What does true repentance look like? The story of Zacchaeus stands as a very clear answer to that question. As a Jew who had become rich collecting taxes for the Romans from his own people, Zacchaeus was both a professional traitor and a thief who collected more than was required in order to live in luxury. No one in that time and place would have expected such a man to radically change the course of his life under any circumstances. He was the complete opposite of a righteous person, and religious leaders would have had nothing at all to do with him.
We do not know 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.” 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, and especially not the Messiah, would be a guest in the home of such a traitor and thief. He risked identifying Himself with Zacchaeus’s corruption by going into his house and eating with him. But before the Savior said anything to the critics, the tax collector did something unbelievable. He actually repented. He confessed the truth about himself as a criminal exploiter of his neighbors and pledged to give half of his possessions to the poor and to restore restore four-fold what he had stolen from others. He committed himself 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 reorient his life away from greedy self-centeredness and toward selfless generosity to his neighbors. 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 transformative grace of God shines through this memorable story. We do not know Zacchaeus’s reasons for climbing up a tree, but he somehow opened himself to receive the healing divine energies of the Lord. He did not have to condemn Zacchaeus, who surely already knew how corrupt he was. Christ instead took the initiative to establish a healing relationship with someone considered a lost cause by conventional standards. When people complained that Christ had associated Himself with such a sinner, He 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 share with 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 bore witness to the healing of his soul by blessing others.
Zacchaeus provides a wonderful example of repentance because he spontaneously and freely united himself to Christ as he took practical steps 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 fully we know 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 broken more laws than Zacchaeus did, but that the light of Christ has illumined the eyes of our souls such that we can catch at least a glimpse of the truth about ourselves. We never know the hearts and souls of other people and must never even attempt to judge anyone else as though we were God. The only true statements we can make about the state of someone’s soul are those that we make about ourselves. We do not know our sins fully, but when we know the sorrow of falling short of the infinite goal of becoming like God in holiness, then we can 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 must all make regular use of the holy mystery of Confession. We receive the Lord’s gracious strength for healing as we confront the hard truth about our sick souls. We must do so in order to receive His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins and life everlasting. Doing so is not optional, but absolutely necessary, in order for us to be transformed by personal encounter with the Lord as Zacchaeus was.
Saint James stated clearly: “Faith without works is dead.” (Jas. 2:26) To repent is not merely to feel sorry for our sins, but to turn away from them as we are healed and transformed by the Lord’s gracious divine energies. That is what Zacchaeus did in response to the 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 personal 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 shine through ours. Even more than Zacchaeus, we will share with our neighbors the 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 tempted to despair we may be today about ever finding healing for our personal brokenness, the transformation of Zacchaeus provides a sign of hope for the fulfillment of the Lord’s gracious purposes 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 us all. If the Savior’s healing extended even to someone like Zacchaeus, a notorious traitor and a thief, then there is hope even for you and me as the chief of sinners. All that we must do is to take the steps we presently have the strength to take in reorienting our lives according to the love of God and neighbor as we confess our failings and call on His mercy. If we stay on this path, then salvation will come to our houses as we share the great blessing we have received with others. For we are also sons and daughters of Abraham by faith in Jesus Christ, Who says to each of us, “I must stay at your house today.” Like Zacchaeus, let us receive Him joyfully for the healing of our souls.