Our newest sermon series, Jesus and the Other, explores the revolutionary way Jesus interacted with people, breaking the human-constructed barriers of class, race, gender, religion and marginalization due to physical or mental health. The following monologue depicts the perspective of the "other" in such an encounter: Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10).
Written by Rick McKinley, Read by Josh McKinley
I’m not really sure what peaked my interest in you. Maybe it was seeing my friend Levi go through an extreme home makeover of his life. It could have been word on the street; everyone was talking about you. Maybe it was that stinging title they gave you, “friend of tax collectors and sinners”? Maybe it was all of that. I’m not sure. But something in me had to go see for myself.
Chasing rabbis isn’t really my thing. I hadn’t been to temple in years, except when I was first starting out in the Tax business, but that was just to collect from the priests who were always trying to hide their coffers from Rome. They imagined a ridiculous world where religious communities were tax exempt!
You found me up in the sycamore tree that day. I had to climb that stupid tree. See, I may have a big head and big wallet but I got little legs. Being short was never an issue for me though. I ran the biggest tax racket in all of Jericho, like a mob boss. I ran one of the 3 big tax cartels. You had the Jerusalem cartel, the Capernum cartel and mine, the Jericho Cartel. Being the boss meant you had to be ruthless. If you’ve ever seen a tax collector beat someone for holding back the coin, I promise you they learned that from me. My guys knew I would treat them much worse if they didn’t bring me my share.
The way the game was played was like this, Rome wants their money, you see. They have to keep Caesar’s purses full, run the military, build all the buildings and pay the bills for the governors and officials to make Rome hum along like the superpower that it is. None of that is cheap, and the only way to keep the place going is through taxing the people.
That’s where I come in. Rome hired out the tax business. They understood that my people the Jews, who can be a rowdy bunch if I am being honest, would be more willing to pay up if the people they were paying up to were Jews themselves. I saw an opportunity, and I went for it. I might be small, but I got big dreams. I negotiated a deal with the powers that be to collect the taxes - for a fee of course - and I would be responsible for delivering Rome their money.
I had a lot on the line; if I don’t pay, it’s my neck. So here’s how I figured it out: we collect more than Rome is asking for. That makes up for the peasants who never have any money. It helps me pay my guys a decent wage, and I get my cut, which is another way of saying I get rich! Rome is happy. My guys are happy. The jews hate me, but they hate everyone, and my wife has the house of her dreams.
I’m like the Madoff of Jericho, you might say. The folks around here hate me, but I’m not trying to win any popularity contests, so who cares right? I am at the top of my game, and let me tell you something: the view from the top is the best you’ll ever see.
No one gets to where I am without knowing how to make things happen. By force or by diplomacy, I always won. It’s the art of the deal, you might say. Anyone who says they would rather be a faithful jew than a rich one has never spent the night under Egyptian cotton sheets. They’re surprisingly cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It still puzzles me how they work.
Anyways, long story short, I was a feared man. Men like me who are feared don’t take to the teachings of wannabe messiahs. But I had heard so much about you that I wanted to see for myself. I had heard that you even told people to pay taxes to Caesar, and give to God what is God’s. So I figured at least my business wasn’t at risk.
I didn’t know then how much that tax racket had turned me into someone that I wouldn’t recognize today. I was a monster, literally. People came close to dying at my hand. I extorted money from king and countryman and never thought twice about it. I liked power, I liked stuff and I liked all the things that came from having both.
I will never forget that day. I climbed up a fig tree so I could hide behind its big leaves and get a good view of you at the same time. I didn’t want to be seen by the townsfolk, but my curiosity got the best of me. To this day, I am still not totally sure why I did it.
Dissatisfaction had been growing in my life that year, like everything I touched had been exposed to a virus of unhappiness. I had everything a business man could want, but there was a shallowness to it all. You can only drink so many bottles of fine wine before you realize that it’s still just grapes crushed and aged. All those rooms sitting empty in my home were creating a hollow space in my soul. Maybe It was just that I was getting older, a mid-life crisis or whatever. The power, the money, the stuff...it just didn’t fire me up like it used to. You understood that a lot more than I did; always talking about the dangers of loving money instead of God, preaching on and on about rich men and eyes of needles and things I never fully understood.
All that emptiness created a curiosity that I couldn’t push away, so off I went to hear the Rabbi, wanting to find out who you were for myself. You started walking through the crowd towards the tree I was in. I felt so stupid up there. I tried to be still. I held my breath, thinking and hoping you would walk right past.
“Zacchaeus,” you yelled up to me, and my heart stuck in my throat. This was my worst nightmare: the big-wig Rabbi calling me out in front of the crowd. You could hear the laughs and murmurs ripple through the crowd, as if they were finally going to get their revenge on me, publicly humiliated by the rabbi of the week.
But you didn’t do that. You were not what I expected. Religious people snubbed had their nose at me my entire adult life. Walking by with their head in the air so high and mighty, their robes and prayers, acting so holy and superior. I figured you would give me a lecture like the would, but you didn’t.
If anyone could have acted superior and holy, surely it would have been you. You’re the Son of Man, for crying out loud, but instead you just told me you were coming to my house! I complied, but in the back of my mind I thought “my wife is going to kill me.” The housekeeper didn’t come for another two days, my whiskey collection’s right there in the dining room on display and frankly my house was a little over the top, especially for the likes of the traveling Rabbi. Hopefully he’ll like the Egyptian cotton sheets.
I offered you hospitality, but in reality, you are the one who welcomed me. That changed the game. I put on the best spread I could with such short notice. While you didn’t seem overly impressed, you didn’t look down on me either. You even told my wife she had a lovely home! I thought to myself, it should be lovely it cost me a fortune!
You were talking to me like I was just a normal human being. You saw past my money and my power, and didn’t care about any of it.
You never judged me.
But you had that fire that I was missing. You had something that was more powerful than all the money and power could create in me. Only the fire that you had created peace and shalom. The fire I had in my heart just gave me heartburn. As you talked about your Father and your Kingdom I realized that I rolled the dice on the wrong game. I went all in on the wrong Kingdom!
Over dinner and wine you pulled back the layers of my soul, asking about my family, my children, what I liked to do in my free time, books I read, music I listened to, places I had been, times when I felt love, joy, kindness. You made saw the human inside of the façade that I created. You showed me what I really wanted, LIFE!
I just wanted a deep, meaningful spiritual life; I was starving for it. You created a hunger in my soul for something more. You offered me friendship, but I found faith that you were the Lord my life longed for.
The change was raw and sudden, and everyone thought I lost my mind. I’m not even sure what overtook me when I stood up from the table that night. Raising my glass and telling all my friends and family that I was giving half of all I had to the poor and paying back all the people I had wronged with 400% interest! Quickly doing the math in my head even as the words fell from my lips, I knew that I wouldn’t end up with much. But in all honesty, I realized that all I wanted was to be your disciple.
My hands that once clinched like fists to fight for power and cling to coin were open and raised worshipping your Father. You said salvation had come to my house that day. I call it the day that you, Jesus, welcomed me home. Letting go of my stuff made room in my life for life that is truly life.
I kept the Egyptian sheets though. I mean you get that, right?