Homily 33rd Sunday after Pentecost: Zacchaeus Sunday

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!

“Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.”  In our modern world this wouldn’t really draw our attention.  We might think of tax collector and think, “Oh, like the IRS.”  And then we hear, “and he was rich.” And we think, “he’s a successful bureaucrat…he is the chief tax collector, after all.”  However, to fully grasp the importance of the introduction of Zacchaeus, we could recast this into modern terms, “Now behold there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a collaborator with the occupying Roman forces.  He was an extortioner….and a very successful one at that.” In the Roman occupation of Judea, the taxation of the conquered peoples was handled by someone who bought the taxation rights.  In other words, Zacchaeus bought the rights to the taxation of his own people.  He would pay the Romans the taxes for an area and then he collected the taxes from the people for himself…and he was allowed to inflate the amounts collected in order to make a profit for himself.  And he had the power of the government behind him.

In the eyes of the people that made him both a traitor and a thief.  Blessed Theophylact uses a very poetic way of describing the publicans, “the publicans derived their living from the tears of the poor.”  The publicans were so feared that the image of a tax collector was used to describe the demons who would try to grab the souls of those who had passed away.  St. Matthew the Evangelist and Apostle was also a tax collector who gave up his business to follow Christ.  One can understand, then, why it is that so many of the established religious order of the day were offended that Christ would have a former tax collector as a disciple and would go and dine with someone who was the chief of all tax collectors.  That would be like Christ going out to dinner with a mafia boss like Al Capone (and had a reformed Lucky Luciano as his disciple).  The Lord went to the Lost Sheep of Israel and even to some who were not of Israel as we learned last week with the Canaanite woman.  There is a common thread running through all of the stories of Christ’s visitation with sinners or non-Jews:  their willingness to repent and their humility.

Sin is death.  It is a slow death to be sure, but it is death to the soul of a man.  It will wear one down with guilt and shame.  It will make one weary to his very bones.  One can imagine the impact Christ has on such a soul.  When someone who has carried the burden of their sins for so long, when the community won’t give them the means to leave their sin because they have shunned them, when their sin becomes a mind numbing habit, then a weariness of soul sets in and despair takes over devouring them from within.  They may be rich like Zacchaeus or poor like any number of prostitutes who roamed the Judean streets, but they are dying inside.  Can you imagine then what it would have been like to come into contact with Jesus Christ, to see Him and hear Him say “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your Father in heaven loves you.”  This is the man that could give people the courage to forsake everything and follow him. ..and Zacchaeus, even if he didn’t really understand the feelings within himself, had to see this man.

Just as the Lord rewarded the eagerness of the woman of Canaan, He rewards the eagerness of Zacchaeus.  The publican was despised by all, but, as Blessed Theophylact says, “But even this chief publican was not despised by the Lord.  In return only for showing eagerness to see Jesus he receives salvation, which is why he climbed into the sycamore tree, but before he had caught sight of Jesus, the Lord had already seen him.  In the same manner, the Lord always anticipates us if only He sees that we are willing and eager.”

“Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.

With great speed and diligence did little Zacchaeus come to receive the Lord….and he did so with a heart full of joy.  No longer did he feel the weight of his sins, no longer did his conscience gnaw at him.  When the Lord calls we are to respond, and respond Zacchaeus did!  With joy he announces that he will give half of all his living to the poor and he will restore fourfold what he has taken from others.  The fourfold restoration is a commandment from the Law of Moses.  Zacchaeus has made himself in one statement a most joyful pauper.  He has promised to give up everything he has basically to follow the Lord.  He has done what the Rich Young Man could not.  He has given to the poor and will follow Christ.  For this the Lord tells him that salvation has come to him and calls him a son of Abraham.  The Fathers of the Church tell us that the house to which the Lord and salvation comes is Zacchaeus himself. 

He is pronounced a son of Abraham because of his likeness to the patriarch.  His faith is counted as his righteousness and his faith makes him a son of Abraham.  Zacchaeus might have been a physical ancestor of Abraham as all Israelites were, but he did not become a true son of Abraham until he showed his faith, the faith of Abraham.  It is the same with us.  It is our faith that makes us children of Abraham and heirs of the promises of the Lord, as St. Paul tells us in his Epistles.  The Lord looks for this kind of faith, “ for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”  Our Lord tells us that He will seek for those who are lost….and more he will save them.  He will seek for our faith and He will save us.

Zacchaeus had been a man far from the Lord.  “Distance from Christ means corruption and death,” St. Nikolai of Zicha and South Canaan tells us, “and closeness to Him means salvation and life.”  St. Nikolai teaches us that each of us is a house, just as Zacchaeus was.  We too can have salvation come into our houses.  While we have sin within us we remain far from Christ, but by our prayer and fasting and “house cleaning” we can invite Christ in to dwell within us.  St. Nikolai writes, “Whether Christ is able or not to draw near to my house and yours depends on us.  You see that He did not force an entry into Zacchaeus’ house, but came as a warmly-invited guest.”

This Gospel reading comes one week before the Lenten Triodion comes into use.  Then we begin to prepare for Great Lent which is just around the corner.  Today with Zacchaeus we eagerly seek to get a glimpse of the Lord…and with him we hear the invitation of the Lord to make haste and come down.  The Lord desires to stay at our house.  We know how Zacchaeus received this news.  How are we going to receive this calling?  Will we have our houses ready to receive the Lord?  Will we accept Him with Joy?  Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes that we are to apply today’s reading to ourselves and to make ready for Lent.  “If, as we prepare for Lent, there is a real eagerness in our hearts, if we have an intense desire for a clearer vision of Christ, then our hopes will be fulfilled during the fast; indeed, we shall, like Zacchaeus, receive far more than we expect.”

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!




2009 Fr. Philip Kontos