Zacchaeus hated days like this. He’d have a plan and a place to be — he might even be enjoying himself — and then, he’d see them. The men he’d grown up with. The women who laughed at him and scorned his advances. The neighbours’ children who had been taught to hate him and mistrust him him and call him names. The crowds that hated him, and filled him with hate in return. There was no coming back from it now: the day was ruined.
Zacchaeus scurried on and tried to decide what to do.
Option 1: Push through. Satisfyingly hostile. Some would run from him to avoid their debts. But most would jeer and shove and dirty his clothes.
Option 2: Go around. Try to avoid it. Just move on. That was probably the better way.
Zacchaeus was on the edge of the crowd now and felt something brush his arm. ‘Or you could go see him,’ a voice said. Zaccaeus looked up, and saw no one. Bits of other people’s conversation tugged at his ears.
Option 3: go see him. Why should he do that?
He decided to take the hostile option and began to force his way through the crowd.
‘Look, there’s Zaccheus!’
‘Coming to get us, tax man?’
They mocked and they scorned and they shoved him aside.
The tax man. Perfect excuse to be hated. But they forgot: he wasn’t always a tax man. And they’d hated him then too. Rome didn’t care what he looked liked, didn’t care if he wouldn’t conform. So long as he did his job…
Zacchaes tried to comfort himself by rubbing the gold in his pocket. By imagining the Roman armies, marching by his side. It didn’t work.
‘You must be lonely,’ a voice said. He turned quickly to see who it was. No one. Just other people’s conversations again. All day this had been happening. Words hooking his attention, with no clear source.
Lonely? It was not a thought he allowed himself to entertain.
‘Damn this,’ he thought, as he fought his way out of the crowd. He would try another way.
Once he escaped them, his defences lowered. Lonely? Yes. He was lonely. What of it? He looked at the people who should be his companions. ‘A motley lot anyway…’ he said to no one in particular.
All the while, Raphael was waiting. ‘Come on you grumpy little man. Come to me!’ Raphael sat in the sycamore and laced his wings through its leaves.
Finally, Raphael saw him: short stocky legs, working quickly to overtake the crowd. Raphael flicked his wings, and the tree shimmered with bright green gold.
Zacchaeus sensed movement and looked up. On the path ahead, there was a most glorious tree… For a moment, he forgot his anger.
Zacchaeus liked trees. As a boy, he would climb them: a good task when you are all alone. He was small, and could go high, and then no one could look down on him.
The tree stood proud ahead, and he heard the echo of the strangers words: you could go see him. It was tempting. He’d heard things about this Jesus… things he didn’t understand, that confused him and gave him… hope?
But it had been years.
Zacchaeus touched the familiar bark of the tree and looked up into its branches. The limbs were good: solid and strong and not too far apart. He looked back at the crowd and thought about the stranger in its midst.
Really, what had he to loose? He began to climb.
As Jesus moved through the crowd, Zadkiel brushed his arm with his wing.
‘What is it?’ Jesus asked.
‘Look,’ Zadkiel said, pointing to the tree ahead.
Jesus saw Raphael first, leaning against the tree trunk, looking quite satisfied. Raphael bowed to Jesus and smiled.
Then, Jesus looked up. There, in a most undignified position, was a little man in fine robes, trying to get to a branch he couldn’t quite reach.
Jesus’ eyes sparkled, and his laughter filled the hillsides. ‘Zacchaes, come down!’
Zacchaeus startled and slipped in his fright. Once he was safely on the branch again, he looked down. The crowd had caught up with him, and his neighbours were pointing and laughing.
He tugged at his tunic.
But there, coming towards him, was Jesus: his face full of warmth and delight.
‘Zacchaeus, come down. I must stay with you tonight.’
Zacchaeus looked all around, to see if there was another Zacchaeus, if Jesus was talking to him…
The the truth of it hit him: a guest. A sacred duty. This was scarier than a tree, certainly, but what choice was there? He was a Jew. Here was a guest. He let himself slip through the branches and drop to the ground.
‘Yes, Lord. Yes.’ Zacchaeus said, dusting himself off. ‘You shall stay with me.’
The crowd grumbled and cried out against him, but now he didn’t care. Let them say what they wanted. Here was a guest. And he was a Jew. At last.