I could not bear the idea of standing idle in the marketplace, waiting for a man to hire me, waiting all day until the sun set on my hopes. Even so, this was the worst work a man could have. I used to think that it would be better to be wounded, or sick, than be a man pursuing my occupation. At least a sick or injured man might elicit some pity from passersby, some sense of solidarity in suffering in the midst of a suffering people, but I had an occupation among the occupiers and only they and the other tax collectors, ever uttered my name.
My work was not lowly or hard, my work was despicable. To my own people I was a thing despised, a person from whom others turned their eyes; a person disfigured by the sin of treachery, I had a fine home from it and all the food and wine I needed. Occasionally I had the company of a fellow tax collector at my table, but on the whole, I was more to be avoided than a person suffering with leprosy. I worked for the occupier, and I took the earnings from my own people to pay them. I also took a little extra money, as was expected, in order to seek some consolations in my loneliness.
The worst of it was, I despised myself more than anyone else could despise me. I regretted the day of my birth like Job, but I was never sinless as he was. No, I dragged my sin around with me, a sack of cursed coin, which could never bring joy to anyone. In the end I came to a moment when I thought of walking until I reached a precipice, and then walking on until the life God had given me would be ended.
Then one morning as I walked out (staying in the shade as was my habit, avoiding anyone who might recognize me) I caught a glimpse of Jesus. The Rabbi sat with his disciples, teaching the people, weaving their lives into his stories, and as I watched his voice and his gaze seemed to reach every thirsty heart.
Afterwards I would follow him at a distance, pining for him ‘like a dry weary land without water.’ Sometimes I would see him passing by my booth with a group of men: all kinds of men and even women who followed him. But in keeping my distance from other people I struggled to hear him and in hiding from men and women I strained to see the face I longed to gaze on.
I thought of the disciples who walked with him every day and I regretted my life more than I had ever done. And then one day he approached the tax booth, stopped, turned, and looked me directly in the eye. He simply said,
For a moment there was not a sound to be heard. If his followers were shocked, they did not speak. His words had an authority that no one challenged at that point. At the same time my heartbeat was so loud I thought everyone would hear it in the silence. You may wonder if I held back at all, knowing that my wealth was assured in the life I had, and knowing too that even this life might be lost if I followed him.
I did not hesitate. I put nothing down; I picked nothing up. I gazed into Jesus’ eyes and knew he saw me. I was healed and I walked away with my Rabbi, my Lord.