A brief background to better understand the passage… Rome “hired” local individuals to collect the taxes due the emperor. Roman soldiers would provide the “muscle” and tax collectors would be paid with any “excess” they could force out of their neighbors. Zacchaeus had not only become rich but he had become the “chief” tax collector in Jericho. He was absolutely hated by his community. It is easy to imaging the crowd pressing their shoulders together to block Zacchaeus’ view as he tried to see the famous prophet from Nazareth coming down the road. The bible says that Zacchaeus was, “small in stature” and could not see over their shoulders. With no other option, he runs down the road and climbs into the branches of a tree in order to see Jesus. Jesus stops at the tree and announces that he is going to his home to dine with him. The crowd is furious that Jesus would “associate with sinners.” And then something quite amazing happens…
It is easy to imagine the difficult life Zacchaeus experienced as a child literally being looked down upon by others. People from childhood through adults can be and often are cruel to those they feel have less power than themselves. Physical stature, social economic standing and racial prejudice are all opportunities for victimization occurring throughout history. It is not hard to imagine Zacchaeus using his wits to gain power over those who had treated him with disdain. Now, he had the power of Rome standing behind him as he extracted payment from those who had previously belittled him.
I am old enough to remember the boxing career of Cassius Clay who took the name “Muhammad Ali,” rejecting what he called “his slave name.” In an early interview an angry Ali asks reporters, “Why should I care that a few white people admire me when tens of thousands of white people want to kill me?” Growing up black in a white culture may have inspired him to use the power of his anger to win again and again inside and outside of the boxing ring. And yet, as his faith in God matured Ali was reported to walk out from his home in Chicago and carry a tray of cookies onto a tour bus, shaking people’s hands and signing autographs.
In one powerful story told of his life by a young assistant, Ali was seated at a table signing photos when a woman in line was overcome with emotion at the sight of the frailty brought on from his Parkinson’s disease. She left the line in tears. Ali sent his young agent to tell her that, “Muhammad has something he wants to tell you.” Taking her back to the front of the line Ali tells her that his physical condition was a gift from God. He had struggled with infidelity throughout his many marriages and in answer to prayers Allah took that struggle away…
When Jesus acknowledged Zacchaeus and said that he was going to his home to dine with him the crowd looked at them both with bitterness and resentment. But Zacchaeus responded to Jesus placing value upon him as a child of God and in that moment his heart was changed. Zacchaeus’ acts of charity and justice became a manifestation of God’s love reflected within him. Similarly, Ali became an ambassador of peace and goodwill by reflecting that same love from God to the world. If we can begin to see others through God's eyes we may find that they are not the only ones whose hearts are transformed.