The Sunday before we begin the Lenten Triodion (a service book with all the lenten services; used from the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee until Great and Holy Saturday) is known as Zacchaeus Sunday as we read about Zacchaeus from the Gospel according to St. Luke. I always look forward to this Sunday as it serves as a type of herald that the great fast - an intense season which renews and refreshes us, preparing us for our Lord’s passion and Resurrection - is quickly approaching. I, like many others, consider this to be the most beautiful and wonderful time of the year.
And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zacchæus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature. And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchæus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house. And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. And Zacchæus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.
We are blessed to have this Gospel reading right before our lenten journey begins. The Holy Fathers, in their divinely inspired wisdom and love for the souls entrusted to them, draw our attention to Zacchaeus and the valuable lessons to be learned from his example.
Zacchaeus was the chief publican - tax collector - and he was rich. Publicans were despised because they worked for the Romans, who were in turn hated by the Jews for occupying their land. They were also thieves, for they collected more taxes than were due, thereby lining their purses quite nicely. Thus, as the Gospel says, he was rich.
Now Zacchaeus, like so many others, wanted to see Jesus. But he unable to do so since he was short and the crowd was large. So he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree to see Him. When He was passing Jesus saw him and told him to come down as He wished to spend the day at Zacchaeus’ house.
Here we see two things that are very important: desire and effort. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. This is important. Not everyone wants to see Jesus. I would venture to say that many people today have no desire to see Him. (The reason is clear at the end). Having a desire, he acted upon it. He ran ahead and climbed a tree so that he could see Jesus as He passed by. And here is the wonder: Jesus saw him!
This is beautiful, encouraging and comforting. Zacchaeus had no hope of being noticed by Jesus, let alone hosting Him in his home. Yet he did just that. God sees what is in each person’s heart. He knew of his desire and saw his effort. So He commanded him to come down.
Now did you notice that Zacchaeus did not invite Jesus into his house? Jesus invited Himself to Zacchaeus’ house. He doesn’t need an invitation. He wants to come. Jesus, the Son of the Father before the ages, was born, became a man, precisely because He so loves us and He desires to come into our homes (hearts). He is looking for us, calling to us. All that is required is desire and effort - not unadulterated desire nor extraordinary effort. Just a good will and the readiness to attain one’s desire (Christ Himself).
Now the people were stunned. They could not believe that Jesus would actually spend the day in the house of someone like Zacchaeus. They saw terrible sinner, a thief who collaborated with the Romans. Jesus saw a desirous heart ready to bear the fruit of repentance, which it immediately bore.
Now here is an example of repentance! Zacchaeus, a lover of money to the extent that he didn’t care what people thought of him, told the Lord that he is giving half of all that he has to the poor and making restitution to those whom he cheated 4 times over. Let us compare Zacchaeus’ reaction to encountering Christ to that of the rich young man who left Jesus saddened because he could do everything except renounce the idol of wealth. Let us also compare our own repentance with that of Zacchaeus. When we repent, or at least think that we are repenting, do we have such a change of heart?
This is why I said that many people today have no real desire to see Jesus. It would require them to have a change of heart if they saw Him, just like Zacchaeus did. This is why Jesus is constantly being “reimagined”, why there are so many “churches”, so many “new, better, clearer” translations of the Bible. They do not want Jesus as He reveals Himself. They want a Jesus that is agreeable to them, to their way of life. (Why else would they shop for a church?) They have no desire to repent (change), no intention of forsaking whatever idols reside in their hearts.
As we approach the beginning of the lenten cycle, our holy Orthodox Church, as a loving mother, is teaching us that we need two things: a desire for God, for salvation, no matter how small or feeble, and the willingness to make an effort. God will notice this desire and effort, and then engage us so that our desire grows strong and our effort determined. This is so that we may produce the fruit of repentance and reap salvation just like Zacchaeus.