Taxmen have probably never been the most popular profession. Today, most of our anger is directed against the system that seems to let the wealthiest treat tax as an optional extra, to be negotiated rather than just paid. More usually, it’s just the resentment many feel against someone who has the right legally to take the money they feel is their own – even though that money is paying for the society which makes life possible, safe and civilised.
In Jesus’ day there were the complications that taxgatherers were collaborating with the Romans and that they usually added their own cut on top of the official rate. So why did Zaccheus get an unexpected dinner guest (19:5-6) while the official traders in the Temple found themselves on the receiving end of an angry Messiah? (19:45-46)
After all, one was propping up the Romans, the other the Temple. But Jesus saw in Zaccheus someone who was ready to change – rich and lonely, Zaccheus needed to know that he belonged so that he could take a step away from his old ways. Jesus welcomed that step and took it with Zaccheus.
The temple traders, on the other hand, were probably sure that their trade, as well as being profitable, was a vital part of keeping the Temple running smoothly – not just because of the fees they paid to the priests but because they’d been sold a vision of religion as national property and as a system of barriers to be negotiated between us and God. That’s what the Temple had become – that’s why Jesus wept over the city (41-44). He knew that, unlike Zaccheus, the authorities in Jerusalem had no intention of changing their ways. And he knew that their path was leading them towards an inevitable showdown with Rome that they would lose.
If something’s wrong, then it’s still wrong even if the priest says it’s right.
If someone’s gone wrong, then the vital question isn’t so much how they’ve gone wrong as it is what they’re going to do about it.
Zaccheus and the temple authorities had both gone wrong. One was ready for a change. The others weren’t. One found Jesus sitting at his table. The others found him overturning tables.
Let’s be sure that we don’t use our position – civil or religious – for our own gain, material or in prestige. And when we realise that we’ve messed up, let’s make sure that we repent and change while we can.
I’d rather have Jesus come to me as a dinner guest than in anger.