Zacchaeus at the IRS

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus at the IRS” is a first-person drama, offered as one-half of a call to a telephone assistance service. The speaker puts on a telephone headset, presses an imaginary button to take the call, and then offers the following lines. Pauses are inserted where the caller would be speaking.

Hello, you have reached the telephone assistance center of the IRS: Israel Revenue Service. My name is Zacchaeus. How may I assist you today?

Pause.

Yes, that’s right: Zacchaeus. The name means “pure” and “innocent.”

Pause.

I understand your laughter, ma’am. I really do. I know that most people don’t think of IRS agents as pure and innocent. So, where are you calling from?

Pause.

Jericho. Excellent. Great place. Lots of history. Occupied our ancestors when they crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. I live there, too, you know.

Pause.

Yes, ma’am, I am a Jew. Just like you.

Pause.

No, I am not a dirty, rotten Roman.

Pause.

Yes, you are right: I work for the Romans, but I am still a Jew. The Romans took Jericho about 90 years ago without much resistance. Like, what were we supposed to do against the most powerful army in the world? They can pretty much march in and take whatever they want. I don’t even own a sword what would I do today?

Pause.

Nooooo, you’re not listening. I am not defending Rome; I’m reviewing history. General Mark Antony had an estate here, and he liked it so much that he gave it to Cleopatra. After the two of them committed suicide, Augustus gave the estate to Herod and here we are.

Pause.

No, ma’am, I was not a fan of Herod. I remember that he was so jealous of his brother-in-law that he had him drowned in a pool, right here in Jericho! That guy is one that we don’t mess with.

Pause.

Ma’am, may I put you on hold? Press imaginary button, and speak to congregation. I don’t know why I get so much criticism from my own people. I do my best to keep the Ten Commandments, and it’s not like I’ve murdered anyone. Some people think that I steal, but tax-collecting is a tricky business. I know for a fact that many of my neighbors have cheated on their taxes! I bet if I asked you to raise your hand if you ever tried to find some loophole, every hand would go up.

I think the reason I get so much criticism is that I am the chief tax collector, and I’m rich. I oversee all of the tax collections for this area, so I have a team of people who collect taxes, tolls and tariffs from Jews — my people. Someone’s got to do it. Would they prefer a Roman collect taxes from them? The system is open to abuse, I know, and people like me are assumed to be dishonest. Most of all, we’re hated because we’re cooperating with Rome. But look — I have to make a living!

Press imaginary button again, and return to call.

Ma’am, I’m back now. How can I help you?

Pause.

Yes, I can assist you with that. I’m good with numbers, so I can calculate your tax. When do you need this to be completed?

Pause.

“Maybe never,” you say? Why is that?

Pause.

I see. You don’t think you’ll have to pay taxes to Rome because Jesus has come. Yes, I’ve heard people calling him the “Son of David” (18:38). They hope that he will lead an army like a sort of new King David and drive the Romans out. But ma’am, I have to be honest with you — I think that’s a stretch. I’ve seen the strength and brutality of the Roman army. Jesus and a Jewish army would not have a chance.

Pause.

No, ma’am, like I said, I’m not on the side of Rome. I’m just more interested in Jesus as a religious leader. Word on the street is that he healed the servant of a Roman centurion. He forgave a sinful woman. He healed a boy with a demon. Best of all, I hear that he is “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (7:34). I sure hope so because I need that.

Pause.

Stop laughing and calling me names, that’s not nice!

Pause.

Yes, ma’am, Jesus is a friend of outcasts. I think that’s good news.

Pause.

I hear what you are saying, but do you have a minute? I’d like to tell you about what just happened to me. Yesterday, I looked out my window and I saw a crowd headed for town. I joined them and asked a man what was going on. He ignored me, knowing who I was. Instead, he turned to a friend and said, “I hear that Jesus has just healed a blind beggar! Can you believe it? You know the guy I am talking about: That disgusting beggar who always sits in the dirt outside of town. People are saying that he is now following Jesus into Jericho, with a spring in his step.”

I got excited when I heard this. Jesus had healed a man who many think was just as bad as any tax collector. But as we approached the edge of town, my heart sank. The sides of the road were packed with people, five deep. I began to work my way along the edge of the crowd, but I couldn’t see a thing, even when I hopped up and down. Although I may sound tall on the phone, I’m only 4 feet 11 inches.

Pause.

You say that I don’t sound tall on the phone?

Pause.

Thanks a lot! Anyway, I knew I needed a plan, so I looked to where Jesus would probably enter Jericho. I ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree with large, low branches — perfect for climbing. I knew people would laugh at me. As you know, grown men are not supposed to run unless they are being chased by a dog or something that might hurt them.

Pause

Well, maybe I have a little experience.

Pause

No, I suppose grown men don’t climb trees either unless they are picking apples or figs. But that’s beside the point! The crowd continued to swell, and I was glad that I had my spot in the tree. I could see over the heads of everyone along the road, even the men and women who were looking up at me and laughing. I heard one of them say, “Look at Zacchaeus, up in a tree! He may be rich, but he looks like an idiot!”

Pause.

Yes, you’re right. I probably did look like an idiot. Then Jesus and his entourage appeared. I had never seen Jesus before, but I immediately picked him out in the middle of his disciples. They were moving quickly, with a sense of urgency, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea as they moved through town on their way to Jerusalem.

As Jesus reached the sycamore tree, he turned his head up and looked straight into my eyes. I was so shocked that I almost lost my grip and fell out of the tree. Then he said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (v. 5). I tell you, I didn’t see that coming. The crowd was silent. People looked at Jesus and they looked at me, back and forth, wondering what in the world he was doing. Why was Jesus talking to someone who was a wretch like me, a hated IRS employee?

Pause

Yes, I know you don’t like me either because I’m a tax collector. Moving along, I scrambled down the tree, almost flipping upside down when my robe got caught in a branch, but somehow I managed to reach the ground safely. I pushed myself through the crowd until I found Jesus. He was taller than I am, but not by much. I brushed a number of leaves off of my clothing, and then threw open my arms to him, saying, “Welcome. A thousand welcomes.” I was so honored that the great Jesus wanted to stay with me.

The crowd was still stunned, but they were no longer silent. They knew that Jesus was breaking the code of purity by going to the house of an IRS agent. In addition, he was honoring a man who just humiliated himself by running and climbing a tree. The people began to grumble and say, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner (v. 7). Maybe we should tell Jesus who he really is.”

Pause

You would have told him, I’m sure you would have. But Jesus said nothing, he just continued to look at me as though I were the only person in the crowd. I had never seen such a loving gaze.

The silence was awkward, so I broke it by saying, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (v. 8). Because Jesus had honored me with his presence, I felt a need to make amends for my past wrongs. I volunteered to pay people back, fourfold.

Pause

No, I looked on my abacus and in my record book and I have not defrauded you. I can not give you fourfold in tax returns

Pause

Well Martha was different than you. She was with Jesus that day when I felt overwhelmed by his presence. I had made a mistake in her taxes last year. Back to my story Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (vv. 9-10). I could hardly believe it — Jesus had restored my good status by calling me a “son of Abraham.” He had broken through my isolation by seeking me out and saving me. As long as I live, I’ll never be able to do enough to pay him back. But I am going to try. Each and every day. And that is why I want to help you, ma’am. I want to do your taxes right.

Pause.

No, ma’am, I’m not trying to be a hero. Jesus is the hero, because he reached out to me and made me his friend. Wherever you are in your loneliness and isolation, he’ll do the same for you. All you—

Pause

Where can you find Jesus?

Pause.

Well, Jesus is just about everywhere. He will probably find you. Thing is, when you want to find Jesus — that’s sort of the moment you’ll find him. It’s like what God said through one of the prophets: “When you search for me you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 29:13-14). So, all you have to do is take the risk of moving toward him. He will call you his friend. I guarantee that you will be thankful that he breaks through your loneliness. And you’ll want to spend the rest of your life wanting to make him proud that he knows you. If this call has been helpful to you, please stay on the line for a short survey. This is Zacchaeus … at the IRS.

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