“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him,
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.””
A Purely Imagined Long Lost Letter
If you read the back to back stories from Luke 18:35 through Luke 19:10, you get to meet two of the characters whose names have been passed on through gospel stories, though you have to read Mark’s account (Mark 10:46-52) to get Bartimaeus’ name. I’ve often wondered how life unfolded for the people who populate the gospels. Here’s a purely imagined long-lost letter that tells a story that might have been.
My Dear Bartimaeus,
I was so glad to get your letter sharing all that has happened in the church of Jericho since I’ve last been home! I had to laugh to myself when I read your first question: “Do you remember the day I regained my sight?” As if anyone of us living in Jericho at that time could forget! I still grieve the way I treated you before that day. To my shame, I never saw anything in you but a blind beggar, helpless and dependent on those of us who (in my mind) worked so hard for our wealth. Well, thank you again for the forgiveness you extended me after we became co-laborers for Christ. Thank you as well for your question. It helped me slow down and reflect. And to remember once again, that while Jesus opened your eyes in an amazing way that day, he taught me how to truly see as well.
Honestly, I didn’t even know at the time what compelled me to seek out Jesus that day. Now I’d say, as I often do, that it was God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s leading that brought me out of my office that afternoon. At the time I just knew that there was something important that was about to unfold. I mean, obviously, Jesus was no stranger to Jericho! How many times had he passed through do you think? I wonder if anybody kept an accurate count?
The challenge was that he was always headed through on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem during the high holy feasts when everybody and their second cousins were traveling. Those were busy times for me as a chief tax collector! I saw a couple of colleagues come up short when the Roman governors collected the taxes, and in my youth I was doggone sure that I would never be the one getting locked up or thrown out of my job. It didn’t leave a lot of time to hear a traveling preacher talk in the synagogue, even Jesus, who had become so famous for his miracles by that point.
Traffic was just as busy the day he gave you sight in the buildup to Passover, but something was different in me. When I heard that Jesus was coming through town again, I immediately had this impulse to go see who he was.
When I realized what road Jesus was taking out of town I thought I might have a chance to see him. As you know I wasn’t going to see over a crowd, so I thought that old gnarled sycamore would be perfect. I can’t tell you how many times I’d grabbed some shade under that tree on those miserable days when the hot desert wind comes out of the east and settles into the Jordan River valley. I still laugh that me in a tree was one of the first things you saw after regaining your sight!
At the time I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew I needed to see who Jesus was. I didn’t have the slightest inkling that Jesus would see who I was. When he turned the corner, my stomach was in knots. I don’t have to tell you the power he possessed. Not just in his miracles, but in his very presence. You remember the way he could silence a crowd just with the look in his eyes? Well in that moment I had all I needed. It would have been enough. But then he glanced up and stopped mid-stride.
It felt like time stood still, the way he looked at me. It was terrifying, yet somehow comforting at the same time. I was frozen in that tree until his first word thawed my body, and my heart; Zacchaeus…
What a thing, that he said my name. Zaccheaus. He knew my name. And he called me by it.
I mean, I wasn’t exactly anonymous in Jericho as the chief tax collector. I was well known if not well liked. Plenty of people knew my name, but few called me by it. My whole life I’d been pip-squeak, half-pint, turncoat, traitor, Rome’s runt, Ceasar’s lap dog, a dozen other names I’d be too ashamed to write in this letter, along with everybody’s favorite name for me, “sinner.”
But Jesus didn’t call me any of those. He called me Zacchaeus. And in that one word he called me back to myself. He granted me the dignity of being just who I was. And then he granted me the honor of hosting him in my home. Clearly, he had been headed out of town to climb the Jericho road, probably wanting to get to Bethany with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and the rest of his friends. But he changed course and spent the day in my home, and I’ll never forget it, and I’ll never stop thanking God that he would see fit to give me such a gift! How many of our fellow Christians now would give everything they have to spend even a moment with Jesus, and you and I Bartimaeus, we were given that day freely by God’s grace and plan!
All those people who called me the worst names started grumbling in a heartbeat, angry that Jesus was a guest of mine. But somehow, because Jesus had called me by name and asked for my hospitality, I didn’t need to defend myself anymore. In fact, I realized that for all the abuse they had directed at me, I had turned deeper and deeper into my worst self. Without the acceptance of my community, I had learned to lean on my influence and accumulate wealth as a source of identity and meaning. In the presence of the Lord none of that matter anymore.
People have since made a big deal about my immediate response to give away half my wealth to the poor and repay every crooked collection four-fold, but it never felt like some noble thing to me. It was an impulse that flowed freely when Jesus called me by name and made clear he wanted to be with me. What could a bunch of coins hold to that? I had enough. And I’ve continued to have enough as I’ve traveled and used my Roman contacts to share the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
I’m so glad that we share the memory of that day my friend! To think that Jesus turned aside for each of us. That he knew us by name. And that he wanted us to know that we are so deeply loved and valued by God, even as he was headed toward his own death. That thought has carried me through a lot of hard times when I’ve felt exhausted and discouraged. We were fortunate enough to hear it straight from his mouth, but now the message depends on us Bartimaeus!
So if I have an answer to your second question; “Do you have any advice for us?” It would be this. As you meet new people there in Jericho, and as some of them begin to make their way into the life of the church, take care to learn their names! And never stop reminding them that it’s not just that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” It’s that “God so loves them.”
The world can be a mean place Bartimaeus. It can call us all sorts of hurtful things, and sometimes we can even come to believe it ourselves. We can start to identify with nothing more than our worst moments and ugliest traits. The church of Jesus needs to remain a place that reminds people who they truly are, unique individuals known and loved by God despite all the baggage we bear. Help each person feel as precious, and valued, and loved as we felt when Jesus turned aside to call us by name, and to call us into relationship with him!
Give my love to the rest of the congregation, and may you have all grace and peace as you testify to God’s unfailing love.
Until we meet again, or the Lord returns,