Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, 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 ysaw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, 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 Zacchaeus 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 (Lk. 19:1-10).
Who was Zacchaeus? He was a leader of the publicans -“the chief among publicans.” The customary comparison between the humble publican and the proud Pharisee often blocks the true meaning of these two images in our minds. However, to understand the Gospel correctly, one must picture them clearly. The Pharisees were truly righteous men. If on our lips the name “Pharisee” sounds as condemnation, in the days of Christ and during the first decades of Christianity this was not so. On the contrary, the Apostle Paul triumphantly confesses before the Jews, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6). And then, to Christians, to his spiritual children, he writes, “I am of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews, as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). And besides the holy Apostle Paul, many Pharisees became Christians: Joseph, Nicodemus, Gamaliel. Pharisees (in ancient Hebrew “perusim,” in Aramaic, “ferisim,” which means “other” — the separated, the different) were zealots of the law of God. They “rested upon the law”; in other words, thought on it constantly, loved it, strove to keep it exactly, preached and interpreted it. And the reason for the Lord’s accusation against the Pharisees is found in that the Lord warns them that their entire labor, their truly virtuous endeavors, are made worthless in the eyes of God, are turned into nothing and they obtain condemnation from the Lord and not blessings, despite their superiority and the righteous deeds they performed, because of their proud self-exaltation, and above all, their judgment of their neighbors, of which the Pharisee of the parable gives a clear example, saying, “Lord, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men” (Lk. 18:11).
On the other hand, the publicans were truly sinners, who broke the fundamental commandments of the Lord. Publicans collected taxes from the Hebrews for the Romans. One must remember that the Jews, well conscious of their special position of being divinely chosen, gloried in the fact that they were “Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man” (Jn. 8:33). And now, as a result of well-known historical circumstances, they found themselves under submission; subjects to a proud, coarse, “iron” race of pagan Romans. And the yoke of this submission was being pulled tighter and tighter and was beginning to be felt more and more. The most tangible and obvious sign of the submission and subjugation of the Jews to the Romans was the payment of every imaginable tax and tribute by the Jews to their conquerors. For the Jews, as for all ancient people, paying tribute was mainly a symbol of subjugation. And the Romans, not at all abashed before a conquered people, roughly and decisively demanded of them both customary and additional taxes. Of course the Jews paid with hatred and disgust. Not in vain, desiring to compromise the Lord in the eyes of His people, did the Sadducees ask Him, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?” (Mt. 22:17). They knew that if Christ would say that one should not give tribute to Caesar, it would be easy to accuse Him before the Romans, and if He would say that tribute should be paid, He would hopelessly compromise Himself in the eyes of the people.
While the Romans ruled the Jews by means of local kings, such as Herod, Archelaus, Agrippa, and others, the subjugation to Rome, and especially the inescapability of paying taxes, was softened somewhat for the Jews in that they were directly subject and paid tribute to their kings, and only indirectly subject and tributary to Rome. But just immediately before the beginning of Christ the Savior’s preaching, there was a change in the system of governing the Jews. The general census connected with the birth of Christ was the first step towards the establishment of an individual tax upon all Roman subjects in that area.
In A.D. 6 or 7, after the displacement of Archelaus, when a personal tax was introduced upon all the residents of Palestine, the Jews responded with the revolts of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Jews of Galilee (see Acts 5:37). And only with great difficulty was the High Priest Jazarus able to calm the people. Instead of local kings, Roman procurators were appointed as the rulers of Judea and the neighboring provinces. Then, for a more successful levying of taxes by the Romans, the institution of the publicans was introduced, which had existed in Rome since ancient times. But while in Rome and throughout Italy publicans were recruited from an esteemed warrior class, in Judea the Romans were forced to engage publicans from the moral outcasts, from among Jews that agreed to go over to work for them and force their brothers to pay tribute.
The acceptance of such a position was bound up with a most profound moral fall. It was bound not only with national, but, above all, religious betrayal: to become a tool for the subjugation of the divinely chosen people by coarse pagans, one had to deny the hopes of Israel, everything holy to it, its dreams, and — what is more — since the Romans did not take into account the spiritual tribulation of their agents, upon accepting his position a publican had to swear a pagan oath of fidelity to the emperor, and bring pagan sacrifices to his spirit (the genius of the emperor). Of course the publicans served not only Rome’s interests, levying taxes upon their own country men, but pursuing their own greedy goals and becoming wealthy at the expense of their subjugated brothers, they made the yoke of Roman oppression felt even more, and still more difficult to bear. This is who the publicans were. This is why they were surrounded by justifiable hatred and scorn; as betrayers of their people, having betrayed not only their people but a divinely-chosen one, God’s tool in the world, the only people through which rebirth and salvation could come to mankind.
Everything said above pertains to Zacchaeus in the highest degree, because he was not a run-of-the-mill publican, but a chief among publicans – an architelonis. Without a doubt he had done everything: brought pagan sacrifices and sworn a pagan oath, mercilessly forced taxes from his brothers, increasing them to his own advantage. And he became, as the Gospel witnesses, a rich man. Of course Zacchaeus understood clearly that the hopes of Israel were lost to him. Everything foretold by the prophets, beloved from childhood, that at which every believing Old Testament soul trembled joyfully, was not for him. He was a traitor, a betrayer, a cast-off. He had no part in Israel. And now rumors reached him that the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah announced by the prophets, has already appeared in the world, and together with a small group of disciples is walking the fields of Galilee and Judea, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and working great miracles. Joyous hopes are ignited with trembling in believing hearts. How will Zacchaeus react to this? For him personally, the coming of the Messiah is a catastrophe. The rule of Rome must come to an end, and the triumphant Israel will, of course, take revenge for the losses suffered because of him, for the offences and oppressions that were his fault. But even if this is not so, for the Messiah, as the prophet witnessed, comes as a righteous one, bringing salvation as a meek one (cf. Zech. 9:9), the triumph of the Messiah must bring to him, to Zacchaeus, only the greatest shame and the loss of all the wealth and of the position he acquired at the frightening price of his treachery before God, his own people, and all the hopes of Israel.
But maybe this is not so just yet. Perhaps the new preacher is not really the Messiah. Not everyone believes in Him. The greatest foes of the publicans and of him, Zacchaeus himself, the Pharisees and Sadducees, do not believe in Him. Perhaps all this is just the idle talk of the populace. Then one can calmly continue living as one has until now. But Zacchaeus does not want to be confirmed in such thoughts. He wants to see Jesus, to know, to really know, Who is He? And Zacchaeus wants the preacher passing by truly to be Christ the Messiah. He wants to say with the prophet, “O, if Thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down!” (Is. 64:1); let this be so, even it results in a ruinous catastrophe for him, Zacchaeus. In his soul, it seems, there are depths that even he has not sensed until now; there is in him a burning, flaming, consuming, completely selfless love for the “Expectation of the nations,” for the image of the humble Messiah described by the prophets, who “hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53-4). And at the arrival of an opportunity to see Him, Zacchaeus does not think of himself. In the triumph of the Messiah, for him personally, for Zacchaeus, there is catastrophe and ruin. But he does not think of this. He wants to glimpse, at least from the comer of his eye, Him of Whom Moses and the prophets foretold.
And now Christ passes by. He is surrounded by the crowd. Zacchaeus cannot see Him, as he is short of stature. But the thirst, the completely unselfish, selfless to the utmost, thirst of Zacchaeus to see Christ at least from afar, is so limitless, so unsurpassable, that he, a wealthy man, burdened by his position, an officer of the Roman Empire, amid an unfriendly crowd that hates and scorns him, not paying attention to anything, swallowed up only by the burning desire to see Christ, breaks all convention for this, all outward decorum, and climbs a tree — a sycamore, growing along the path. And the eyes of a great sinner — a leader of traitors and betrayers — meets the eyes of the Holy One of Israel, Christ the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus sees that which is incomprehensible to a disinterested or unfriendly glance. Selflessly loving the image of the Messiah, Zacchaeus could immediately recognize in the passing Galilean Teacher, Christ the Lord; and the Lord, filled with Divine and human love, saw this in Zacchaeus, peering at him from the branches of the sycamore, the depths of the soul that were unknown, until now, even to Zacchaeus himself. The Lord saw that the burning love for the Holy One of Israel, in the heart of this traitor, not at all blemished by any sort of self-interest, could revive and renew him. The Divine voice sounded, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must abide at thy house” (Lk. 19:5). And moral rebirth, salvation, and renewal came to Zacchaeus and his entire house. The Son of Man truly came to seek and to save the lost.
O Lord, O Lord, we too, as Zacchaeus once, have betrayed Thee and Thy work, have deprived ourselves of our part in Israel, have betrayed our hope! But, if even to our shame and those like us, let Thy kingdom come! Even if, as we deserve according to our sins, Thy coming will bring us ruin and condemnation, come, O Lord, come quickly! But grant us, at least from afar, to see the triumph of Thy righteousness, even if we cannot be participants in it. And have mercy on us beyond hope, as once Thou didst have mercy on Zacchaeus!
St. Clement of Rome tells us that Zacchaeus, as a result, became a companion of the holy Apostle Peter, and, together with the holy First-Among-the-Apostles, preached in Rome, where during Nero’s reign he accepted a martyr’s death for Christ. In a Christian manner, with the greatest good he repaid the Romans for the greatest evil perpetrated upon him by them. To the proud capital of the Romans that had once tempted and subjugated him, forcing him to deny all that was holy to his soul, he came, liberated and reborn by the grace of our Lord Who loveth mankind; and brought Rome not curses, but the good news, giving his very life for it.