JESUS entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see Who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Him, because He was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to Zacchaeus, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome Him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Every year the Sunday of Zacchaeus signals the start of preparatory period for the Great Lent. Technically speaking Sunday of Zacchaeus is not part of this preparatory period, but it always comes before it. This period consists of four Sundays: Publican and Pharisee, Return of Prodigal Son, Last Judgment, Casting out of Adam and Eve from Paradise (also, Forgiveness Sunday).
Saint Luke is the only evangelist who tells the story of Jesus meeting Zacchaeus and visiting his house. Even though we read this Gospel lesson full 11 weeks before Pascha, the events themselves took place towards the end of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, when He entered triumphantly as a King (aka the Palm Sunday). In fact, the entry into Jerusalem is described by St Luke in the same 19th chapter (verses 28-40) as the story about Zacchaeus.
A few points:
1. Evangelists rarely mention people by name, yet the rich tax collector from Jericho is named. Perhaps St Luke mentions his name as sort of a foreshadow of where the story goes. Zacchaeus means "pure" or "righteous." However, from a brief description that we have of him, we can't initially say that he is either. Zacchaeus was both a chief tax collector and very rich, and he was a fraud, as he himself acknowledges. As ugly as he was on the inside, he converted by acknowledging his sinfulness and by seeking Christ, Whom Zacchaeus believed would be able to make him righteous.
2. Zacchaeus was short both spiritually and physically. He needed help to grow. Jesus helped him grow spiritually, the sycamore tree helped him "grow" physically, it made him taller. By showing up in the crowd and climbing the tree, Zacchaeus did two courageous acts. As a tax collector, he was seen as a traitor in the eyes of his countrymen because he worked for the hated Romans, who occupied their land. Also, adult men, especially adult men of stature of government workers, would not climb a tree. It was a self-humiliating act to do. Yet, Zacchaeus' desire to see Jesus was stronger than social customs of the day.
3. The Lord not only noticed Zacchaeus (it was probably hard not to see a grown man on the tree), but invited Himself to Zacchaeus' house. The tradition then, as it is today, is to wait to be invited, but Jesus, knowing our true desires and seeing our hearts, initiates us meeting Him, in case we stumble to do it on our own (of course, this presupposes that our desires are pure). We do not know whether Zacchaeus intended to invite the Lord to his house, but overjoyed at the opportunity to do so.
4. Jesus entering the house of Zacchaeus is an image of Him entering under the roof of the house of our soul (as we pray in the "Prayers in Preparation for Holy Communion"). And what happens when He enters? Well, Zacchaeus gives us a perfect example - we become motivated to change, to improve our life, to get rid of all the filth and start living a righteous life. It is impossible to be in the presence of Jesus Christ and feel normal with ourselves. Sin is that thing that eats away at our conscience and our soul, and when we encounter Jesus sin throbs inside. We have to cast it out. Zacchaeus desired to see Jesus, and he not only saw Him, but received Him in his house. This encounter led him to completely change his life - go from a hated tax collector to a humble follower of the Lord.
5. "Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor" - generosity is one of the main characteristics of Christians. The rich young man was unable to sell all his things and distribute the money to the poor when Jesus prompted him (Luke 18:18-27), but Zacchaeus is ready to give away half of his possessions unprompted.
6. Why not sell everything? He had to pay back anyone he defrauded, fourfold (!). This was actually required by the Old Testament Law given by God to Moses (Exodus 22:1). Of course Zacchaeus could have come up with excuses for his behavior, or even figure out ways to keep his money, but encountering Jesus shone a light on his life. He realized he was miserable. He was miserable because he was a fraud. He was a fraud because he felt empowered by his position as a tax collector. What Zacchaeus does here is extremely humiliating in the eyes of the crowd, but humbling in the eyes of the Lord.
7. Jesus, in response to these brave and humbling actions of Zacchaeus, says that He "came to seek out and save the lost." Notice, Christ says He came to seek out the lost, meaning He actively looks for penitent sinners, those who express even the smallest desire to live, those who are tired of pointless misery and suffering, those who realize that they are lost.
Sometimes it's easier to give away all of our possessions than to acknowledge that we are lost with Jesus Christ in our life.
May the same desire that drove Zacchaeus to encounter Jesus, drive us also to remain humble disciples of the Lord.
Yours in Christ,