Zacchaeus was not a run-of-the-mill tax collector, but a chief among tax collectors… 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 rumours 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.