter century, he came out only at night. He existed on frogs, rats, roaches, and mangoes. A few years back, some hunters discovered him and it was only after they sent to Japan for his aged commander to come and talk with him that they could convince him that it was safe to come out and return home.
Twenty-eight years of living in a cave because he was afraid. Twenty-eight years lost because of fear. What a shame. How could a person be so foolish? How could a person be so imprisoned by fear? A life wasted because he was afraid to see reality. A life lost. And it is all too common…
Let us not approach this Easter looking for the undemanding and simplistic. Let us not be blind to our risky future ahead. Yet us not also be imprisoned by fear. For the Son of David is listening. He is watching. Moreover, he is beckoning. Because this is the season of him coming to stay and stay for good. This is the season of his rising to restore glorious sight. This is the season of his merciful salvation.
And so, we need not say –‘ Goodbye, we miss you already’ we need only say ‘Hello – it’s nice to see you!’