Gospel reading is the story of the Chief Publican Zacchaeus. We have
mentioned Zacchaeus before and will probably mention him again next year
and the year after. Whenever we hear this Gospel reading it is like
hearing trumpets announcing that very soon we will enter into the period
known as the Triodion. The Triodion is the book used by the Church for her
services in preparation for Great Lent and during Great Lent and will
begin in two Sundays from now with the reading of the Publican and the
Pharisee. The Orthodox liturgical tradition always announces in advance
and prepares for every major feast or season and lent is no exception.
Thus the story of Zacchaeus is telling us to prepare ourselves for the
great spiritual journey we are to undertake very shortly. A spiritual
journey that has as its destination the greatest feast in the Christian
calendar and this feast is none other than Easter, the Feast of all
Feasts. So let’s hear the Gospel reading and then see its deep spiritual
meaning which will reveal why the fathers of the Church assigned it to be
read now as the herald and preparation for Great Lent.
Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke
that time, Jesus 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 up into a
sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came
to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus,
make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house. And he
made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw
it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man
that is a sinner. And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold,
Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any
thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. And Jesus
said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he
also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save
that which was lost.”
tells us that Jesus passed through Jericho and a little just after in the
verses that follow this reading, it tells us where his was heading to: he
was “ascending up to Jerusalem” to suffer the
“voluntary Passion” and to save mankind with his death on the Cross. Every
word of Christ, every movement and energy foresees the realization of this
unique purpose: the deliverance of man from death which sin brought into
the world separating him from God, and immortal life, in other words from
the much desired relationship and communion with God.
through Jericho is to find the “Lost Sheep” the lost man for whose sake he
will sacrifice himself on the Cross. The “Lost Sheep” who awaits the “Good
Shepherd”, is in this case Zacchaeus, who was without God and lived to
satisfy the desires of his carnal nature. In desperation of the life that
he lived, Christ will call him to repentance and he will respond: he will
meet his saviour and find salvation. But what kind of a man was Zacchaeus
and others like him? Publicans were people who bought from the Romans, the
rights to collect the taxes from the people, but instead of collecting the
proper taxes that the Romans asked for, they burdened the people with
double or triple amounts and were therefore very much hated and held in
contempt as being the lowest of all men. Zacchaeus was a Chief publican so
one can say that he was even more hated than the average publican.
Before he met
Christ, he was on the road to condemnation, because he was entirely given
to the world and had nothing to do with God. The only thing which he saw
as a kind of god worthy of worship was money. That is why his soul burned
and was in great thirst. He gained a great deal and the more he gained the
more he thirsted. His desire for riches had enslaved and tormented him. He
lived only to upkeep his earthly nature: in general his whole struggle was
for the things that appear attractive to the world, but which in time
decay and wear out; money, glory, pleasures of the flesh. For this very
purpose he aspired and rose to the high rank of Chief Publican, in other
words as the Head of the tax collectors, so that he could gain more money
and fulfil his passions: his love for wealth, his love for sexual
pleasure, his love for glory and all that comes with these passions. Only
the one passion avarice - the love of money - is according to St. Paul
“the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10).
Since he didn’t have any love
for God it goes without saying that he didn’t love his fellow men either,
but only loved himself. He was egoistic without a single care for other
human beings. He pressured and tyrannized the poor. This he admits in
front of Christ when he says “if I have taken any thing from any man by
false accusation” in other words those who he treated unfairly by falsely
accusing them of higher earnings so that he could collect more from them.
He would classify them as wealthy when they hardly had enough to eat. He
would note down even the smallest of incomes and exaggerate the amount. He
would sit idly by the roads so that he could stop and tax those who passed
by and carried some sort of merchandise from one place to another. There
was nothing he would not do to increase his own gains. His life was full
of seizing and taking, full of unrighteousness and full of the tears of
the poor people. Zacchaeus gave his heart to money and worldly riches and
as Christ said “For where your treasure is,
there will your heart be also”.
(Matthew 6:21) The wickedness of the publicans was so great that
Christ mentions them together with harlots. (Matthew 21:31) They were seen
by the people as very sinful people because of their greed and injustice.
That is why they accused Jesus of accepting them and making them his
disciples. They could not understand that many realized their wrong path
and changed their life completely. Christ also desired their salvation
just as he did all men.
When man has
as his life the desired relationship and communion with God one can say
that he is in his natural and physical condition. He continually does want
is good and receives added graces and journeys towards the “likeness” of
God. But abandoning God and any relationship with him, he draws life from
the material world and journeys towards a false reality, according to
Lucifer’s promise “you will be as god’s”. It is a false reality because
all the things by which we draw life from in this world are temporary and
are condemned to decay and death, whilst God created man to be immortal.
That is why this way of life doesn’t offer completeness for man. It offers
temporary pleasures for his carnal nature which don’t correspond to his
spiritual existence which deep inside him seeks the “likeness” of God and
communion with him.
way of life breaks and inner man and the human personality, whereas God
created man as a unified being. Unification of the body and the spirit is
the natural condition. The breaking and discord of this unity is seen in
the case of Zacchaeus. He gave himself to riches and expected to live with
great happiness and peace of mind, but although he had more than enough to
care for the body, spiritually he had extreme poverty and because of this
he was not at rest. On the contrary he was internally unrestful and
disturbed. Although he had everything he still hungered and thirsted. His
soul was starved because it was deprived of the “bread of life” and God’s
grace. Even if he gained all the riches of the world, his soul would not
have replaced the emptiness of God’s absence. Although he appeared to be
in paradise his inner-self experienced a living hell. This was the great
emptiness of his very existence which could not be filled with worldly
goods. That is why he desired to find a source that would quench his
thirst. The feeling of failure will become a starting point from where he
will discover his true self, his freedom from the bonds of the material
world which had enslaved him and his relationship with God and people,
which will grant him completeness of life. He already begins a new course,
a real repentance and inside him begins to grow the seeds of salvation.
for the salvation of man. With divine wisdom he sought out the “Lost
Sheep” Zacchaeus and saw in his heart something secret and hidden which
others couldn’t see. He saw the new seeds which started to shoot up in his
heart, his desire, his zeal and the love in his heart for Jesus. Christ
will make him a travelling companion on his journey towards the Passion.
The road of shame, of spitting and mockery and Zacchaeus himself will also
suffer being mocked for Christ. And not only will Christ save him by
making him a sheep of his flock, but he will also appoint him as a
shepherd of the flock, one of the Seventy Apostles.
The u-turn has
already begun with the desire to see Jesus. But one may ask: Where did he
know Christ from? The answer is that we carry within us the divine image.
In the Acts of the Apostles it says that we are “the
offspring of God”; (Acts 17:29) we are his relations, we descend
from him. Christ is our archetype (the original) and that is why inside us
we are drawn to him. We are images of Christ the heavenly Adam.
Now Zacchaeus was willing to repent and change his way of life. He
acquires new interests. Whereas before he desired money now he doesn’t
even want see it. He desires the heavenly: his love for wealth is
transformed into love for the heavenly bridegroom. He desired only him who
first loved him and willed to join himself to him. At this very moment
Christ journeys to Golgotha to be crucified and to grant unto Zacchaeus
and to everyone his divine Kingdom.
wanted to repent, but he was still in the first stages of this repentance.
He wanted to see Christ, but couldn’t because he was short and the crowd
wouldn’t let him pass so he climbed up a sycamore tree to get a better
view. The short in stature does not only refer to his bodily height but
also to his spiritual height. He had only just begun his repentance and
was therefore still a novice in spiritual terms, still a child and short
in stature. For him to grow, he had first to cleanse his soul from the
many passions and to rectify all the injustices he made. He still had to
find love for God and his fellow men and when he would finally be cleansed
and pass from the sensible to the spiritual then he would become in
spiritual terms a giant.
up the tree was a good beginning for Zacchaeus, not because of the height
of the tree or because he would have had a better view of Christ as he
passed, but because of the actual act itself, which was for him an act of
humility. It was an act of shame and he made himself a “fool for Christ”.
This well to do respectable Chief Publican suffered for Christ’s sake the
shame of climbing and the mocking comments from the people. It oversteps
his pride which is the biggest obstacle for seeing God. He didn’t care
about his image as the great Chief Publican or whether he would continue
to be admired by the people. Internally be believes that he is a wretched
person, full of filth, smelling like rubbish that is to be tossed out. He
believes that he is worthy of being spat upon, because with his sins he
has insulted the divine image which he bears inside him. For this very
reason he doesn’t pretend in front of the people to be someone important.
On the contrary, he has the courage to appear worse that what they accuse
him of. The positive aspect of Zacchaeus’ action is that with his
acceptance of the shame he partakes in the “foolishness” of the Cross, in
the mocking of Christ who will not turn his face from the shameful
beatings he will receive so that he could save mankind.
up the tree is seen by the fathers of the Church as an act of love for
God, because it reveals the intention for repentance. Inside Zacchaeus
begins a transformation which turns his love for money into love for
Christ. Slowly, one step at a time, the divine image which for so long was
buried within him, begins to reveal itself, and he was found worthy to see
Christ. From only this sighting without even being preached to, he is lead
to act and change his life. Seeing was enough to make the change, for the
wolf to become a lamb ready to be slaughtered.
This change of
heart does not go unnoticed. The Lord also sees Zacchaeus upon the
Sycamore tree, but also sees his inner struggle, his readiness for
obedience, for repentance, for a holy life and calls him to make haste and
come down. It was not the crowd that stopped Zacchaeus from seeing the
Lord, but rather his sins. Blessed are not they that climb trees but
they that are pure in heart for they shall see God.
(Matt. 5:8) The all and everything is not whether we see Christ
with our bodily eyes, but that we see him inside us and to be joined to
him. And as St. John Chrysostom says: “Don’t rely on the sycamore, in
other words on the sensual and physical sight, this will dry out and die
so that in its place is planted the Cross.” If you make the Cross your way
of life then you will see Christ, not only as a man but as the God-man.
You will be raise above the sycamore says Gregory the Theologian.
Therefore live the crucified life. Make dead the desire for wealth and the
things of this world. And as St. Paul says in the Apostle reading we heard
just a few weeks ago “Put to death your members
which are on earth, fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and
greed which is idolatry”. (Col. 3:5) This is want Christ is telling
Zacchaeus when he tells him to make haste and come down. Put to death
every kind of sin within you. Climb up upon the Cross and not upon the
sycamore and raise your mind to the heavenly. Become charitable and
merciful and crucify yourself with the one you want to see. Don’t remain
on the sycamore, in other words don’t remain with just the physical
sighting, I don’t want you to be lost; I want you to accept me into your
home, into your soul. There I will take my rest so hurry and come down.
not expect such an invitation, such a great honour as to receive Christ
into his home. He was therefore all too eager to obey Christ in everything
and to do his will. His soul burns with love for him and his mind becomes
enlightened. It reverts to its original nature and puts him on Christ’s
road on the journey for the heavenly. With great joy he made haste and
came down from the tree and welcomed Jesus into his home rejoicing. He
rejoices for the great decision he took to change and is ready to declare
it to the world. He will offer all his living, his huge fortune and from
now on he will only have Christ as his fortune. Any worries of money are
rejected and throw out of mind: and this will happen because he has seen
Christ the Saviour. The outcome of seeing Christ varies in each person
according to the grace given and the strength of each to receive it. With
Zacchaeus grace entered so deeply into his soul that it brought about
The people who
were not in a position to discern Zacchaeus’ transformation from impiety
to piety accuse Christ “That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a
sinner.” Zacchaeus quickly shuts the mouths of those who accused Christ
and himself, not with words, but with a real repentance shown with deeds.
The reading says: “Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord,
the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing
from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” With this
revolutionary decision he took and by carrying it out immediately, he
shows his repentance in works and at the same time puts a stop to every
accuser that Christ entered to eat with a man that is a sinner. Internally
he is cleansing his soul and making ready his bridal chamber to live with
Christ forever. He confesses before Christ and all those that were present
of all the wrongs he committed to the poor and also those he unjustly
accused of being wealthy to tax them more heavily. With his confession he
reproaches himself. Self accusation is the sinful man’s shame because the
only shame, the only embarrassment is sin. With confession, man accepts
the shame of his sins and accuses himself as guilty of all things. But at
the same time he also partakes in the mocking of Christ. With his
confession, Zacchaeus becomes a fellow traveller of Christ and goes to
Jerusalem to be mocked and suffer together with Christ all the other
He doesn’t put
off enforcing his decision. He doesn’t say that he will give some time in
the future half of his goods to the poor, but “I give” today, “I give”
now. And he is not just saying it to make an impression, but is speaking
from the heart before God. That is why Christ replies “This day is
salvation come to this house”. This day, not tomorrow, not some time in
the future, because today was the day of his confession and the correction
of all his injustices. Thus we see that true confession is not only the
recognition of our sins and pronouncing them, but also the correction of
the wrongs which we have done. Zacchaeus has no more interest in taxes and
wealth; all he cares about is the Lord’s passion. He will be rich in
poverty; he will be rich in God. His decision is steadfast. This is what
is meant by “Zacchaeus stood”, for as St. John Chrysostom comments: “not
walking, not sitting, but standing to show the steadfastness of his soul.
place, Christ stressed that “It is easier for a
camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into
the kingdom of God.” (Matth. 19: 24) In Zacchaeus’ case the camel
does indeed pass through the eye of a needle, because he found salvation.
He was freed from his attachment to wealth and gave himself to the grace
of God. This is salvation.
“This day is salvation come to this house”,
because Zacchaeus abandoned the biological way of life and lifted upon his
shoulders the Cross of shame. He gives half of his goods to the poor and
fourfold to those he wronged. He scatters well what he gathered wrongly,
because he discovered his brethren. The fathers of the Church say that:
“You see your brother, you see the Lord your God”. Zacchaeus is ready to
sacrifice everything, even his own life for those whom he once looked down
upon and took advantage of so that he could become rich. Now he accepts
the cross and becomes dead to worldly wisdom and reasoning, he becomes
dead to everything of this world and is crucified with Christ and receives
salvation. He becomes a man without possessions and gains Christ, the one
possession in whom can be found all the treasures that can fill his soul;
that can solve the problem of the void that existed there before and made
him a miserable wretch. He found what was missing inside him and he became
whole. Having Christ, he now had everything.
When he had
everything he was unhappy and now that he has given everything away he
lives with the joy of salvation, the joy of the resurrection. He becomes a
disciple of Christ and accepts inside him the Kingdom of God.
He becomes charitable, hospitable, capable of brotherly love, because he
became a lover of God. Such was also Abraham, that is why Christ calls him
“a son of Abraham”. He now believes that by showing hospitality to someone
he is showing hospitality to God. For as he heard Christ say in one of his
parables: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my
brethren, ye have done it unto me”.Now he is above the sycamore tree
because he saw Christ from the height of the Cross of poverty.
St. Paul says
that “the church is subject unto Christ”.
(Eph. 5:24) Christ commands and invites all people and when people become
subject and obey Christ, this constitutes the Church. Those who subject
themselves and obey become members of the Body of Christ. And as members
of the same body they become spiritual brothers and blood brothers of
Christ. Zacchaeus accepts Christ within him and obeys and becomes one with
him. Inside him there is also room for all people because he loves them as
his true brethren and is willing to offer everything for them. He sees
everyone as members of Christ as he himself is. It now saddens him to hear
of injustices because he sees in Christ all people. His heart is filled
with love and that is why God finds rest in it. True love does not
comprise only of people, but also of animals, of trees and of all creation
and as St Isaac says: “even of the devil”.
Zacchaeus enjoys the delight of Paradise, because he came together with
Christ and other men in the Body of Christ, in the Body of the Church.
This is the true life to which Christ guided Zacchaeus: The community of
love which depicts the beauty of the Holy Trinity. When man gains a
merciful heart as did Zacchaeus, he resembles God who is love. The
characteristics of the Chief Publican, of the egocentric man, are
transformed into the characteristics of a man of the new creation. This is
the very reason why Christ, the Son of God came into the world.
As one of the
Seventy Apostles, Zacchaeus preached people to not rely on what they see
or on the things that decay. He preached that they should live a life of
the Cross, in other words a life according to Christ and according to the
life of the saints of the Church which is life and resurrection.
Zacchaeus’ life is the same for all the saints. Love for Christ and all
people and communion with them fulfils man as a person and this is
Ascension of the Lord, St Zacchaeus accompanied St Peter on his travels.
Tradition says he became the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, where he
died in peace. His feast day is celebrated on 20th April.
in the beginning of this talk, the Church assigned the story of Zacchaeus
to be read now as the herald and preparation for Great Lent. The Church is
telling us that our Lenten journey must begin with our desire to see
Christ followed with the recognition of our own sinfulness, just as
Zacchaeus recognized his. Zacchaeus desired the right thing, he wanted to
see and approach Christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, because
repentance begins with the desire for God and for true life. The desire
and effort to see Jesus begins the entire movement through Lent towards
Pascha. It is the first movement of salvation. Zacchaeus made that first
move, in his desire to see Christ he climbed that tree. If our desire is
as strong as Zacchaeus’ then Christ will also respond to our desire and
come to our house, he will come to live in our hearts and then we also
will hear Christ saying to us “Today salvation is come to this house” Then
our lives will also change as drastically as Zacchaeus’ and Christ will
give us the strength and grace to climb even higher, to climb upon the
cross together with Christ.
The example of
Zacchaeus teaches us that we should turn away from our sins, and atone for
them. The real proof of our sorrow and repentance is not just a verbal
apology, but when we correct ourselves and try to make amends for the
consequences of our evil actions.
All of us have
sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). We are also short
in our spiritual stature, therefore we must climb the ladder of the
virtues. In other words, we must prepare for spiritual effort and growth.
This is the meaning of this preparation period: to prepare ourselves to be
crucified upon the Cross with Christ so that be might also be resurrected
with Christ. Amen.