This Sunday is the 15th Sunday of Luke and the Gospel reading is about the conversion of Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10).
The events of this Gospel take place as Jesus passed through Jericho, His last stop, before arriving in Jerusalem (Luke 19:28).
Upon His arrival to Jericho, Jesus meets a blind man who was sitting on the road begging, he asked Jesus for the gift of sight, and so Jesus healed him from his bodily blindness as well as restoring his spiritual vision. The Gospel says that “immediately he saw and followed Him as he glorified God” (Luke 18: 43).
We then follow Christ on his journey to meet Zacchaeus. The Evangelist Luke described him as “the chief tax collector, and he was rich“. The tax collectors garnered taxes from merchants and the like, of which were paid to the treasury of Rome. This being the chief reason that this class of tax collectors was despised by the Jews, which makes sense because they represented the sovereignty of Rome, and the collectors often overestimated taxes to put the surplus in their pockets. The teachers of the Jewish law classified them in the same category as sinners and thieves (Luke 5:30; 7:34) and were considered to be agents selling their services to the colonised foreign state in order to collect wealth for themselves at the expense of their people.
The Lord Jesus used the “tax collector” as a model for the penitent man. Through the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we see that He rebuked the Pharisee’s claim of self-righteousness and accepted the humility and repentance of the tax collector. He also did not hesitate to choose a tax collector to be in the class of the twelve Apostles, that being Matthew. Christ considered the door of repentance open to all. When the question was put forth to the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with the tax collectors and sinners?”, He answered that “the healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick, because I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance“. (Luke 5:32).
Zacchaeus seemed to have heard about Jesus, His teachings and miracles, and that He was accepting of tax collectors and “eating and drinking with them” (Luke 5:30). Out of this grew a longing to “see Jesus, to know who He is!” But there were two obstacles that hindered and prevented his initial meeting with Jesus:
The first being that the multitude of people did not welcome the existence of a “sinful” man among them, and the second being was that he was short of stature, not merely physically, but spiritually too. However, these obstacles did not prevent him from doing what was considered a childish and shameful act that didn’t fit in with the accepted behaviour of his status as a “chief of the tax collectors”. Zacchaeus did not care about what people would say about him, about their criticisms and taunts. He simply desired to see Jesus, which compelled him to climb up into the sycamore tree. But we read that before he had caught sight of Jesus, Christ had already seen him. In the same manner, the Lord always anticipates us if only He sees that we are willing and eager to meet Him.
Jesus called to him saying, “Zacchaeus, hurry down, today I ought to stay at your house.” Saint Cyril of Alexandria said: “He saw the soul of the man striving earnestly to live a holy life, and converts him to godliness.”
At this point, after being invited by Christ to come down from the tree, Zacchaeus hurried and descended and was eager to welcome Jesus to his home. On this, blessed Augustine says: “The Lord, who had already welcomed Zacchaeus in his heart, was now ready to be welcomed by him in his house.”
None of Zacchaeus’ efforts and endeavours were in vain, for Jesus chose him from the large crowds surrounding Him, to enter his house and receive blessings and salvation. We should take note that when Christ said, “today I should…” he was not speaking forcefully. This shows us how the Lord appreciates every human attempt, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, and He completes it with Divine initiative, which is what is called in Christian literature as (Synergy) or cooperation between human and divine efforts.
Throughout the Bible, we see that every instance of the Lord Jesus accepting one of the sinners is met with complaints from the crowds. This incident was not an exception. The Evangelist Luke says, “When He saw the multitudes, they complained, saying that He had come into the house of a sinner.” But this hostile attitude of the crowd did not stop Zacchaeus from pursuing his path towards complete repentance. No one who sees Jesus can remain in wickedness any longer. Zacchaeus stood up and said to Christ, “Here I shall give, the poor, half of my money, and if I have cheated someone in something that I will give back four times.” Zacchaeus waited not for the judgment of the law, but made himself his own judge.
This tax collector practiced what is known in the early church as public confession. He showed true repentance (Metanoia), which at its core is simply a change of mindset, a change of way of life. Zacchaeus showed genuine repentance through his actions, not just through his words. Not only did he confess, but he also showed a willingness to restore what he had done wrong, and he not only promised this, but did it. For he says not I will give the half, and I will restore four-fold, but, “I give, and I restore.”
This confession and attitude of repentance was enough for Christ to accept, saying: “Today salvation has been achieved for this house.” “He is also the son of Abraham,” not as one of Abraham’s descendants according to the body, but as the son of Abraham according to faith. The Lord Jesus returns and reminds the crowd and His disciples about the essence of His ministry and message, “Because the Son of man came to call and save what had perished.” It was this call to repentance, “Repent!” that became the starting point in the ministry of Christ.
For Jesus, Zacchaeus was not just a sinful tax collector, but also a project of repentance. Christ saw him differently than the crowd did. He saw him with a look of compassion, love and acceptance, and it was this look that prompted Zacchaeus to open his heart to repentance and then his home to accept Jesus as a Saviour.
We Christians should resemble Zacchaeus to overcome the crowd that prevents us from seeing Christ. We should be humbled to overcome our short spiritual stature and look for a ‘Sycamore tree’ to climb up to achieve this encounter between our Saviour and ourselves.
St. Theophylact of Ochrid says: “Say what you like, but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus. The reason you cannot see Jesus is that you are ashamed to climb the sycamore tree. We must not be ashamed of the cross of Christ.”