Back in 2010, while I was running for mayor, I was at a barbecue for all local candidates and I met Von Fraser. He saw me and waved me over to sit with him. I was surprised, because we had never met before and I didn’t even realize he knew who I was. It proved to be a fortuitous meeting.
Von almost immediately started telling me about his work. It was not at all what I expected, as he shared with me how he tried not to take people’s homes who were in arrears on their property taxes. He actually tried to help them refinance their houses and otherwise use what was available in the system to give them relief and help them stay in their homes. It was as if he was trying to impart to me his ethos of public service. Not only was he successful at doing so, but he completely upended my image of the local tax collector. I saw him as a great asset to the community.
The Bible takes a dim view of tax collectors, particularly in the New Testament. They are often lumped together with prostitutes and sinners. They were usually Jews who worked for the Roman government, which made them collaborators and traitors. One in particular, named Zacchaeus, is frequently pointed out by Sunday School teachers as one who got rich by cheating the people. The trouble with that is that the Bible no where says this about him. It has been assumed.
Poor Zacchaeus is often framed by his declaration that he would give half his money to the poor, and if he had cheated anyone, he would pay it back four-fold. This sounds less like and admission of guilt than a challenge to anyone who would make such an accusation. Besides, if he had gotten rich that way, it would have been mathematically impossible to give back four times what he stole, especially after giving half his wealth away. I am more inclined to think of him as a first century Von Fraser, trying to soften the blow upon the poor and needy.
Still, the Jews automatically despised him as one who worked for the enemy. He was guilty by association. And Jesus got grief from the people for being his friend (Luke 19:1-10).
But don’t we do this ourselves today? Are we not ready to accuse people of the worst crimes because of their political persuasion, the color of their skin, their sex, or religion? Did I miss anyone? Yet Jesus said He came to seek and to save the lost. Zacchaeus was one of those Jesus came to save, but He came for the others, also. But they didn’t seem to realize they needed to be saved.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, like the good tax collector, has an image problem. The world thinks both are coming to charge us a fee and a penalty. But they are actually coming to alleviate the burden. And Jesus does better than the most compassionate tax collector: He has come to take our penalty upon Himself. If you put your faith in Him and believe in who He is and what He has done for you, it will upend your world and change your thinking. If it doesn’t do that, you may be one of the grumbling accusers who still thinks Zacchaeus should be shunned, and are unaware that you are lost.
Von Fraser passed away in 2014, while I was preparing to move out of Gainesville. We had never cultivated a friendship after our initial meeting, and I regret that we didn’t get to know each other better. But he was a man who deserved to be remembered.