There is seemingly an unimportant phrase at the end of the first sentence of the gospel passage from Luke (19:1-10) given in yesterday’s posting. If you missed it, I recommend scrolling back to it. There are a few words in the beginning that are very easy simply to skim over. The text tells us that Jesus was going through Jericho when ‘…suddenly a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance.’ It’s the words ‘made his appearance’, that are so telling, I believe. They are an English interpretation of the original Greek text, rather than a literal translation of the Greek words, but I believe the translators of the New Jerusalem Bible are using the phrase in order to introduce the reader subtly to the theme of suffering in Zacchaeus’s life. There is a sub-text in these words. Usually when we say So and So “made his appearance” we are smirking. We are putting a negative spin on the words because we are talking about someone who is not very likeable, someone whose actions may have harmed us or a person we love, someone who never enters a public scene without having some ulterior motive. The phrase implies, “Oh no. What’s he doing here?” On this particular occasion a crowd has gathered in order to see Jesus, who was known to be a holy man and a healer. This is an occasion in which a dishonest person and a swindler would not be expected even to be interested.
And, yet, Zacchaeus – a chief tax collector, as the Greek text tells us – was there. Tax collectors were notorious in Jesus’ day for being dishonest, callous, thieving characters, who took more money than they had a right to, in order to line their own pockets. These were Jews who were employed by Rome, the occupying power, and who were therefore considered by devout Jews to be apostates from their own faith, and loyal to ‘the enemy.’ Zacchaeus was no different. If anything, he would have been considered to be worse than many tax collectors, an ‘arch-enemy’, because as chief tax collector, he was in charge of a whole district, and doubtless was responsible for ensuring that those under him did not become too lenient toward those owing tax money. And this man ‘makes his appearance’ – here, of all places.
The people in the crowd probably glance at Zacchaeus warily, then exchange looks with one another. Maybe the only thing that prevents some of the men in the crowd from confronting Zacchaeus is the thought that this, after all, is an event in which a holy man will be present. It would not do to have a brawl. In any case, Zacchaeus had power to ruin anyone who made his life difficult. So, the people in the crowd try to act as though Zacchaeus isn’t there.
That Zacchaeus was ‘blanked’ by the people, that all were complicit in an act of passive aggression against him can be inferred from the text, where it says, He kept trying to see who Jesus was, but he was short and could not see him for the crowd. In other words, the crowd closed ranks against Zacchaeus. They would not let him through. He was a well-known figure not only in Jericho, but in the district. In this setting, had he been a public person of some other profession, with a reputation for kindness and philanthropy, surely he would have been allowed to pass through. A little murmur of recognition would have gone through the crowd, and Zacchaeus would have found a pathway opening up for him, making it possible for him to move forward. But nothing of the kind happens. He is ostracised.