87- IN A SYCAMORE BRANCH

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From Jerusalem, we journeyed to Jericho, the city of the roses, which Joshua had conquered with the sounding of his trumpet. That winter, Jesus was already known all over the country, from the lands of the tribe of Dan, to the desert of Idumea, from the sea of the Phoenicians to the barren mountains of Moab… When we arrived in Jericho, the people were excited as they all came out to receive us….

A Woman: He’s coming! The prophet is coming!

A Man: Long live the Nazarene! Down with the Romans!

The people pushed us on all sides. We could hardly move along the street lined with trees that joined the old walls of the city to the square-shaped plaza…. The synagogue was there, and also the Roman Headquarters and the Customs House….

Zaccheus: Damn it, what is this mob?…. People can’t even do their work well when they gather! They don’t even know their numbers well.!… Hey, you, what the hell is going on?… Is there a fire, a wedding or a funeral?

A Young Man: A prophet! The prophet of the Galileans is here! A man called Jesus of Nazareth!

Zaccheus: This is too much! As if we hadn’t had enough of John, that long haired guy who drowned the people in the river!

Young Man: This man has got long hair too, Mr. Zaccheus!

Zaccheus: He’ll suffer the same fate, too, young man! Israel produces a lot of prophets on one hand, and crucifies them with the other hand!

Young Man: Take a look at the crowd, Mr. Zaccheus. The people are milling around like ants! Look!…

Zaccheus: Hey, are you making fun of me, or what?

Zaccheus would have needed a stool to peep through that window. He was plump and balding. He was a short man. Ever since, he had devoted himself to the despicable job of collecting taxes for the Roman government. His ability with numbers and other money matters had made him the chief of all the tax collectors in the area. Everyone in Jericho hated Zaccheus. People made fun of his short stature, as a way of getting even with him, on account of his abuses.

A Man: Shorty, shorty, traitor! You’re done with and your trade, too! The new prophet will drive away the Romans and all those who lick their asses, like you!

The entire city was out in the street. As Zaccheus left his office, all kinds of insults rained on him….

A Man: The prophet from Galilee is out to squeeze the eagle’s neck of Rome, you hear that, shorty?!… Like this, look,….. grrr…!

Zaccheus: He’d better do it before Saturday! You owe me fifty dinarii, and if you don’t pay me soon, you’ll end up in jail.

Another Man: It’s you who’ll pay for all this, you leech! You can’t get away with it, even if you hide yourself in a latrine! The Nazarene will get you out of there and he’ll drag you through the street!

Zaccheus: Eat your hearts out….. imbeciles!

The people continued to swarm the plaza, shouting and applauding Jesus, who could hardly be seen because of the multitude…. Zaccheus elbowed his way among the crowd. Underneath his arm was the leather roll where he kept the receipts, listed all debts and tax payments… Gradually he succeeded in getting away from the place, took a shortcut through some of the huts and headed for his comfortable house at the other end of the town….

Zaccheus: The prophet from Galilee…. Well, well… This country is dying of hunger, but we never run out of prophets…. There’s so much talk everywhere, but nothing happens… everything is the same… Things can’t change with words… Such beautiful words, but they could spell danger……

Before entering his house, Zaccheus looked at his reflection on the ditch that crossed through the city…. He saw that he was small, ridiculously small… Once again, he was filled with bitterness….

Zaccheus: Nothing has changed, damn it, nothing!….. What a disgusting life!

He went inside his house, kissed his wife, as always, and sat at the table to eat… Then, he lay down to get some sleep….. But the noise persisted and….

Zaccheus: What the hell! Can’t I even sleep in my own house?

Sarah: It’s the prophet who is in town. Everyone is so excited about him!

Zaccheus: That man again!… I don’t want to have anything to do with that prophet… Close the window, woman!

Sarah: It’s already closed, Zaccheus. The noise outside is very loud.

Zaccheus: Open it then!….. After all, who can sleep with that noise… Pff! Ahuuummm! How disgusting!

Zaccheus grudgingly stood from the bed, climbed on a stool and peeped through the window….

Sarah: Can you see, Zaccheus?

Zaccheus: Whom?

Sarah: Who else? The prophet?

Zaccheus: What the heck do I want to see him for?

Sarah: I dunno… but since you peeped through the window…..

Zaccheus: Do you, too, want to go see him? Go ahead, see him. It’s not my business prying into other people’s lives!

Zaccheus’ wife opened the door, headed for the street until she was lost amid the screaming and admiring crowd…

Zaccheus: What a man!… What bait has he got in his hook?… Even Sarah has fallen for it… Who would ever think of it… my wife…. is also following that Galilean…… Well, well. There must be something special in this fellow…. all these rascals are mesmerized by him… I think I’m getting curious too….

The noise and uproar in the street had heightened….

A Man: Tell us, Jesus, when will you drive the Romans out of the country?!

Another Man: Tell us what happened in Jerusalem, prophet!

A Woman: Hey, little girl, watch where you’re going. You’re stepping on my corn!

Another Woman: Neighbors, look over there, and don’t lose sight of him! Ha, ha!

All of us turned to where that woman with long braided hair was pointing. Perched in one of the sycamore trees in the patio of his house was Zaccheus, his short legs balancing from one side to another…

A Man: How in the world could the dwarf climb that tree? Blazes! The devil is coiled like the serpent in paradise!

An Old Man: So, you too, wanted to see the prophet, huh?

Man: Don’t you know that the Nazarene is out to pluck your tongue, shorty?

Another Man: Get down from there, scoundrel! Hey, guys, let’s pull him down!

The people forgot about us as they hurried toward the patio of the publican’s house. A group of men surrounded the sycamore and began to shake its branches with all their strength…. We also started to run toward the place…

Jesus: Who’s that guy?

A Woman: Zaccheus, the chief of the tax collectors of the area. He’s a cheat and a thief!

A Man: A treacherous dwarf!

Another Man: Down with the traitors! Down with the traitors!..

Jesus: Zaccheus, come down fast, or these people will pull you down faster than you imagine.

Finally the crowd from Jericho, amid shoutings and laughter, succeeded in bringing Zaccheus down. His little body fell down in the middle of the patio…

Man: Beat it, go away, you traitor! Dwarf!

Zaccheus: Get out of my house, all of you! Go to hell, all of you!

Woman: After you!

Jesus forced his way through the people to be able to get to where Zaccheus was, whose face was red with rage and shame. He was exchanging barbs with his neighbors….

Woman: Crush him like you would a roach, prophet!!

All: Yeah, crush him, crush him….!

Jesus: Hey, Zaccheus, how much will you collect from us?

The neighbors exchanged surprised glances when Jesus said this… Zaccheus, likewise looked at Jesus amazingly…

Zaccheus: What did you say?

Jesus: I said, how much are you going to collect from us? We’ll have lunch in your house… If night befalls us, then we’ll also have to spend the night here…

After a while, we all went inside Zaccehus’ house. No one in Jericho understood it, and everyone criticized Jesus. Everyone was indignant that Jesus had chosen to go into the house of that man who was hated by all. We, too, who had great contempt for publicans (tax collectors) and much difficulty in accepting into our group Matthew, the tax collector from Capernaum could not easily force ourselves to be seated at the table of the chief of tax collectors…

Zaccheus: Be my guests. Ask whatever you want, eat whatever… This house is never wanting of anything!

James: Naturally, since you steal everything…

Zaccheus: How’s that?

James: No, nothing….. I was talking about carob beans…. In Galilee there are many….

Zaccheus was happy. Seated on one end of the table beside Jesus, his eyes were glowing with joy. For the first time, after so many years, he had guests in his house….

Zaccheus: Well, yes. What I least expected was this….having the prophet here in my house and breaking bread for all of you, my friends from Galilee!

Peter: And they almost broke your legs, shorty!

Zaccheus: Pardon, what did you say?

Peter: That the meat is so tender, countryman!

Zaccheus: But of course. These are lambs from my flock from the other side of the river. We have direct transaction with the Moabite shepherds and we command a very good price.

John: Plus the taxes you’ve been collecting, you can’t complain, rascal!

Zaccheus: Were you saying something….?

John: Oh, nothing, I was saying that……. it’s Monday today! Ha, ha….!

James: And tomorrow is Tuesday! Ha, ha, ha!

Peter: And after tomorrow is Wednesday! Ha, ha, ha!

The laughter spread among everyone as if an invisible hand had tickled us pink… Peter and I were laughing over a plate of lamb. Zaccheus was all red, laughing to his heart’s content… Suddenly he stood from the table….

Zaccheus: Ha, ha, ha…! Ay…. ha…! I’d like to say that….. although I’m a short man, you don’t really have to break my legs…. I’m short, but I’m not deaf…. Yeah, the carob trees of Galilee…. I know these hands of mine have robbed a lot…… It’s true…… My neighbors are right: I’m a leech and I’ve sucked so much blood…

We looked at each other, not knowing what to do or say…. until Jesus broke the silence….

Jesus: Forgive us, Zaccheus. We didn’t mean to offend you….

Zaccheus: Save the nice words, prophet. Things won’t change with words.

Then Zaccheus went near the shelf where he kept his receipts and list of accounts. He put them on the table where everyone could see…

Zaccheus: I won’t talk much. I’d like to do it this way…. My debtors are free. Those whom I cheated, I shall return four times of what I’ve stolen. I’m getting half of the money from my chest: it’s no longer mine, it’s yours!

Zaccheus words stunned all of us. Jesus was filled with joy…

Jesus: Know what, Zaccheus? I believe that today you’ve been the prophet in Jericho…. Look, a just deed is worth more than a thousand words… Yes, things do change if people change. And the truth is that…… salvation has come to your house today!

Zaccheus: What did you say? Do you want some more wine? Why, sure, Jesus! Come, give me that cup! And all of you too!!

Once again, Zaccheus filled all pitchers with wine. We continued eating and drinking in the house of the chief of the publicans. Without knowing it, we were proclaiming the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, where the most downtrodden were to occupy the seats of honor.

*Comments*
Jericho is a city partly situated in the desert of Judea, in the middle of a fertile plain with tropical climate. It is found at 250 meters below sea level and about seven kilometers from the bank of the Jordan River. After the excavations done in 1952, a conclusion was made that Jericho is the oldest known city all over the world, having discovered the remaining wall dating back from the Stone Age. Jericho was the first city conquered by the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua (Jos 6:1-27). These very significant ruins are found at about two kilometers from the present Jericho.

In Jesus’ time, Jericho became important as it provided a passageway for the trade caravans crossing the desert. On account of this, an important office was set up to attend to the collection of taxes. Heading this office was the chief of the publicans or tax collectors, Zaccheus. The taxes collected in Jericho enriched the Roman coffers, since the city was in Judea, a province administratively dominated by Rome. (The taxes collected by Matthew in Capernaum were intended for King Herod.) The post of tax collectors was auctioned off by the Roman authorities, leasing it to the highest bidder. Then the publicans (tax collectors) had to pay Rome for the lease and other expenses. Rome set the fixed amount to be collected in the form of taxes. The publicans would earn very little if they were honest with the collection. That is why they arbitrarily increased the rate of collection, so they could get rich from the remaining amount. Their continuous dishonesty and their collaboration with the Roman powers earned for them the hatred and contempt of their own people.

The sycamore is a large tree that originated from Egypt from the fig family, and grows along the coasts of Palestine and the entire plains of the Jordan. It is also known as the “crazy fig tree.” Its trunk is the source of durable wood, which was used in Egypt for coffins of the mummies. Its roots are very strong, and its thick leaves are heart-shaped. Its fruits which resemble small figs are abundant.

Zaccheus is one of the few rich men – together with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea – converted by Jesus. His conversion, a result of his curiosity to take a look at the prophet and the kind of welcome he gets from Jesus, could not be sheer sentimentalism nor a vague desire to be good. His conversion does not remain in words nor in remorse of conscience: it is something that involves his pocket. He pledges to return to the people he has cheated four times the amount he has taken from them. Half of what would be left shall be given to the poor. It is a well concretized conversion, and even an “exaggerated” one. Zaccheus will apply, not the Jewish law, but the Roman law to himself – as a form of “penitence” for his fraudulent acts – which requires the return four times the original of the stolen amount. The Jewish law is less severe compared to the latter. He will also do away with the Jewish norm which prohibits the use of more than one fifth of one’s fortune to help the poor. Instead, he shall donate half of it. Jesus contextualizes this authentic conversion of Zaccheus with a gesture that shows a profound theological color. Generally it is believed the sinner should be welcomed with affection, but only after his repentance. We even believe God works in that manner. Jesus shows a new religious attitude. Jesus accepts Zaccheus even before he begins his penitence. The fact that he wants to go to his house – even to eat with him, a great indication of friendship – seems inconceivable to Zaccheus. That gesture is so amazing that it overwhelms him, as it obviously lets him see and admit to who he is, and what he has done to the people he has cheated. What his neighbors’ reproaches with Zaccheus have failed to do Jesus succeeds in doing, by risking this gesture of unconditional welcome. That man, despised by everyone, within himself suddenly recovers his lost dignity and so his life becomes transformed.

The rich are not excluded from the Kingdom of God. What happens is that for them, conversion must necessarily involve giving up their wealth, precisely because they keep on selfishly storing their wealth for themselves. When he discovers his lost dignity through Jesus’ gesture of welcome, Zaccheus likewise discovers why he has lost that dignity. He realizes that he has acquired his wealth while oppressing the poor people of his town. He not only realizes this, he takes positive action as a result of this; the giving up of his ill-gotten wealth.

(Lk 19:1-10)

87- IN A SYCAMORE BRANCH

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