Sunday of Zacchaeus

Sunday of Zacchaeus January 24, 2009

With Zacchaeus Sunday, we enter a new stage in the liturgical year, as the calendar begins to prepare us for Great Lent. We are called to put ourselves in the place of Zaccheus. We might not be tax collectors, but like them, we take from those around us – and we must ask ourselves, what do we give in return? Do we, like Zacchaeus, give to the poor? Do we strive to be just and never defraud anyone? Do we, like Zacchaeus, return (fourfold!) what we have taken and used in excess? The Christian life is one of penance — “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). It is one of restitution, where we are to work out our own salvation with much fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), to pay back to the very last penny what we have taken unjustly from others in our sin (Matt. 5:26). As Great Lent brings this part of the Christian life to the forefront, Zacchaeus Sunday foreshadows the salvation to come if we love Christ and follow his commandments (Jn. 14:15). We must not just seek after Christ, we must welcome him into our lives by living a life of faith in charity. “Because a Christian’s faith is with love, but a devil’s without love.”[1] 

 “And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost’” (Lk. 19:1 -10).   

Notice: Jesus does not condemn Zacchaeus, does not reprimand him for his riches. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wealth. The Christian faith has always recognized the different kinds of status people might have, and recognized that rich and poor alike are called to come together in Christ, without requiring any change in social status. Some who are proud in their riches and have turned them into an idol, or used them to infringe upon the personal dignity of others, might be called to give them up, but we are to remember that what is to be given up is anything in our lives which turns us away from God. Our love for God does not end with God, but is also shown in how we treat one another. Scripture shows us time and time again that hospitality and charity are expected from all. When we share with the needy, we are sharing with God. “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:36). The two great commandments – to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, can be said to be one, because the fulfillment of one will require the fulfillment of the other.  The more one is capable of sharing with others, the more one is expected to do so, but even those who are poor can, and should, given unto others what they can.   

Notice, moreover, that Zacchaeus, a tax collector, is judged by the people to be a sinner, and yet Jesus comes to his house, and, only in the end, renders his judgment, which is not of condemnation but of salvation. Jesus is the light of the world and his light brings salvation and judgment to all; the one who is willing to be judged and accept the justice of Christ will be saved; the one who hides because they do not want correction will have their own deeds serve to condemn them. “For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God” (John 3:20-21). Zacchaeus is not condemned because he willingly puts his entire self to Christ and let Christ render his judgment on him; he makes his case and points out that he is willing to make up for any injustice he has done, even if done in ignorance, showing us that objective evil, even if done in ignorance, requires restitution.[2] 

When He that bowed the Heavens came to save sinners, Zacchaeus, great in zeal. but little of stature, beheld the Tree of Life from in the Sycamore; lifted up above the earth, he saw Jesus, who called him: coming down in lowliness, he repenting, received Him; and so salvation came into his house, and he was shown forth a true son of Abraham” (Kontakion of Zacchaeus). 

There are two ways one can understand the words “salvation came into his house.” The most important one is the fact that Jesus, the savior, was welcomed by Zacchaeus. Wherever Jesus is, there is the offer of salvation. And Zacchaeus, welcoming Jesus, showing his hospitality, has welcomed salvation to his home, to his life. Indeed, it is this hospitality which shows him to be a “true son of Abraham,” because he is imitating the action of Abraham at Mamre (cf. Gen. 18). But it is also true that salvation came to Zacchaeus because, in the presence of Jesus, he experienced metanoia. He had heard of Jesus, and wanted to see him for himself. He tried to live a life of virtue. He tried to do good. But it was only in the face of Jesus, before him, that he could see for himself what he really was and realize what it is he was meant to do. His words to Jesus were one of commitment; he was going to go over all his records and repay everyone, and Jesus, knowing the heart of Zacchaeus, knew it would be as he said. Salvation had come because Zacchaeus understood the situation he was in. The riches he had were not all meant for him; he had to be a good steward and give to the poor and make sure that all his riches were gained justly. Anything else is stealth, and is to be rendered accordingly. 

Interestingly enough, this is not the end of the story, even if it is all that is written in the Gospels. Zacchaeus became one of the early leaders of the Church. As with so many others, his meeting with Jesus entirely changed him, and his life was never the same. He took on himself a life of service. Zacchaeus was a rich young man who gave his all to Christ. He was, of course, not the only one – we need only to remember Matthew, who was to become one of Jesus’ inner disciples during Jesus’ ministry, was also a publican. There appears to be something within the character of the tax collector that, if they converted to Christ, they became one of his best disciples. Perhaps they realized how much grace they had been given, and so how much more they should and did love Christ. Others would have given up on them, and spat on them; Jesus, on the other hand, showed love – real love, unquestionable love. How attractive that must have been. As John was to say, we love Christ because he loved us first. Clearly, love is able to affect far more good than hate: love can transform even the most hardened of sinner, while hate helps keep them in their sin. According to tradition, Zacchaeus worked with Peter, until at last, Peter chose him to become the first bishop of Caesarea: “Of Cæsarea of Palestine, the first was Zacchæus, who was once a publican; after whom was Cornelius, and the third Theophilus.”[3]


[1] St. Augustine, “Homily 10 on The First Epistle of John,” NPNF1(7), 520.
[2] Obviously, whether what one does in ignorance is a sin, and of what kind of sin if it is a sin, is an entirely different question.
[3]  Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, ANF(7), 477-8.

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