In Jericho

This is another “meditation” one one of the Gospel stories, this time Luke 19:1-10. I started by looking at the story itself (including some study in the original Greek, which is where the thought came from that the “I give…” is an ongoing description, not the start of something new), then widened out to look at several other passages that might have bearing. For instance, it doesn’t say anything in this story about Jesus sending disciples ahead, but we are told that elsewhere, so it seems reasonable to assume it happened here. I will confess that I do believe in miracles, but I also believe in finding rational explanations first if there are any.

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Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns, Wikipedia

Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns, Wikipedia

People hate taxes.  Big revelation, right? Of course people hate taxes, all taxes.  No matter how small it may be, any tax is too much.  Mind you, those same people are quick to complain if the roads aren’t maintained or the law isn’t enforced.  They want all those things, they just don’t want to pay for them.  So they hate taxes and, since its hard to vent your anger on something so impersonal, they hate tax collectors too.  Always have, probably always will.  No matter how honest or compassionate the tax collector himself might be.

I know all about it, because I am one.  Like my father before me and my son after me I expect.  So I know all about it: How the wealthy and powerful look down on me as though I were worse than the rest of “the rabble”; How the peasants, on the other hand, regard me as a turncoat, a sell-out to the elite.  I have had to become resigned to people giving me the evil eye in the market or spitting at me behind my back.

Yet am I not too an Israelite? Do I not keep the Law? Am I not awaiting the messiah? Of course I am—and if I may be so bold, I am more so than many of those who despise me!

Do you remember that prophet, the baptiser, John? He worked just down the road near Aenon.  I went to hear him and was impressed with his message.  I and some of my fellow tax collectors were baptised together by him.  Then we asked him what else we should do.  He told us just to do our jobs without overcharging people, which I’ve always tried to do anyway.  But since then (it must be almost three years now) I’ve tried to do even more.  I give almost half my income to the poor and I always see to it that if I make a mistake and overcharge someone they are more than repaid.

I hope it all makes a difference with God because it certainly doesn’t with my fellow Israelites.

But then one day a couple of strangers showed up in town.  It was one of those hot, slow days and I had left my son in charge of the custom booth and was down by the city gates passing the time with some of the other men.  We probably wouldn’t have noticed them amongst the others coming and going except that they stopped and began asking questions.  I went closer and learned that they were trying to arrange a place to stay.  Thinking that they were looking for themselves we started to direct them to the inn or the synagogue (which has some rooms for pilgrims), but they explained that they were just an advance party who were looking for a place for their rabbi and that he preferred to stay with people rather than in inns.

Of course we all knew what they meant.  For while teaching (which is what rabbis do) is highly respected in our culture it is seen as very demeaning for teachers to be paid for teaching the word of God, so they are usually quite poor.  Inns naturally charge whereas no ordinary person would think of asking for money in exchange for showing hospitality.  But being a losing proposition, many people are less than eager to entertain complete strangers and so these two were not having much success.

Until, that is, it came out that their rabbi was Jesus of Nazareth, that caught my attention.  I had been hearing a lot about him when I had been in Jerusalem last.  It wasn’t so much the miracles and signs that were being claimed for him that interested me so much as the rumour that he was John the baptiser come back.  Not that I believed that, you understand: Everyone knew that Herod had had John beheaded long ago.  But if this Jesus had taken up John’s aborted ministry then I wanted to meet him.  Unfortunately it seemed that he had run afoul of the authorities and had returned to the relative safety of Galilee.  Now, it appeared, he was coming back.

I pushed my way up to the two—no easy task for one as short as I—and introduced myself.  Their names were Philip and Thomas, and when they found out I was a tax collector they told me that one of the others in their band, one Matthew, had also been a tax collector before he gave it up to follow Jesus.  I told them that I couldn’t see myself going that far, but that I would gladly offer  my home and my hospitality to their master.  They accepted and told me to expect them all in two days time.

Two days later word had spread through the whole city.  Jericho’s main street was mobbed by mid-morning, I don’t think anyone was working in the whole place! Near the city gates the sides of the road were lined with the sick and the maimed, the worst just outside the gates along with the lepers.  The whole way to town square was full and because I had spent the early morning making sure everything was ready, I was one of the last to get there.  All I could see was a wall of backs.

But I’ve been short all my life and this wasn’t the first time I’d faced this problem.  I knew what to do.  I admit that it had been quite a while since I had last climbed a tree and I am not as agile as I  was as a boy, but I found a good one and was shortly ensconced above the masses with a view down the street all the way to the city gates.

I didn’t have long to wait, which was good because even in the shade of the tree it was hot! There was a stirring in the crowd, a swelling of the noise starting down by the gates, and then he arrived.  He was walking with two or three others—I recognised Philip beside him—and was followed by a group of fifteen or twenty, both men and women.  Behind these the crowds closed in and followed too.

They were still quite a bit of a way off when Philip noticed me.  I saw him lean towards Jesus and point at me as he spoke to him.  Jesus looked up and saw me too and, as God is my witness, he laughed! Now, most people when they laugh around me do so derisively, but not him.  There was an infectious joy in his laughter and somehow I knew that he was not laughing at me, and I found myself smiling too.

He was still smiling when he reached the tree and called up to me, “Come on down, Zachaeas, I’m supposed to stay with you today!” You could almost hear him add, “and I hope you don’t intend for me to lodge up there in that tree!”

Now no-one had really seen me climb up the tree and I certainly had not expected to become the focus of everyone’s attention, but I did manage to retain some of my dignity as I climbed down.  Not that he would have cared much, I think.  Anyway, I got down and led him to my house where there was a good meal waiting.

And it was a good meal, if I say so myself.  Certainly Jesus and his company seemed to enjoy it.  I was having a good time too, until I began to hear the comments of those outside, that is.  The crowds had followed us to my house, of course, and were now crowded around the door and windows.  These were all open, naturally—after all, a big part of entertaining someone noteworthy is being seen entertaining them!—and as the time went on the comments, whispered at first, grew louder and bolder.

“He’s eating with a tax collector…with a sinner…a tax collector and a sinner…doesn’t he know?…doesn’t he care?…tax collector! Sinner!”

Somehow those words go together too easily in people’s minds, so that they become almost synonyms: Tax collector, sinner.  Why I ask you? Even harlots seem better somehow! Jesus paid no attention, but I did.  I didn’t even realise until later that they were criticising him even more than me.  All I could hear were those two linked names and finally I could stand it no long er.  Getting up I announced loudly, “Look, Lord, I give away half of what I have to the poor and when anyone shows me that I have overtaxed them then I personally pay them back four times the error!”

Well I would have gone on longer but Jesus also stood up then.  He came close and said to me “Today salvation” (or perhaps he meant healing) “is come to this house”.  Then turning to the crowds he announced loudly, “This man is also a child of Abraham!” He paused, looking over them all, really seeing them, their confusion, their pettiness, their almost desperate hopes, and he added more quietly, “The son of man has come to seek and save the lost”.

It was silent for a moment, then Jesus seemed to shake off that mood and the gaiety returned.  As we sat back down and resumed eating the noise grew again—but I didn’t hear those condescending expressions again.  In fact, I haven’t heard them since!

Well, he left the next morning for Jerusalem, telling stories on the way.  I wish I could have gone with him for he does, indeed, seem a worthy teacher to follow on from where John left off.  But I had my work to get back to.  Still, who knows: Perhaps when he is finished in Jerusalem he will return to Galilee by way of Jericho and I will get to receive him once more into my home.  I hope so.

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4 Responses to “In Jericho”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    Quibble, quibble, but still:

    These “tax collectors” in the story would not be modern tax accountant types — neither would they be the “tax farmers” with contracts to extort whatever they could from a province, in exchange for being responsible for providing some expected level of tribute.

    Crossan calls these people “toll collectors.” They’d be prosperous on a small scale, but widely resented for being affiliated with pagan foreigners, and for collecting fees largely from people who couldn’t really afford to pay anything.

    The money collected… probably wouldn’t be financing road maintenance (local forced labor, uncompensated except for whatever military supervision that entailed…[?]) I’m guessing public buildings for a well-off Hellenized minority, living directly or indirectly off the hard, ill-rewarded labors of the majority… as in the anthropological cliche that a ‘peasant’ is “a subsistence farmer forced to pay a substantial chunk of his crop to keep an exploiter class in luxury.” [Claims that he receives some sort of ‘service’ in exchange are implausible, in that the people he’s being “defended” from probably wouldn’t be able to extract any more, short of literally starving him…] The tax structure is regressive, even more so than our contemporary makeshifts.
    —–

    And no, I really can’t buy your 1st Century roadies. There’s no sound equipment to lug, while food & lodging would presumably come under ‘take no thought for tomorrow’ protocols. (Jesus will eventually need someone to arrange for a dining room for the Passover, because renting out such rooms is supposed to have become a customary business in Jerusalem at the time. Along the way? — anyone he sends ahead will be travelling at the same speed he’s moving.)

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      I accept that the initial bit about taxes is too modern (but it would have been very cumbersome to try to explain first century tax concepts in such a piece, and the feelings described are probably pretty close, or perhaps not strong enough).

      However, as for the “roadies”, that I stand by. Jesus traveled slowly, since he was teaching and healing along the way which would slow him down. The idea was sparked by two things: How did Jesus know Zachaeus’ name (without invoking some sort of miraculous knowledge on his part), and the supposition that Luke 9:52 is not an exceptional thing (“And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.”). Certainly it appears that wherever he went people were expecting him, how would that be unless some person(s) had preceded him and told people he was coming?

      • treegestalt Says:

        Okay, sorry! As long as we aren’t assuming that Jesus couldn’t have simply known. With no explanation needed except that such inspirations do happen, to far more ordinary people than him.

      • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

        No, I certainly believe in the miraculous and in what are known as “words of knowledge”, just don’t see the need for one here and prefer to be very reticent about assigning such labels.

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