Zacchaeus: Both Lover and Beloved

A Sermon on Luke 19:1-10

Behold: A man named Zacchaeus. He is both lover and beloved. In the Gospel of St. Luke, Zacchaeus is known by name. This is a good sign. Zacchaeus is probably important in the city where the story takes place, Jericho. The Gospel also says that Zacchaeus desires to know who Jesus is. He wants to know the Lord. Again, this is a good sign. Zacchaeus, for all his faults, may have been a good-hearted sinner.

Zacchaeus is a sinner because, despite his good intentions, ultimately, his other desires, situation and life choices prevent him from knowing Jesus. Zacchaeus can’t see Jesus. In the beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Zacchaeus doesn’t know the Lord, because his heart is not yet cleansed from sin. In particular, Zacchaeus is not free from the love of money. He is a tax collector, and not only a tax collector, the chief tax collector. His career has been spent forcefully extracting taxes from his own people and then enriching himself by collecting more than he had to pay to his higher ups. And he had other tax collectors under him, doing the dirty work for him. Of course, he is short of stature. So you may imagine Zacchaeus surrounded by Roman soldier thugs harassing his countrymen, while the local community groans under his mini-tyranny.

St. Luke writes that Zacchaeus can not see Jesus even though he wants to. Zacchaeus can not know what the Lord looks like, because a) there’s a large crowd around him, and b) he is small in stature or shorter than average. These are very ordinary problems to have. But, symbolically, the Gospel is pointing to something deeper. Jesus says elsewhere in the Sacred Scriptures, “if a man loves me, he will keep my word.” If Zacchaeus loves Jesus, not only in intention but in reality, he will keep His commandments. But Zacchaeus does not keep the Lord’s commandments. The crowd drowns out Zacchaeus’ intention, as do many loud and competing desires drown out our best intentions. Yes, he wants to see Jesus, he wants to know him, but he also wants to amass wealth and use his power unjustly. Zacchaeus wants to lie, cheat and steal. All these competing desires prevent Zacchaeus from having a pure heart. The physical crowd, as well as the crowd in his heart, prevents him from seeing the Lord.

Zacchaeus is also small in stature. He is shorter than the average man. Symbolically, his small size, as well as the circumstances of his life, prevent him from rising above the crowd. The way he conducts his occupation leads to injustice and fraud. His life work feeds into his love of money. We spend 7, 8 or 10 hours a day at our jobs. We often work for the majority of our time awake. What if our job, in order to do it well, meant we had to break commandments or ignore the Word of the Lord? Our circumstances would prevent clarity of thought and purity of heart. This is Zacchaeus’ problem. His desire to know and see the Lord is crowded out by many sinful desires. And his circumstances prevent him from rising above the crowd to see the Lord.

Regardless, just like many of us who suffer the same crowded heart and fallen circumstance, Zacchaeus loves the Lord. The Gospel says that Zacchaeus desires to see Jesus. And not only does he desire to see Jesus, he does something about it. A man, quite powerful and proud, is seen running; running ahead of the crowd. Not only does he run to see Jesus, he climbs a sycamore tree. He puts his good desire into action. This is love. Symbolically, Zacchaeus, despite his short height, and the bustling crowd, rises above all these things. He changes his sinful circumstances, and his desire to know and love the Lord drives him to rise above all the other competing desires in his life: love of money, power, lying, cheating and stealing. May we too arrange our lives to better know and see the Lord, to purify our hearts and arrange our lives to better see the Lord. This is love.

And, not only is Zacchaeus the lover, he is the beloved. Jesus loves him. Jesus comes to the place where Zacchaeus waits to see the Lord, up in the air on the Sycamore tree. And Jesus calls him by name. “Zacchaeus, quickly come down!” And He invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home. To finish Jesus’s words above, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we will come and make our home with him.” And, just as we could, the Gospel says that Zacchaeus receives Jesus, and he is “full of joy.”

image: Stained glass window (detail) in the Catholic parish church of Saint-Pierre in Neuilly-sur-Seine , representation: The tax collector Zacchaeus and Jesus, Saint Pierre de Neuilly 1898-1995 , Bayeux 1995. Photo by Reinhardhauke / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Fr. Thomas lives in Manchester, New Hampshire with his wife and daughter. He is a full-time high school theology teacher in Nashua, NH and administrator of St. Basil the Great Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Utica, NY. He serves as an assistant director, host and presenter for God With Us Online at He graduated from Sts. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2017 with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree.

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