About the Story of Zacchaeus and Its Lessons Regarding Repentance


        Brothers and sisters!

        Next Sunday, in our divine services, we begin use of the Triodion, the book which has as its two chief themes repentance and the Passion of Christ, and which is utilized throughout the pre-Lenten and Lenten seasons; therefore, it is fitting that this Sunday’s Gospel should tell a story of repentance and conversion:  the story of Zacchaeus, whose radical change of heart brought salvation not only to himself, but to his entire household.  At that time, the lection begins, Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.  And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans; and he was rich.  And he sought to see Jesus, Who He was, and could not for the press, because he was little of stature.  And he ran before, and climbed into a sycamore tree to see Him; for He was to pass that way.  In Palestine, the Romans charged local merchants with the duty of collecting taxes, and these businessmen in turn appointed scribes known as publicans to do the actual work of tax-gathering.  The publicans levied more than the tax required by law, keeping the excess for themselves and their employers.  Tolls were levied upon the transportation of goods by land or sea; hence the well-known toll-booths out of which publicans worked.  Publicans also taxed fishermen and farmers, and collected census-taxes.  Usually, the government taxed ordinary items at five percent and luxury goods at twelve-and-a-half percent, but did not limit the additional amount publicans could demand.  Most publicans wrung out as much as they could from the tollpayers and taxpayers.  The Jews despised the publicans (who were themselves mostly Jews), not only because they were extortioners, but because they were agents of Rome, the hated foreign power, and of the puppet kings and tetrarchs appointed by the Romans.  The Jews would not associate with publicans in private life, and Publicans were not allowed to testify in Jewish courts.  Publicans’ donations were not accepted by the Temple.

        As the chief among the publicans, Zacchaeus would have been one of the most prominent businessmen in Jericho.  In addition to the wealth gained from commercial ventures, he had money streaming into his coffers from the exactions of the publicans subordinate to him.  Thus, he was extremely rich, especially since, by his own admission, he did not limit his extortions to the sort usual in the corrupt Roman system of tax-farming.  As a powerful, influential man, he manipulated his connections with the authorities to bring false accusations against those out of whom he wanted to squeeze as much as possible.  He was, to put it bluntly, a greedy, ruthless, lover of money and what it can buy; a person feared and detested, especially by the common people.  Yet for all his wealth and power, his conscience was uneasy.  It seemed to everyone that Zacchaeus had not a single scruple, but within him a struggle was raging.  Zacchaeus was a Jew, and as such knew the many admonitions to justice and mercy in the Old Testament law and prophets.  Like many other Jews of his time, he expected the imminent coming of the Messiah, but his hopes ran deeper than did those of most of his co-religionists.  They awaited a worldly leader; he, painfully aware of his transgressions, looked for someone who would lead him out of the abyss of sin.  The others wanted a Messiah Who would lift the yoke of Roman rule and establish a universal Jewish empire; he hoped for a Saviour who would free him from slavery to the passions and help him become master of himself.  The others wanted free bread and outward miracles; Zacchaeus already had bread in plenty and an abundance of everything else money could buy, yet knew no happiness, so he did not long for a physical healing or some other wonder to be worked in his presence, but wanted the Lord to cure his diseased soul.  Therefore, learning that Christ was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus forgot his status as one of the great men of the city, and he ran like a boy and scrambled up a sycamore tree to see the Lord, because he was little of stature.

        And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down, for this day I must abide at thy house.  The Seer of hearts did not sneer at Zacchaeus as did many in the crowd, who considered that the chief of publicans had made a fool of himself by forgetting his dignity.  Rather, Jesus took the mad dash and climbing of the tree for proof that Zacchaeus had already received Him, as the Saviour of souls, into his own soul.  Pleased with Zacchaeus’ humility and contrition, Christ beckoned him down and told him that He would spend the day with him.  A few moments earlier Zacchaeus had hoped merely to catch a glimpse of Jesus; now he learned that he would have opportunity to pour out his soul to Him in private conversation!

        And he made haste, and came down, and received Him joyfully.  Not wasting a moment, Zacchaeus ran again, this time to his house, to see to it that everything was made ready; and when Jesus arrived, he greeted the Lord with heartfelt joy.

        And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That He was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.  Not only the haughty Pharisees, but all murmured:  everyone was aghast that a righteous man, a prophet, a wonder-worker, the Person many thought might even be the Messiah, could so demean Himself as to eat with someone like Zacchaeus.  Little did they expect that in just a few moments Zacchaeus would prove himself fully deserving of such an honored guest.

        And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I will give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I will restore him fourfold.  Zacchaeus paid no heed to the crowd and its opinion of him and of Christ’s gracious offer to come to his house.  One thing only was on his mind:  how to make himself worthy of his Guest and please Him.  Face to face with the Holy One of Israel, Zacchaeus’ conscience spoke loudly and clearly.  Seeing Divine Love Incarnate reclining before him, the noble publican confessed, “Lord, I am a sinful man and have stopped at nothing to satisfy my love of money.  I have wronged the poor and perjured myself.  But henceforth, God helping me, I will change my ways.  I will immediately give to the needy half of everything I own, and out of the remaining half restore fourfold to those whom I have wronged by false accusation.”  Zacchaeus proved that he was in earnest by becoming his own accuser and judge.  According to the teaching of the rabbis, no one needed give more than a fifth of his earnings in alms; while the Law of Moses called for one who voluntarily admitted to theft to recompense his trespass with the principal thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed.[1]   Fourfold restoration was reserved for cases that actually came to trial and where the defendant lost, as we read in the twenty-first and twenty-second chapters of Exodus.

        And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.  To compensate for his sins, Zacchaeus stripped himself of almost everything he owned, and so went far beyond the demands of the law.  So doing, he proved himself a disciple of the Gospel, and as such became a true son of Abraham, who was counted righteous not through works of the law, but by faith; who was generous to the poor; and who had also been deemed worthy to receive as his guest the Son of God, with two angels.

        For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.  So saying, Christ shut the mouths of His critics, and in one sentence explained the purpose behind everything He taught and did during His sojourn among men.  He as it were demanded of the Jews, “I have bowed the heavens and come down to earth; I have assumed human nature and lived in your midst to save the perishing.  How then can you fault Me for entering the house of a sinful, but repentant man, who is willing for My sake to renounce all, thereby proving himself a son of Abraham, not merely according to the flesh, but in spirit?”

        And with this, dear brothers and sisters, the lection ends; so now I would like to turn to a few of the lessons the story of Zacchaeus offers us.  Firstly, it teaches us how we should repent.  Before, Zacchaeus thought only about money; now he can think only about pleasing Christ.  Before, he was eager to take for himself the poorest widow’s last drachma; now he gives away everything for Christ’s sake.  Such repentance should stir us in the depths of our souls, causing us to tremble in thought and feeling.  Zacchaeus’ repentance is wholehearted, as must be ours if we want Jesus to come beneath the roof of the house of our soul; if we want Him to utter to us those longed-for words:  This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.

        Secondly, this lection reminds us not to disdain the sinner, but sin.  How do we know that today’s sinner will not, by the grace of God, repent and attain an angelic life?  Remember Saint Mary of Egypt and Saint Pelagia, the former harlots.  No one was despised in ancient times more than harlots, except for publicans like Zacchaeus.  Christian love demands that we regard those ruled by their passions as weak brethren, worthy of pity and compassion.  The repentance and subsequent heroic virtue of many such persons should hearten us who are likewise weak and pitiable, and remind us never to despair of amending ourself, but to believe and trust in God’s mercy.

        Finally, today’s Gospel teaches us that Jesus Christ saves those who, like Zacchaeus, truly regard themselves as great sinners.  Christ will have all men to be saved,[2] as Saint Paul says, and came into the world, suffered, and died on the Cross to save that which was lost;[3] nonetheless, only those are saved who confess themselves in need of salvation.  Only those are saved who acknowledge their sins, like Zacchaeus; who humble themselves before God.  Only those are saved who repent fervently.  How can God visit us and bring us His mercy, when we do not feel ourselves in need of mercy; when we think highly of ourselves, of our motives and character?  Upon whom shall I look, if not upon him who is humble and meek?[4] the Lord asks in the book of Isaiah; and Saint James warns, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.  Submit yourselves therefore to Him.[5] 

        Dear Christians, soon the season of repentance begins, and we shall repeat day after day the compunctionate prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian:  “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own failings”; grant me to see my sins.  May the Lord help us to realize our failings and sins as clearly as Zacchaeus did his, so that we may attain Zacchaeus’ humility and repentance, and thus be counted sons and daughters of Abraham, heirs to salvation.  Amen.


[1] Num. 5:7

[2] I Tim. 2:4

[3] Luke 19:10

[4] Is. 66:2

[5] James 4:6-7