Of the many people whose lives were changed when they encountered Christ in the gospels, the story of Zacchaeus stands out in distinctive ways. As a Jew who had become rich collecting taxes for the Romans from his own people, Zacchaeus was both a traitor and a thief, for he collected more than was required so that he could live in luxury from the oppression of his neighbors. The Jews expected a Messiah who would bless the righteous, condemn the wicked, and destroy the Romans and their collaborators. Their religious leaders would have had nothing at all to do with someone like Zacchaeus. He was the complete opposite of a righteous man.
Luke does not tell us why 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. That must have looked very strange: a hated tax-collector up in a tree so that he could see a passing rabbi. Even more surprising was the Lord’s response when He saw him: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” That was a completely different comment from what anyone would have expected from a conventional Messiah. The Savior actually took the initiative in inviting Himself to Zacchaeus’ home, where the tax-collector received Him joyfully.
This outrageous scene shocked people, for no Jew with any integrity would be a guest in the home of such a traitor and thief. He would become unclean by going into his house and eating with him. But before the Savior said anything to the critics, Zacchaeus did something perhaps equally as outlandish. He repented. He actually confessed 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 astounding moment, this notorious sinner did what was necessary to turn his life around. As a sign of His great mercy, Jesus Christ accepted Zacchaeus’ sincere repentance, proclaiming that salvation has come to this son of Abraham, for He came to seek and to save the lost.
The overwhelming grace of God shines through this memorable story. There is no record of Zacchaeus asking explicitly for the 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 healing divine energies of Christ. The Savior did not have to condemn Zacchaeus, who already knew how corrupt he was. The Lord did not denounce him, but instead took the initiative to establish a healing relationship with someone who was surely considered a lost cause by conventional standards. When people complained that Christ had associated Himself with such a sinner, the Lord did not argue with them, but instead let Zacchaeus use that tense moment to bear witness to 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 corrupt and money-hungry man resolved to show his neighbors a measure of the 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 bore witness to the healing of his soul.
Zacchaeus provides a wonderful example of repentance because he spontaneously and freely united himself to Christ as he took practical steps to bless others beyond any measure of justice. He shines brightly with the merciful generosity of the Lord, like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory. His amazing transformation was not a reward for what he had earned in any way, for he did not get from Christ what he deserved. The healing that the Savior brings us all is never a matter of getting what we deserve, but instead manifests the boundless mercy and grace of the Lord Who conquered death itself in order to make us participants in His eternal life. Zacchaeus’s example shows 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 be transformed by our Lord’s abundant mercy and to convey that same mercy to others.
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 never know the hearts and souls of other people and cannot judge anyone else as though we were God. We must never even try to do that. The only true statements we can make about the state of someone’s soul are those that we make about ourselves. None of us knows our sins fully, but when we recognize that we have fallen short of the infinite goal of becoming like God in holiness, we can then confess our brokenness and call out for the Lord’s mercy as we take concrete steps to redirect our lives toward Him. That is why we should all make regular use of the sacrament of Confession. By confronting the truth about our souls and being assured of God’s forgiveness as we turn away from our sins, we open ourselves to receive the Lord’s gracious strength for healing. We must confess and repent if we are to receive His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins and life everlasting.
Saint James was right: “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 permeates 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 are truly in communion with Christ, then His life will become evident in ours. Even more than Zacchaeus, we will convey to our neighbors the same gracious mercy that we have received in practical, tangible ways that go beyond any standard of justice. Even more than Zacchaeus, we will rejoice that salvation has come to our house and extend God’s blessings to others.
No matter how far from God we feel today, no matter the particular kind of personal brokenness we know all too well, and no matter the weakness of our faith, the transformation of Zacchaeus provides us a sign of our Lord’s gracious will for each of us. This memorable little man shows us how to respond to the One Who “came to seek and to save the lost,” which includes you and me. If the Savior’s healing extended even to someone like Zacchaeus, who was a notorious traitor and a thief, then there is hope even for us who are the chief of sinners. All that we must do is open ourselves in humility to embrace the healing mercy of the Lord as we offer our lives for the blessing of our neighbors, even as we ourselves have been blessed.