Christian Short Stories
DIVINE INTRUSION AT JERICHO
By John Miller
Many people know the story of Zacchaeus in the Bible. Children are taught a little song that is based on this Scripture. I bet some of you are singing it in your head as you read this! A Spirit-guided reading of this Scripture reveals much more than does the song; the truly wonderful message of God’s love and grace poured out on mankind, in the life of Jesus Christ. Such is the impetus for this story told to an un-expecting tourist in Jericho by an imaginary onlooker from that day when Jesus came to Jericho.
Divine Intrusion at Jericho!
My name? It’s not unimportant. In fact, I am not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. But I was in Jericho to see Jesus enter our ancient city. Oh, I see that I have shocked you…that usually happens to everyone I meet. No, I’m not crazy and you’re not dreaming. I’m really here before you. No need for panic…I’m harmless and you’ll probably never tell of this encounter with me to another living soul. They wouldn’t believe you anyway. I see that you’re uneasy but I’d like to speak with you. No, the others can’t see or hear me as you do. Since they can see your face and reactions, let’s step away from the crowd so we can speak together, in private. I’d like to tell you a story. Let’s walk slowly, I’m an old man. There’s plenty time for telling this story. In my day, we took time to let stories linger in our thoughts, so we wouldn’t forget the meaning of the smallest word. You needn’t worry about the bus leaving without you.
You must be curious about me. Well, I’m a poor Jew, born in 4 B.C. just 10 miles outside this city. Oh yes, that’s true. I was a distant and curious follower of Jesus; just one of many faces among the crowds sitting on a hillsides. Yes, I knew Jesus, at first as “Teacher,” as did most people at the time. I was there for the miraculous feedings and always a little curious about his parables. Jesus had a way, a commanding presence about him that I’ll never forget. Did I become a member of “The Way?” I’ll tell you about that later.
Now, to address your interest in Jericho. Well, the brochure you’re holding says that it’s the oldest city in the world. That’s true. It once was a prosperous commercial and agricultural region, heavily traveled by tradesmen and vendors in camel caravans from the nearby Jordan Valley and elsewhere. The old road entering the city was just a wide, dusty swath through our vineyards. Camel caravans and donkey carts had worn deep ruts in it; making walking was a bit precarious. Closer to the square and shops were cobble stone streets. Still, keeping the dust down was a great problem. That old shop there, its roof patio is typical of the times. Families ate their meals and spent leisure time high up on roofs, away from the dust and dung of the crowded street. That raised a peculiar question in my mind on that day…but I’ll get to that later. So much has changed in my city; my culture and yours; yet nothing has changed in the hearts of so many men. I’m curious why that is.
Maybe you have the answer. It seems to me that your generation should have all the answers for living. Your generations have had many years to read the Bible and learn about what happened in the time of Jesus and here in Jericho. Nowadays, you carry around little devices loaded with of electronic books. There seems no end of ways for you to learn what’s important. Being poor, I had little access to the ancient scrolls of my time. I learned to read and count using the writings and numbers scratched into pieces of broken clay that were used by the traders and in the shops. Oh well, I promised you a story, and there’s a mighty important one about the tree that caught your eye, and the little man named Zacchaeus. I noticed you staring at that big tree, and that’s why I approached you. Let’s walk to that bench under its shade and I’ll get started.
I’m sure that your tourist guide on the bus has told the story of Zacchaeus climbing a Sycamore-fig tree. It’s from the Bible. Luke 19:1-10, right? That’s what “put us on the map,” as you moderns like to say. I’m very amused by the vernacular of your day. Let me fill in the blanks, so that you get the richest meaning of God’s message in those verses. Now, let me tell you about my friend Zacchaeus.
Of course I knew Zacchaeus! I call him friend now but in those days, I usually kept my distance from him. He had no Jewish friends and wasn’t all that friendly to locals and passers-by, except to the rich Gentile traders. He was also friends with the Romans. Let me tell you a little more about Zacchaeus. It’s important that you understand his background.
At the time of Christ, the Jewish nation was under taxation by the Roman Empire. The Jews hated paying tribute to Rome, funding the foreigners on their soil who oppressed them and worshiped their many gods displayed in surrounding public buildings and in Rome. The Roman Tax Collector Core fell into 2 groups; The General Tax Collector who annually demanded lawful taxes for property such as farms, land and houses, individuals and, income taxes. The second Tax Collector Group, known as Deputy or Under-collectors, sat at booths alongside roads, bridges and at entrances to the public buildings and the main parts of town. These were Jews; willing contractors to the Roman authorities and allowed to collect taxes as they saw fit. Many were crooked, self-enriching men. They collected taxes from Jews and traveling vendors of other nations for such unreasonable things such as each person crossing a bridge (in both directions) and exiting that bridge, also to enter certain properties or areas of the city. Carts were subject to search and their contents taxed, as was the animal pulling the cart or the people riding in them. Even the size or number of cart wheels could be taxed. These tax collectors were allowed to keep part of the revenue for themselves. The Jews considered the Jewish tax collectors to be robbers and thieves.
Well, Zacchaeus was a Jew and a chief tax collector who sat at a booth. He had sold himself out to the Romans and became wealthy at the expense of his own people! That was his game. He was considered to be a cheater, turncoat and sinner; although Scripture does not say that he cheated anyone. But his life changed that day---forever! I’ll never forget the day that Jesus came to Jericho. To use your vernacular, Jesus is a game changer!
By the way, as I tell you this story, I want you to consider something important about Scripture. What I’m about to tell you is based entirely on God’s word. It’s worth reminding that every word of the Bible is alive, everlasting, truthful, meaningful and purposeful. In Isaiah 55:11, as elsewhere in Scripture, God declared the power and purpose of his faithful word for us. God's Word possesses all of His might and power. God is eternally active. God's grace and His justice, His omnipresence and His holiness, His majesty and His glory are not quiescent attributes, but are active and dynamic. And as God is, so is His Word.1 It is only when we firmly trust His word that we dig deeply for its fullest meaning in our lives. I see that you brought along your Bible, so go ahead and read Luke 19:1-10. I’ll take it from there.
The name Zacchaeus means “righteous one or pure one.” His parents must have expected something great of him to give him that name. Can you imagine what alienation and hatred they suffered as a result of their son’s association with the Roman authorities as a tax collector? Yes, he was an adult and responsible for his actions outside their home. Yet, his parents took the blunt of cruel jokes and ridicule from their neighbors. Some shops wouldn’t trade with them. I’d say that Zacchaeus was well aware of the cost of his occupation to his parents; to himself. After all, he was rejected by family and friends and became one of the most despised people in the city. So, why do you suppose that he choose to be a tax collector? Was he ridiculed for his small size? Is that why he later opted to buy his acceptance among the rich? Did he choose friendship with the Romans who held less prejudice against him? Whatever the cause, I always assumed that his life was empty, despite his wealth. What does this say about love of money? Well, on with my story.
Messianic fever ran high among the excited crowds who followed Jesus. They greeted him as he traveled to the holy city, attracted by his preaching and miracles. Could this be the Messiah, they wondered, come to deliver them from their Roman oppressors? Did you know that when Jesus entered Jericho, he was only week away from his crucifixion? Yet his mission that day was clear. He was the Shepherd who would save the lost.It was a dry, hot day. When I saw the dust rise in the road, kicked up by the feet of the approaching throng of intruders to our city, I knew it had to be Jesus and his followers. Others who were curious and looking for a show, tagged along. The crowd swelled as locals from shops joined them to follow Jesus across the dusty road nearing this very square. For reasons I still don’t understand, I ran first to tell Zacchaeus. That’s right; I told Zacchaeus that Jesus was coming but I never expected his reaction!
“Which one is this Jesus that I hear talk about?” He asked excitedly, “I want to see him.” “There, at the front of the crowd,” I replied. Zacchaeus quickly closed up his booth and ran into the crowd. He was not alone. The local vendors had left their shops unattended to join the townspeople who jammed the street to gawk at the visitors. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. Next thing I see is Zacchaeus perched in this tree, his outer garment dirty and torn by the limbs. He was a funny sight! One of the merchants stared up at him, sneering and murmuring snide comments, while others strained their necks to see Jesus over the shoulders of taller people. The little man did well to climb the tree. Never was there such commotion in all of Jericho!People have asked me, “Why did Zacchaeus run to climb the tree?” That’s a good question, one with many possible answers. Frankly, I wondered why he didn’t go up on a nearby shop roof for a good view. But then, he wasn’t welcome at those shops unless he was spending money. They probably overcharged him, just to get back at him for his greed. Anyway, I can tell you that he should never have ran in the street, because rich well-dressed men never ran with their skirt lifted to expose their legs. Although, I did hear Jesus speak of such a happening, when he told the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father ran to meet his long lost son, so I imagine that he raised his skirt or he would have tripped in the field. If Jesus said it, then I suspect that he was making an important point. But certainly, rich Jews of the city would never climb a tree in the presence of others. We are a prideful bunch!
So, what do you think motivated Zacchaeus to drop his pride and climb the tree to see Jesus? Was he merely securing the best viewing post ahead of someone else? There were Gentiles in the crowd and any one of them might have climbed that tree. Some books of your generation say that the Sycamore-fig tree of Judea was considered unclean because its fruits were used to feed the pigs.2 I won’t say one way or the other, but surely Zacchaeus would not have climbed that tree, if he hadn’t traded his pride and willingly suffered great embarrassment for the opportunity to see Jesus up close. Some people say he was merely curious. I prefer to think that he wasn’t going to let his wealth come between his soul and God. As a Jew, somewhere in the depths of his soul he knew his Maker, and the talk of Jesus that had reached his ears had fulfilled a divine plan for the meeting at Jericho. The little rich man was tucked in a tree, his eyes glued on the Messiah trudging along in the dusty street. He didn’t know what to expect but his deliberate and risky action didn’t go unnoticed by Jesus. Imagine that! God calling for Zacchaeus perched in a tree; some say an unclean tree, to meet his Son. Surely the Holy Spirit was at work here.
I think that Jesus anticipated finding the strange little man sitting up in a tree. He fully intended to intrude into Zacchaeus’ life of pride and greed. After all, as you see in the Bible, Jesus is the Good Shepherd searching for his wayward sheep. Just a short time before, Jesus had told about this in a parable to the Pharisees who objected to his association with tax collectors and sinners. Yes, I was there on the hillside to hear it. You’ll find that in Luke 15:1-2. Surely, Jesus must have been anticipating who Zacchaeus would become, once he embraced his divine love! He mission included intruding into Zacchaeus’ life to show him unconditional acceptance; to show him how to live through him. You can read about that in 1 John 4:9. The little man in the tree never expected what followed when Jesus looked up to speak to him.
You know that Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” I remember the surprised look on Zacchaeus’ face when Jesus called him from that tree. Shock and inexpressible joy combined in his facial features, as he jumped down from the tree limb, scraping his knees on the ground. He rose awkwardly to his feet to stand before Jesus. “Look Lord,” I heard him say, as he disclaimed his sinful past and offered to make restitution for his cheating. He had suddenly recognized Jesus as his Master! His gratitude for saving grace had radically changed the life of the hated tax collector. I saw the effect of a beginning and endless faith, expressed in joy as he welcomed Jesus to go to his home. Obviously, Jesus saw it too because something supreme happened at that moment. I saw it! Right before me, Zacchaeus’ face revealed that his hardened heart was changed, its door had swung wide open and it was filled with grace. The man formerly controlled by greed was now mastered by inexpressible, heavenly love. His declaration of charity; his confession of past extortion; his offer of repentance were lost on the judgmental Jews that surrounded him. Zacchaeus had surrendered to his Lord, Christ Jesus!
The crowd was stunned by Jesus inviting himself to the home of a sinner of Zacchaeus. They could only mutter condemnation of him and ridicule Christ. I suppose that hardened hearts were incapable of seeing the very work of God before them. By the way, do you know that there is no other recorded case where Jesus invited himself to a home? How about that!
Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’ confession was not to judge him nor offer approval of his works of charity. I could see that in his face, and he had no word of rebuke for Zacchaeus. I think that he already knew all about the little man in the tree. I was plain to me that Jesus was there to save his soul. Clearly, he needed nothing from Zacchaeus in order to grant him the gift of love, where only despise and hate had existed. Jesus’ divine intrusion at Jericho had great purpose; to show incomprehensible love, forgiveness and mercy.
What Jesus said next stunned the crowd. He declared that Zacchaeus, who had been lost, was a son of Abraham. I know now that it was because of his newfound seed of faith. Some there would never believe that this sinner could be saved. Still others didn’t seem to fully recognize that they had just witnessed a miracle. Few of them ever admitted that the city’s most despised outcast was bound for heaven. They had missed the miracle occurring right before their eyes; the conversion of Zacchaeus was the fulfillment of Christ’s very purpose for coming into the world.
You asked me earlier if I had become a member of “The Way.” Well, I did that day! How could I not? I found myself fully and completely in love with Jesus Christ. I don’t think he saw me; at least he wasn’t looking my direction. But I felt drawn into his presence, into his love. I knew I needed forgiveness; that I wanted what Zacchaeus had just received; that I could never live without Jesus anymore than could the new Zacchaeus. I quickly found my time and place to surrender fully to my Lord.
So, let me ask you…what do you think would have happened if Zacchaeus had held to his pride and ignored the pre-destined call from Jesus? What if he had opted to stay at his tax booth and kept his false religion of money to himself? I can see by your face that you would never entertain that thought. Well, let me tell you. No one in Jericho would have known that Jesus could change the most despised man in the city to become his follower. I and others might have missed out on a miracle of salvation that day. You would have never read about the miracle of a soul converted in Jericho. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit did not let that happen. God had a plan; God owns grace and poured it out on us that day. This was the work of God in Jesus Christ!
I see that your bus is loading, so you better get aboard. Let me leave you with this thought. Imagine what a follower of Christ might have said about Zacchaeus at this point: “Today, Zacchaeus has passed through the eye of a needle!” Oh yes, it was the most splendid day in Jericho!
“Thank you for telling me the story,” the tourist said, he was otherwise speechless. He turned to go to the bus. It wasn’t there. He quickly looked back to see that the old man wasn’t there either. All that was before him was the familiar surroundings seen from his favorite chair; his Bible, opened to Luke Chapter 19, rested in his lap.
(© 2010 John Miller – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)
1 Robert Preus, The Power of God's Word,
2 Climbing High to See Jesus, Christian Family Fellowship,
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