I climbed the tree to hide from my uncle. My mother’s brother wanted me to take two baskets of olives to the next village, and to return with the oil that had been pressed since my last trip there. But I hated the cantankerous old donkey; she bit my hand as I was filling the baskets a fortnight ago, and the wound had only recently healed. Far better to spend the day climbing the hills. I knew that Elihu would never find me, hidden in the ancient sycamore’s branches. Still, I climbed as high as I dared, intending to leave my hiding place once Elihu was certain to have pressed my younger brother, Isaac, into service.
So I perched on a heavy branch, eating the dates that I had stolen as I slipped out of the house. There was an unusual amount of activity in town that morning. I saw Uncle Elihu bustling from his house to the market to our house, obviously agitated and looking for me. Every time I thought it would be safe to climb down and escape into the hills, I would see him again, or my Aunt Susanna, or my dimwitted and lazy cousin. Why does he not send his precious Nathan to the village?
But in addition to the market activity, the town was bustling with some other excitement—I could not immediately determine the cause. Reluctant to miss out on any opportunity for mischief, I descended to a lower bough and listened. Crowds of people were forming, and I heard them mentioning someone named Jesus.
I strained to hear more—who was this Jesus?—when I was nearly knocked from my branch by someone else climbing my tree. I thought it was Isaac, and I raised the back of my hand to teach him a lesson. The interloper grabbed my hand and growled, “You’d better think about that, boy.”
I knew him—it was Zaccheus, the tax collector. My friends and I had spent many happy moments ridiculing this despised man. We mocked his shortness by walking on our knees, demanding taxes from our amused parents. They always laughed, and sometimes they even tossed a coin at us.
The reason for his desire to share my tree was immediately apparent. He wanted to see this Jesus—no doubt there was profit to be had, somehow—but he was too short to see above the crowd. (Indeed, even Isaac was taller than Zaccheus, and Isaac was only nine.)
So there we sat, Zaccheus and I, and watched the crowd approach. People were flocking to the man I presumed to be Jesus, and he touched many of them, speaking to both men and women in a calm voice. As he neared the tree, however, he stopped. He looked into the sycamore’s branches and called out. “Come down from there!”
I nearly fell from my branch. Jesus spoke with such authority that I felt sure he knew me. I feared that if I obeyed him, he would turn me over to Uncle Elihu for a beating, but I found myself unable to disobey his voice. My heart beating rapidly, I started down the tree. Then he spoke again.
“Zaccheus! Come down here! I desire to eat at your house today!”
He wasn’t talking to me at all! I looked over at Zaccheus. He had turned pale, but he was already scrambling down to meet this unusual man. When Zaccheus reached the ground, Jesus grasped his arms in greeting. The crowd began to murmur, and one man approached Jesus.
“Teacher, he is a tax collector!”
But already they had started down the road. After a few moments, I could neither see nor hear them.
All this happened four days ago. Since then I’ve worked for Uncle Elihu when I could not avoid it, and I’ve avoided working whenever possible. Yesterday I heard him saying that the olives in the north orchard are ripe, and would need to be harvested today. So I took early refuge in the sycamore, awaiting my chance to escape once again.
I was beginning to doze off when my branch quivered. Zaccheus was climbing up to meet me! I was caught, and I looked around for a way to elude his grasp. But he just smiled at me.
“I thought I might find you here, boy.” He settled on a branch close to mine. “I want to tell you what else happened that morning. Let me tell you…about Jesus.”
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