Sermon by Protopriest Rostislav Gan (+1975) on the Sunday of Zacchaeus
The system of tax farming was practiced by many governments even until recent times. It was one of the most ancient forms of gathering taxes.
The Jewish publicans [tax-collectors] were wealthy men who would pay a fee to the government for a specific territory for a single year. The state would grant them the right to collect taxes from the local population, but in most cases, there was no control over the process. For this reason, tax-collectors demanded two, three or sometimes even five times the amounts they passed on to the state.
Naturally, such a system afforded a great deal of abuse, and those who headed these systems, of course, were dishonest profiteers. That is why the Jewish word “publican,” meant a person who “collected hides” from both living and dead. Such a person could be merciless to the debtor if he did not pay in a timely manner the established or imposed sum.
Indigent debtors were forced to pay in the following manner: they were put in “debtor’s prison,” located in a populated center; and so a person remained there until one of his friends or relatives, or maybe simply a passer-by, inspired by sympathy, paid his debt on his behalf.
Such “debtor’s prisons” were found in every large square and intersection. That is why the local population could easily see the cruel oppression and persecution of the people at the hands of these very same publicans. Everyone also knew that the tax-collectors were rich, so they could easily pay their large tax bill to the state, while demanding many, many times more from the local populace.
So for the Jews, the word “publican” meant a person who is morally bankrupt, one who would do anything for personal gain. There were, therefore, very few decent men among the tax-collectors. These might be one in a hundred. Among these rarities was the publican Zacchaeus.
In the overwhelming majority of people, the conscience is not stifled completely. This conscience makes itself known at various points in one’s life, especially when a person comes face-to-face, or hears about, an individual who bears the completely opposite characteristics and traits: truth, fairness and kindness. For such a person who would seem to have completely lost his conscience, a certain longing suddenly arises in his soul.
This is precisely what happened to Zacchaeus. He sensed that he was living in error, sinfully, badly. He desired to see the One about Whom he had heard a great deal, Who not only preached the truth, but manifested it in deed.
St John Chrysostom says: “The Lord accepts not only deeds, but intentions.” And if a person has a good intention, the Lord often permits this intention to be made manifest, so that it is not extinguished.
Zacchaeus, of course, could not imagine that he would even speak with Christ. He simply desired to see Him, and for that reason he climbed up a tree, that is, he abandoned his personal social dignity, and in the midst of the crowd, clambered up the tree to catch sight of Christ.
But the Lord, as He passed, saw the good intention within the soul of the man and said “Today I shall abide at thy house.”
For Zacchaeus, of course, this was a complete surprise, especially since the Lord did not disdain him, as did the entire populace, He did not avoid him as did everyone else.
Zacchaeus’ soul experienced a complete turnaround. And so, receiving Christ, he promised everyone that not only would he correct his ways, but that he would make amends for his past. He said: “and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”
Such is the demand of the human conscience—not only to think of the future, but if possible to correct what was done before.
Thus did Zacchaeus voluntarily assume the life of a mendicant, for it is unlikely that his entire fortune, which he amassed by force, unfairly, could have satisfied all those whom he injured.
But such is the essence of the wakening conscience, that it demands satisfaction, it requires the complete smoothing out of the sins of the past.
This was the lesson Zacchaeus learned, and according to Church tradition, he spent the rest of his life suffering cruelty and brutality.
As St Theophan the Recluse said: the Lord never promised His followers an easy life, that their life’s path would be strewn with flowers, that their way would be easy. On the contrary, He kept asserting that the path towards Him is filled with obstacles, sorrows and suffering. Whoever endures the tribulations of life with gratitude will not only be saved, but will save those around him. Amen.