Hope...Even for Them
A couple of years ago, someone asked me what I want to be when I finally grow up. They weren’t trying to be condescending; they were just pointing out the fact that for a long time I didn’t have much of a “real job”. I bounced around here and there as an itinerant kind of guy. I didn’t have an office or a company car. I didn’t have a corporate expense account. I didn’t have a regular paycheck. Don’t get me wrong. I made a living. Sometimes we squeaked by, other times we had plenty of margin. I had a job, it just didn’t look like anything you’d call “normal”.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a Policeman for a while. I also wanted to be a trash collector because I thought they only worked on Tuesdays. I wanted to be a professional baseball player or a professional football player.
I never once thought, “I’d like to grow up and work for the IRS.”
In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Working for the Internal Revenue Service has been a dream of mine since childhood.”
Doctors. Nurses. Astronauts. Firemen. Veterinarians. Rock Stars. Rodeo Clowns. Yes.
IRS Agent? No.
In ancient Israel there were certain jobs that were not just distasteful; they were downright despised. In fact, some rabbis actually maintained a list of jobs that were unacceptable. For example, physicians and butchers were considered socially despised trades – because they were constantly handling blood and guts, and they generally showed special treatment to wealthy people.
Tanners and dung collectors also made the list – for obvious reasons. There was even a special dispensation for women whose husbands became dung collectors. They could divorce their husbands with none of the normal social and religious repercussions.
Then there was a completely different category of jobs that were actually considered immoral. Merely taking one of these jobs was considered a sin, an affront to God and the nation. People who gambled with dice. People who were involved in usury (lending money to people). Pigeon trainers (pigeon racing was a common form of gambling at the time).
At the bottom of the list: Tax Collector.
It’s hard to overstate just how deeply the hatred ran towards people who earned their living collecting taxes. They were not only avoided and despised, they were also deprived of many of their civil rights. They weren’t allowed to testify in court. They weren’t allowed to serve as judges or elders. A devout Israelite wouldn’t even allow the hem of his robe to brush up against the robe of a tax collector.
All of this background makes what Jesus did in Luke 19 so remarkable. Jesus encounters this wee little man named Zacchaeus, who has climbed up in a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector; he was “a chief tax collector”. That means he had ascended through the ranks of the other run-of-the-mill tax collectors and had distinguished himself as one of the best tax collectors around. Most Jewish people would have viewed him as one of the worst people in the world.
But there was something about Jesus that made the worst people in the world think there might actually be some kind of hope...even for them.