“You have a saying, don’t you, about not judging a book by its cover?” Zacchaeus asked.

We sat together on the shore of the lake watching the red and waning light from the late-afternoon sun dance on the expanse of water before us.  I had come to the lake weighed down with a problem that I had not been able to solve through the course of the day.  My thought had been that dusk would provide the silent arena in which an answer would come to me.  Strange.  At this point I don’t remember what my problem had been.  I remember only the irritation I felt as I became aware of the odd little man’s voice intruding on my reverie.  At first I thought he was chattering to himself and paid no attention to what he was saying.  It was just noise that was prompting me to get up and move to a quieter place.  Then I thought that if I could just ignore him he would grow weary from the lack of response and move on to pester someone more receptive than I.

He continued talking and it became increasingly obvious that he was talking to me.  My conscience wouldn’t let me continue ignoring him.  So, with a deep sigh, I turned toward him with a begrudging smile.  My fate was sealed as I acknowledged him.

Physically, there was nothing imposing about him, nothing pleasing about his visage.  Scarcely five foot tall, the voice went with the stature – thin and raspy – another source of irritation to me.  I remember thinking that a crow’s caw would be an improvement.

I am embarrassed to say that initially I found it difficult to hide my contempt for him.  Yet as I began to pay attention to his tale, he fascinated me and I found myself warming to him and his sincerity as his tale ensnared me.  It was clear.  He had a story to tell to anyone who would listen, a story he never tired of telling.

“Can you imagine,” he said, “what it’s like to be held in contempt by all your neighbors?  It’s been that way most of my life.  From my early years people laughed at me when it became obvious that I would always be a runt.  But having them laugh at my height paled in comparison to the pain I felt from their contempt of me because of my occupation.

“You probably would think that because I am wealthy, I shouldn’t have cared what other people thought.  But, you see, I always cared about others and had innate sympathy for them and their troubles.  They made assumptions about me because I am a tax collector, employed by the foreigners that occupy our land.  They gossiped and accused me of being greedy and dishonest, a collaborator with Roman rule.  My family suffered from those assumptions and they ached for me.

“How could I tell those people that I was scrupulously honest in my accounting and did not take part in the accepted practice of defrauding, as others in my profession did?  I never knew how to plead with those who should have been my friends, akin in faith as we are, and urge them to recognize that I was not like others.  Of course they did not know how I shared my wealth with the poor, because I did that anonymously.  I believed the Scriptures and would willingly follow their prescriptions for those who are fraudulent in their dealings.  I would pay back fourfold willingly if I defrauded anyone.

“As a young man, I got caught up in the messianic movement that swept through my people as we longed for the one who would come and drive away foreign rule and establish the Kingdom.  I went to Temple daily and prayed that the Messiah would come.

“When I first began to hear about Jesus and what people were saying about him, what he taught and the amazing deeds at his hands, I wondered.  Could he be the one?

“Then that day, I heard that Jesus would be coming to our area, passing through our neighborhood.  I knew I had to see him with my own eyes.

“I thought I had left my home in plenty of time.  But many others had gathered before my arrival lining both sides of the road.  I ran back and forth trying to find a break in the crowd.  Then, ignoring what people might think of my antics, I climbed a sycamore and perched on a branch over their heads.

“I felt the most exquisite pain burn through me.  In a shock of emotion I realized that our eyes had locked across the span for so long that the crowd had turned from him and, stupefied, were gazing up the tree at me, my arms clinging to the trunk and my feet dangling below the branch on which I sat.  A few began to laugh.  One or two barbed comments came flying at me.  But he called me by name and said, ‘Zacchaeus, pure and innocent one, come down and let me have dinner with you tonight.’

“Then I knew.”  He swallowed heavily as he brought his hands to both sides of his face.  He paused as if to catch his breath.

His voice had softened and his face, glazed by the sun’s red rays, had turned toward the lake.  Small waves lapped at the sand not that far in front of us.  And a gull or two bobbed along, looking for their final morsel for the day.  The fading light glinted in the tears that rimmed his eyes.  I was fascinated and wanted to hear more.  I certainly didn’t want to say anything that would interrupt his chain of thought.  Whatever my problem had been, it had vanished from my consciousness.

“Yes,” he said, “then I knew.  Amid the growing murmurs as I scaled down awkwardly from my roost, he reached out and took me by the hand and accepted me as if we were tried and true friends.  He wasn’t ashamed to be seen with me.  It was as if we were the only two on the road as he talked with me.

“With my neighbors’ accusations and slurs stuck in my craw, I began to babble protesting my innocence and promising that if I had wronged anyone I would atone fourfold.

“Do you know what he said to me next?  He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, this is what you have long been praying for.  I tell you, God has heard you and today God’s Kingdom resides in your heart and in the hearts of your family.’

“As we broke bread together at my table and I offered him the finest wine from my cellar, I knew what peace meant.  My longing was satisfied.  I looked at my wife and my children reclining around the table with us.  What a blessing!  I thought, even if no one outside this gathering accepted my family and me, God did.  And I could live in peace, knowing that I would never be the same.”

He turned back to me and put his hand on my arm.  “We’re almost there.  Be patient with me.”

I assured him I was fine and fascinated by the story he was telling.

“He broke a piece of bread and reached it over to me.  ‘I want you to go out from this table and tell others what you found here tonight.’  I took the bread and ate it.”

I followed his gaze into the night sky and saw the slivered arc of the new moon rising.  A multitude of stars speckled the canopy over us.  And a cooling breeze embraced us.

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