He felt shame wash over him, like the cold air that hits as a storm arrives. The feeling was so familiar, he had begun to accept it as his birthright. Why should he expect otherwise? From as far back as he could remember, people had looked at him with scorn and contempt. He had lived with this so long, he didn’t even realize how much his heart had shriveled. This cold, hard feeling inside was just the way it had always been.
Born to a fairly typical Jewish family, Zach had been different straight out of the womb. He was born so much smaller that his siblings, and it seemed he would never grow. His brothers and sisters literally towered over him. Surely God had cursed him, and as a result his body did not behave like everyone else in his little village. Even now, as he had come of age, he was stared at, mocked, and often spat upon because of his bizarre appearance. This was his lot in life.
But he was not the kind of man to just surrender to God. Especially since God seemed also to have overlooked him. He would spend a life time fighting back against this cruel trick. His early years were spent in an endless cycle of fighting, and then running to hide as his familiar companion, shame, wracked his soul. His own family, his own people were cruel to him, and he had vowed in his heart that he would make them pay. He had not realized how deeply that vow would shape his future.
When the Romans took over, it seemed that God, if not at least fate, had afforded him an opportunity to exact the revenge of his shrinking heart, on the very community that had so tortured him. The Empire had searched for local people who would go and collect taxes from the people of his area. They in turn, would back him up with a team of centurions to carry out his directives. Anything he collected above and beyond the Roman taxes, they told him, he could consider his personal income.
Sadly, this position, though it afforded him ample opportunity to “make these people pay”, it also amplified Zach’s lifelong experience of being himself. The people of his village looked at him now, not just as an anomaly, but as a traitor. The scorn in their eyes increased, and he was more of an outcast than ever. Add to this that now, even the Romans, looked down at him. He was a necessary evil, but they too recognized the kind of man that could essentially empty the pockets of his own people. For Zach, this position seemed to strengthen and validate the belief that this was simply his lot in life. He was an outsider, with no real companions.He ate alone every meal.
The more rejected he felt, the more angry he became. The more angry he became, the more his heart shriveled. The more his heart shriveled, the more he vowed to wring every lat bit of revenge from his community. He was caught in a vicious cycle that he could not even see. All he knew is that he was in this constant cycle of shame and hatred. He couldn’t tell who hated him more; his people or himself.
The experience of shame and self-loathing began each day as he stepped out of his home. The scathing looks of his neighbors, and the consuming wave of shame was the way each day began. He did not have to wonder who he was, his life let him know each day. Though he would not admit it, the most difficult thing he faced every day was living with the way people looked at him. He had gone from not being noticed because of his stature, to being noticed everywhere he went, but with stares of contempt.
And why should this day be any different? He had begun his walk down to the outpost to gather his wares for the day, and was beginning to experience the withering stares of the men and women he lived life with. The shame closed in again on his ever-shrinking heart. Mentally he began to build the wall again to protect himself from the pain of it all. But as he grew closer to the center of town, he began to realize that no one was looking at him. The people seemed to be focused on a gathering crowd over by the stand of sycamore trees. Many were hurrying quickly to the gathering. He was just relieved that their attention was not on him.
As he noticed just how much attention was focused on this growing crowd, his curiosity began to be piqued. Not much of significance ever happened in this little town. but there was definitely something stirring over by those trees. Since no one was giving him the customary curses, he decided to go over and see what was going on.
The crowd, however was too dense. The emotions of the crowd were high, and people were pushing in to get closer to the center of this crowd. At his height, he could not see beyond the backs and shoulders of this throng. This only served to increase his curiosity and from this vantage point he could now hear the sounds. A man’s voice that would occasionally rise over the sound of the crowd. He could hear crying, though it was difficult to tell if the sobs were pain or joy. It sounded as if both might be present. Then, moments of silence, followed by loud exclamations of awe. Something was going on in this crowd.
He listened for a while but then his curiosity began to get the best of him. He looked at the trees on the edge of the crowd and immediately a thought came to him. From these these trees, he could get above the crowd and look down into the midst of all this action. The trees were near enough that he would be able to see, and dense enough that he could maintain his protective anonymity. He began to climb.
He found a perch that allowed him to see into the crowd, and as he began to settle into the branches, he began to have second thoughts. In his growing curiosity, he had all but forgotten how much he wanted to avoid the attention of these people. If they looked up, he was right there for the whole crowd to see. But it was too late, he was committed, so he planted his feet and looked down. What he saw froze him where he was. He saw God.
What he saw was a man, but he realized right away why this crowd was here. This was the man that the whole nation had been talking about, it was Jesus, the Nazarene. So many stories were going around about this man, through both the Jewish and the Roman communities, and the thread that ran through all these stories was the question of who this man really was. Most believed He was the Son of God.
Zach watched in amazement and growing fear as his own people surrounded this man. On the ground nearby was a pair of crutches, laying there with no owner. Next to him was a mother clutching her child and weeping. Some men in robes stood a few feet back, as if somehow grading Jesus on His performance here today. Crowded all around were people with evident needs. People with bandages, and canes, people whose bodies were stooped over with injury or disease. These were the people of his town, and Jesus as taking the time to talk to each one, one at a time, in the midst of this chaos. As he spoke, He would look into their eyes. He touched them. Many He reached out, and drew them near in an embrace.
Zaccheus drew back on his perch in the tree. There was no way this man could be God. The God who had played this cruel trick on him, and had abandoned him to this life of pain and rejection would never act like this man below him. The God that Zaccheus knew was hard, and distant. The God of this town was like his neighbors, and the religious leaders of his town; cruel, if they paid any attention at all.
He ran unconsciously through his dismissal of this man’s deity, but then he saw a crippled child get up and walk. He saw his blind neighbor open his eyes and shout with joy as he saw his daughter for the first time. Zaccheus could hardly believe what he was seeing, maybe this man was God after all. He knew this, if He was God, He would never look up at Zaccheus, or if He did it would be with scorn, and maybe even with the intent to throw him down out of the tree and shoo him away from all these others who were deserving of the attention of God.
Lost in his introspection for a moment, Zach didn’t notice right away as Jesus finished with the person He was talking to. His ears tuned in just in time to hear Jesus say something about coming to seek and save what was lost. Then Jesus looked right at him. Not a glance, not a quick look and then look away, Jesus looked Zaccheus straight in the eyes.
It was Zaccheus who looked away. It was an unconscious thing he did to avoid the inevitable shame when another looked at him. He looked away, hoping that Jesus would turn His attention again to the crowd on the ground. But when he looked back, Jesus was still looking intently at him. Was He looking at him? It felt like He was looking through him. But the crazy part was what Zach saw as he looked again into Jesus eyes. Maybe “saw” isn’t the right word, but something happened. What he didn’t see was scorn. Jesus looked at him and His eyes seemed to convey so many things all at once.
The absence of scorn was as potent as the presence of love. Something tangible in the steady gaze of Jesus almost seemed to reach inside Zaccheus and push against all the poison in his soul. And the poison inside seemed to back down. Jesus gaze never wavered, and yet something inside Zaccheus not only wavered, but it seemed to surrender under the weight of this gaze. What happened next shocked him even more. Jesus called out his name.
He could not remember the last time another person had spoken his name. He had been called a number of other things over the years, but any time he had heard his own name it sounded just like all the other curses that were constantly leveled at him. Jesus spoke his name like he was somebody. Like he was a real person, with real worth. Zaccheus had climbed up this tree to see, he had not expected to be seen. But the God of the universe was looking him in the eyes, calling him by name, and treating him like a person.
Jesus told him to climb down, and announced that the ministry time was over. He was going to go hang out with His new buddy, Zaccheus. Just the two of them were going to lunch. With every word, things were shifting inside Zach’s guts. It was almost as if this man’s words had the power to do things, and make things so. His defense seemed to melt. His heart felt like it was beating differently. The way he had seen himself just moments earlier seemed to shift as Jesus looked a new way of being into him.
The two of them went to Zach’s house and had a meager meal. But the meal was not the point at all. Zach had lunch with God.
God did not scold him, God did not look at him like every other human had his entire life. God respected him. God enjoyed him. Even Zach hadn’t enjoyed himself as long as he could remember. As these thing shifted, some other things changed as well.
Zach had pushed and punished his neighbors, and he began to have a growing sadness, not for how they had treated him, but for how he had treated them. Strangely, he felt much more sad than guilty. But he felt so sad, he wanted to do something about it. In his heart more than his mind a plan began to form to make up for years of harsh treatment of others. The plan birthed out of new eyes, and a new heart.
Jesus finished dessert, hugged Zaccheus like a good father hugs his son, and went back out into the crowd.
Though his physical stature never changed, Zaccheus was never the same.