Easter without Hindsight, The Ordinary People: Zaccheus’ story
We’re going to start our journey to Easter by looking at Jeshua (who we now call Jesus) through the eyes of some of the ordinary people who lived alongside him. Today we’ll meet a Jewish man called Zaccheus, who lived in Jericho, in the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea. Jericho was an important town near the border between a region called Samaria (now mostly divided between Israel and Palestine) and Judea (in modern Israel) to its south.
Zaccheus collected taxes for the Romans, who would have let him keep a percentage of what he raised, from the traders who ran goods along the valley. He was rich (like most tax collectors), making his money by overcharging the traders. The Romans turned a blind eye and he wasn’t popular with locals. The Jewish people in Jericho saw him as a collaborator with the Romans and, given the chance, would have treated him the way the French treated the French girls who slept with German soldiers in WW2. Today we view sex-workers, politicians and bankers with the same contempt.
Jeshua arrived in Jericho on his way to Jerusalem only weeks before he died. Jeshua was famous and regarded by many as a rabbi, a teacher of ‘Torah’ the proper lifestyle of a faithful Jew. Crowds, including many who were his disciples, followed him everywhere. It was part of their culture to believe that a ‘Chosen One’ (messiah) would rise to power in Judea and establish God’s kingdom. It was a very ancient belief and, as often happens to religious traditions over the centuries, it had evolved a bit. The local consensus at the time, which Zaccheus probably shared, was that messiah would clear the hated pagans (at that point the Romans) from the land the Jews believed God had given to them and rule a free country: Israel.
Jeshua had become famous in recent years by speaking out against injustice, including that of powerful and corrupt governments. He had also built a reputation as a healer. 21st century people spend millions to be healed so imagine the reaction Jeshua got in a world with almost no medical cover. Was Jeshua this long-awaited ‘Chosen One’? Many locals also thought they hadn’t heard from their God in centuries. Was Jeshua at least a prophet like those of old?
Zaccheus, for all his collaboration with the hated Romans, probably thought himself a faithful, if sinful, Jew. He too had grown up with the same hopes of a free Jewish homeland. So he turns out to see Jeshua. Imagine the surprise when Jeshua picked him, the hated tax collector , from the crowd.
“I must stay in your house today,” says Rabbi Jeshua. If Zaccheus was a bit surprised, the crowd turned a bit nasty. Rabbis taught Torah. Faithful Jews were supposed to avoid sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes. Shouldn’t a rabbi shun the house of a known sinner? Not for the first time Jeshua would do the last thing those respectable people thought a rabbi ought to do.