February: St. Zacchaeus — Salvation has come to this house

Saints with Funny Names

"Zacchaeus" by Niels Larsen Stevns (1864–1941). Photo: Public Domain
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St. Zacchaeus has one of the greatest conversion stories of all time, so much so that the Eastern Church gives him his own Sunday. Falling this year on Feb. 3, it is the first harbinger of a new pascal cycle.

Remember how I told you last year that the Eastern Rite doesn’t do Lent cold turkey? It gets you ready for Lent on the Sundays before. Each one represents different phases in the Christian soul’s preparation for the Great Fast. You are supposed to think about pride, then sorrow for sin, then you begin fasting in increments — first, by getting off meat, then by getting off cheese.

Well, Zacchaeus comes before all of that! He represents the whole bloomin’ point of everything that is to follow. This is it:

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).

Little did Zacchaeus know. He thought meeting Jesus was his idea alone. He was the one seeking our Lord, or at least trying to get a good look at him.

Zacchaeus’ sycamore fig in Jericho, Palestine. Photo: Creative Commons

One day, our Lord passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus — everybody had —  and he just had to see the famous celebrity. He ran to the spot but alas, he was too short to see anything but the backs of people’s heads as they pushed and shoved their way forward toward Jesus. Zacchaeus didn’t let that stop him. He ran on ahead of the mob and climbed up a sycamore fig tree. Now he could see perfectly.

Jesus is coming closer and closer …

He’s heading this way …

Wait until I tell them back at home!

Then Jesus did something really unexpected. He stopped at the foot of the sycamore fig tree and looked up at Zacchaeus.

Awkward much?

“Zacchaeus,” [Jesus said,] “come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5).

Did he just … invite himself to dinner?

Zacchaeus, ever the go-getter, scrambled down the tree and received our Lord’s invitation joyfully.

Then, everybody else started complaining. They had pushed and shoved and put up with getting their feet stepped on as they dutifully followed the Lord. And he picks … that guy?

Zacchaeus was a horrible person, so everybody thought. He would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. He had spent most of his adult life amassing a fortune at the expense of his neighbors in Jericho. They hated him. A fellow Jew should have known better than to cooperate with the Romans, their pagan conquerors. Yet, here he was, taking the bread right out of their babies’ mouths. Not the kind of behavior you’d expect from a guy whose name means “pure and innocent.”Snort!

Wait a minute. I’m a good person, why does this vile sinner get all the attention?

Zacchaeus heard them and said to the Lord (notably, not to them), “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” (Luke 19:8).

And Jesus knew he meant it.

From that day forth, Zacchaeus was a converted man. He didn’t just say he was sorry for his sins, he put his money where his mouth was.

For this reason, our Lord himself made him an example for the crowd.

Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Jesus didn’t just mean that Zacchaeus was Jewish. Here is how I know. The very same Gospel tells us what sort of people God considers to be true descendants of Abraham. St. John the Baptist tells the crowd:

Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones,” (Luke 3:8).

Jesus is saying that the children of Abraham are those who show radical faith like Abraham. That’s Zacchaeus.

He was a little guy with a big personality. He did things all the way. All his life he ran after money with everything he had. But the minute he saw Jesus, he ran after him.

But it was really our Lord who had sought him. It was Jesus who reached out to Zacchaeus first. It was Jesus who made the first contact, who called Zacchaeus to his service. In our quest for God, we often forget that we are not the initiators. It is God who gives us the grace to seek him.

“Salvation has come to this house. … For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9–10, empahsis mine).

Are you ready to let him in?

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