The 37th Sunday after Pentecost Zaccheus’ Sunday: Dcn. Tudor Sambeteanu 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Amin!

Dear Reverend Fathers, Beloved Brothers and Sisters,

Motto: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)

Zaccheus. What an interesting character! The Lord definitely had an eye for the worst sinners!

First of all, let’s try to reconstruct in our minds the atmosphere and the people surrounding the Lord at the time of his missionary activity.

This episode occurs right after the healing of the blind man that was begging by the road leading to Jericho, the same blind man who’s heart was touched by the grace of God and confessed Jesus as “the son of David” or in other words as the Messiah. Now, this healing must have created some turmoil among the Jews witnessing this event and that probably atracted more people to see this new prophet. Some were probably asking questions, some were calling their relatives and friends, others we’re asking for help and healings, while even more would elbow their way in, closer to the Lord. A noisy, colorful crowd, all seasoned with clouds of dust. Those familiar with the Middle Eastern bazaars, might be one step closer to picturing this lively atmosphere. In the midst of this turmoil and uproar, a man was trying to see Who this new prophet was. Zaccheus was his name and a publican or chief tax collector was his job. His stature however, did not work in his advantage. He was “short” as the Gospel tells us. He probably tried to come closer to the Lord, but that was surely impossible. Nowadays, people have a sense of other people’s private space, but there was no such a thing in the past, through much of our human history. Large families of 10-12 members would share a room and a bed, and people were used to be in other people’s faces and this was the norm. Around the Lord there were, for sure, throngs of people who would make it impossible for anyone to come closer.

There might have been another reason behind Zaccheus’ decision to climb up that sycamore tree in order to see the Lord. As the chief tax collector (publican in Latin, or publican in English), he was a tool in the hands of the enemies, and he took full advantage of it. How did the system of taxation worked during those times and how did Zaccheus used it to make profit?

As we’ve explained on other ocassions, Judea was part of the greater Roman province of Syria and every man was to pay 1% of his annual income as income tax. But that was not all, there were also import and export taxes, crop taxes (1/10 of grain crop and 1/5 of wine, fruit, and olive oil), sales tax, property tax, emergency tax, tax on animals, and so many other taxes. It was actually a Roman official (censor) who was ultimately responsible to Rome for collecting the revenue of the province, but he usually sold the rights to gather taxes to the highest bidders. This is where Zaccheus’ part was coming into play. After tough negotiations, they would agree on a certain amount. Afterwards, Zaccheus would hire petty tax-collectors and tell them to gather at least twice as much as originally agreed with the Romans. Who would take the profit? Zaccheus would take, of course, the lion’s share, meanwhile the rest would be devided among the petty tax collectors. Now, isn’t this odious? He was taking full advantge of his own people, his own bleeding nation, in the midst of their suffering. No wonder they were often times called hyenas. Given his reputation, Zaccheus probably felt a lot more comfortable and safe in a tree than among people. Who knows what might have happened while in the crowd? Stabbing people in the back while in the crowd was a common practice and it often times happened to the Roman soldiers while on patrol through the crowded Jewish streets.

Zaccheus’ physical stature somewhat resembled his inward one or rather his sinful life. But something was about to change. Zaccheus’ name, Zakkai in Aramaic, meant “the just” or “the pure” and even though at this point his name sounds more like a mockery, he will claim it back for eternity.

Zaccheus was not only a curious person. There was something in his life that he wanted to change. His inward state did not please him. Many of the commentators of this passage connect his ascent into the tree to what was about to happen to his life: from the abyss of sin, he will be lifted up and made a new man.

Once under the tree, the Lord called him by His name (and that might have shocked Zaccheus), told him to come down (in other words to repent), and then invited Himself over at his house. And Zaccheus accepted right away, receiving the Lord joyfully. I will stop here just to make one little comment or rather encourage you, brothers and sisters, to push yourselves to do the things of the Lord WITH JOY. We all know that God loves a cheerful giver (II Corinthians 9:7), as Saint Paul teaches us, but there’s so much grace behind this affirmation. If you fell 100 times while attempting to do something right, but you manage to finally do it with a joyful attitude, you will conquer a lot more than what you thought was lost and you will find yourselves, by the grace of God, further down the road than what you were expecting. Joy is the carpool lane of our spiritual life in many ways. If on any carpool lane, one needs at least one passenger in his car in order to get on it, in our spiritual life, make sure you bring joy as your companion: this will work wonders. Geronda Paisios of Mount Athos tells us the same thing: have joy while struggling and imense benefits will come out of it.

But as soon as Zaccheus accepted our Lord’s invitation, the people started grumbling: publicans did not have a good name and, despite the fact that they were rich, they were regarded as the worst of sinners. How much of a prophet was this Jesus to not know who Zaccheus was? And they were right, humanly speaking. “Tell me who your friends are, and I wil tell who you are!”--this proverb has a translation in almost all languages and cultures. But the Lord is no ordinary man. And Zaccheus is not the rich man we talked about couple of Sundays ago. He makes a firm step towards God: “I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” Upon reading this passage, I remembered the Old Testament law from Exodus 22, that states “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep.” I knew however that there has to be more to this act of restoration, a spiritual dimension to it, but, in all honesty, I found myself dumb and silent as a fish. To my rescue came St. Theophilact of Bulgaria. Let’s listen together to his profound words:

“The fact that he will give back fourfold, suggests that if a man repents and follows a path that is opposite to his former way of wickedness, he heals his former sins through the four virtues--those being courage, prudence, righteousness, and self-control--and thus he receives salvation and becomes a son of Abraham. For, like Abraham, he also goes out of his land and out of his kinship, meaning he comes out from his old self and rejects his former condition.”

Also, the same commentator notices that Zaccheus did not say: “I will give” or “I will restore”, but rather “I give” and “I restore”, showing that he will change right away and is ready to fulfill all righteousness now. Another important idea that relates to Zaccheus’ firm response, is that God’s time is always now. The demons, however, always work outside God’s time: they trade the ever-present now to yesterday and tomorrow. They tempt us with our old ways, with past sins and mistakes and when we fall, they say: “now you have to repent, of course, but don’t do it now, do it tomorrow.” On the other hand, the Lord always helps Now: “Are you sick? Be well now! Are you blind? See now! Lazarus, come out now! Child, come back to life now!” Also, keep in mind that the Church encourages us to repent now and not later, so we can enter in God’s time, the eternal now. And interestingly enough, the present makes us present inwardly, and no longer caught in the webs of the past.

But what happened to Zaccheus? How did his story continue? According to Clement of Alexandria, in his book Stromata, Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias by the apostles, and took the place of Judas after our Lord’s Ascension. The later Apostolic Constitutions identify "Zacchaeus the Publican" as the first bishop of Caesarea. So, from the worst of all to the best of all. This is how God wants us and this is what He does to us if we respond NOW.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Amin!

Dcn. Tudor Sambeteanu