Becoming Zacchaeus

Great LentThe Gospel lesson of Luke 19:1-10 is about a very short man, Zacchaeus, who wanted to see Jesus.  In the current lectionary of the Russian Orthodox tradition, this is the last Sunday Gospel lesson before the pre-Lenten Sundays (and the Lenten triodion) begin their cycle of scripture pericopes.  (This is one point at which the Russian and Greek Orthodox lectionaries differ resulting in the fact that during the course of the year not all Orthodox read liturgically the same Scriptures every Sunday).  In current practice for those who read the Zacchaeus pericope it has become already associated with the beginning of Great Lent.  This was made certain due to the popular writings of the liturgical theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.  Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.  And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature.  So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.  And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. 

But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”  Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham;  for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

Archimandrite Zacharias in one of his books offers these thoughts on the Gospel lesson of Zacchaeus:

“According to Cyril of Alexandria, Zacchaeus was consumed with the desire to know God the Saviour in person and to see His kind. This is the seed of salvation and when this seed falls into the heart of man, he has a great longing to see Who the Lord is. Once he is possessed by this longing he will do certain things which will seem mad in the eyes of the world, but which will in fact prepare the way for his first meeting with the Saviour. Such was the case of Zacchaeus when he began to seek the Lord.

And this was the Lord’s desire, for the Son of God came to save sinners. It is hardly astonishing that He should want to save a chief publican: in every time and place, the Lord seeks out His own. Zacchaeus’ desire made him run ahead and climb a sycamore tree so that he could see the Lord, But what was happening in his heart was visible only to Him Who is both God and Man. The crowd could not see the transformation of his heart, nor could they understand the nature of his desire. But even before Zacchaeus had seen Him, the Lord had perceived the movement of Zacchaeus’ heart in a supernatural way, with the eyes of His divinity. He saw that the wild and greedy heart of the chief publican had now begun to soften and, melting with desire, had become transfigured so that he was ready to bear within himself the image of Christ.

Zacchaeus has ignored his reputation and esteem, which hinder man’s approach to God, and he now attracts public scorn. In his shame he becomes kin to the Lord Jesus Who, at this point in the Gospel, is on His way to be crucified on the Cross of shame in order to deliver the world from the shame of sin. In our desire to see the Lord we too will make fools of ourselves, bearing as much shame as possible in order to achieve our goal: to find our Lord and Saviour. We are indifferent to the opinion of men and any fear of becoming a laughing-stock fades away.

For we know that the Lord will grant us the honor of seeing His Face – which is far more beautiful that we can ever imagine – and our souls will be truly satisfied with His glory. On account on his burning desire, then, Zacchaeus despised all his worldly honors and was pleased to look ridiculous in the eyes of the people, if he could only gain a different kind of honor: that of finding favor with the Lord and being visited by Him.” (Remember Thy First Love, pp 70-72)