Repent Like Zacchaeus: Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

1 Timothy 4:9-15; Luke 19:1-10

          In every time and place, there are people who take advantage of others.  When they align themselves with the rulers of a society and choose victims who have no power to resist, they usually get away with it.  Zacchaeus had done precisely that.  He was a Jew who collected taxes for the Roman Empire which occupied Palestine.  As a chief tax collector, he played a very useful role for the Romans in taking money from his fellow Jews to pay for their army.  If it were not bad enough for Zacchaeus to be a traitor to his nation, he was also a thief who collected more than was required so that he could live in luxury from the oppression of his neighbors.

We do not know why someone as corrupt as Zacchaeus wanted to see the Savior as He passed by.  He was a short little fellow who could not see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better view.  People must have thought that looked pretty strange:  a hated tax-collector up in a tree so that he could see a passing rabbi.

Even more shocking was the Lord’s response when He saw him: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  Jewish religious leaders would have had nothing at all to do with people like Zacchaeus.  The Jews expected a Messiah who would bless the righteous, condemn the wicked, and destroy the Romans and their collaborators.  The Lord’s response was entirely different from what was commonly expected.  He actually took the initiative in inviting Himself to Zacchaeus’ home, where the tax-collector received Him joyfully.

A scene so outrageous could not be kept secret.  People were shocked that a man who presented Himself as the Messiah had gone to be a guest in the home of a notorious traitor and thief.  No self-respecting righteous Jew would ever do something like that.  He would become unclean by going into his house and eating with him.  But before the Lord said anything in response to the critics, Zacchaeus repented.  He accepted the truth about himself as a criminal exploiter of his neighbors.  He pledged to give half of his possessions to the poor and to restore restore four-fold what he had stolen from others.  He pledged to do more than justice required in making right the wrongs he had committed.   In that moment, this notorious sinner began to turn his life around.  Jesus Christ accepted Zacchaeus’ sincere repentance, proclaiming that salvation has come to this son of Abraham, for He came to seek and to save that which was lost.

The abundant grace of God shines through this memorable story.  Zacchaeus did not even have to ask for the love, forgiveness, and mercy of the Lord.  All that he did was to climb a tree out of curiosity, but that was enough to begin to open himself to the overwhelming mercy of Christ. The Savior did not condemn Zacchaeus, who surely already knew how corrupt he was.  The Lord did not judge him at all, but instead took the initiative to establish a healing relationship with him. When people complained that Christ had associated Himself with such a sinner, the Lord did not respond, but instead let Zacchaeus use that tense moment to embrace His gracious healing, which knows no limit and cannot be reduced to outward obedience to a law.

Zacchaeus was so transformed by the mercy of Christ that he became an epiphany, a living icon of the restoration of the human person in God’s image and likeness.  This formerly greedy and dishonest man resolved to show his neighbors the same grace that He had received, for he gave half of what he owned to the poor and restored all that he had stolen four-fold.  In response to the gracious blessing he had received from Christ, he blessed others abundantly in a way that revealed the healing of his soul.

Zacchaeus provides a powerful example of repentance because he spontaneously and freely united himself to Christ.  His actions shine brightly with the love and holiness of the Lord, which is shocking because he had been such a notorious and despised sinner.  His amazing transformation was not a reward for what he had earned by being a law-abiding citizen or even a decent human being.  He had been neither of those things.  The healing available to us all in Christ is not a matter of what we deserve, but instead concerns the boundless mercy and grace of a God Who wants to make us participants in His eternal life.  Zacchaeus’ story reminds us that the more clearly we see the gravity of our sins and the sickness of our souls, the better position we are in to open ourselves in humility to transformation by our Lord’s abundant mercy.

In the prayers said before receiving Communion, we confess that we are each the chief of sinners.  That does not mean that we have stolen more than Zacchaeus did, but that the light of Christ has illumined the eyes of our souls such that we can see at least a measure of the truth about ourselves. We do not know the hearts and souls of other people and we cannot judge anyone else. The only true statements we can make about the state of someone’s soul are statements that we make about ourselves.  None of us knows our sins fully, but to the extent that we recognize that we have fallen short of becoming like God in holiness, we must humbly confess our brokenness and call out for the Lord’s mercy as we take concrete steps to reorient our lives toward Him. That is why we should all make regular use of the sacrament of Confession.  By frequently confronting our sins and being assured of God’s forgiveness, we open ourselves to receive the Lord’s gracious strength for the ongoing healing of our souls.

“Faith without works is dead.”  Repentance is not a matter of merely feeling sorry for our sins, but of turning away from them as we become so open to our Lord’s mercy that His holiness becomes characteristic of our lives.  That is what Zacchaeus did in response to the gracious initiative of the Savior in coming to His house.  Given the importance of hospitality in that culture, Zacchaeus surely shared a meal with Christ, which in that time and place was understood to establish a close bond between them.  When we receive the Eucharist, our Lord’s gracious initiative makes us “one flesh” with Him through our communion in His Body and Blood.  If we embrace the full meaning of being so closely united with Christ, then His holiness will become characteristic of every dimension of our lives.  Even more than Zacchaeus, we will convey to our neighbors the same mercy that we have received in practical, tangible ways.  Even more than Zacchaeus, we will find healing for the disordered desires for pleasure, possessions, and power that have marred our souls and made us miserable.  Even more than Zacchaeus, we will rejoice that salvation has come to our house, for we too are children of Abraham through faith in the Messiah, regardless of our human ancestry.

No matter how far from God we feel today, no matter the particular kind of personal brokenness we know all too well, we must learn to see the transformation of Zacchaeus as a sign of our Lord’s gracious purposes for each of us.  He shows us how to respond to the One Who “came to seek and to save the lost.”  If the Savior’s healing extended even to someone like Zacchaeus, there is hope even for each of us as the chief of sinners. All that we must do is open ourselves in humility to embrace the healing mercy of the Lord and then bear good witness to what we have received in our lives each day.




  1. Thank you, Father. I had just finished reading the news and was despondent, and asked God for help.
    I read your blog entry and saw that Jesus is still reaching for all of us hiding in our trees. We are not alone

  2. Fr. Philip,

    ““Faith without works is dead.” Repentance is not a matter of merely feeling sorry for our sins, but of turning away from them as we become so open to our Lord’s mercy that His holiness becomes characteristic of our lives.”

    How truly thankful I am for this teaching. I was first introduced to it when I began reading the Fathers of the Church. In my previous denomination we had glossed over these “texts”. I did not have any idea how “works” would positively impact my “regeneration”. He is teaching me to perform the works out of love for Him and for “others” (believers and non-believers). Out of love, NOT out of trying to EARN anything from Him. After all, He takes the initiative to establish a healing relationship with us. He calls us to repentance.

    To Him and Him alone, be all glory, honor, thanksgiving, and praise for ever and ever AND to the Ages of Ages. Amen!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *