Zacchaeus: The Fruit of the Fig Tree

Homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg, PA, on Zacchaeus Sunday 7529 (2021 Civil Calendar), Feb. 1/Feb. 14

The account of Zacchaeus in the Gospel reading today tells us, as we prepare to enter the preparatory season for Lent, of how a money-loving tax collector became the good fruit of the sycamore fig tree he climbed. He left his love of materialism for the love of truth in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. He did this through humility and repentance and practical deeds of charity, through the love of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel commentaries based in our Orthodox Church tradition by Archbishop Averky of Russia in the twentieth century and of the Blessed Theophylact of Byzantium in the twelfth century help provide background.

Zacchaeus as a publican was a tax collector and chief tax collector in the very rich Jericho area, which would have been a source of great income for him. This position also identified him closely with the colonial Roman oppressive regime, ultimately implicated also in the Crucifixion of our Lord. Zacchaeus’ position exemplified the love of money and materialism, and the status and power they were seen as conferring. This is even more of a temptation arguably today in our society.

The Blessed Theophylact notes that “The Lord seizes the mightiest of the devil’s vessels and destroys his cities. See how the Lord not only makes publicans His disciples, but He even takes prisoner, in order to save him, the chief of the publicans, Zacchaeus.”

Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree, actually a sycamore-fig tree, to see Jesus, but before he saw Jesus, Jesus had already seen Him. So it is with the grace of our Lord, Who answers our willingness and eagerness even before we know. Our Lord urges Zacchaeus to come down quickly. Zacchaeus followed the law of God in the restitution of his fraud, in true alms-giving, giving all he had, not only half to the poor, but of the rest fourfold to all he had defrauded, and his whole business so to speak had been in fraud.

The Lord then says that now Zacchauus is a son of Abraham. For our Lord knew Abraham, and in His theophany had been a guest of Abraham’s hospitality, and he saw that same hospitality in Zacchaeus’ repentance and active love, in giving up his possessions.

Short of stature as the chief wicked-doer in the area, Zacchaeus symbolically and literally could not see Christ until he had climbed up the sycamore-fig tree, past its sweet fruits, to make an ascent in his heart, to see Jesus. Jesus then called him to “make haste and come down,” so as to humble himself and not fall into pride because of that ascent to a higher life through repentance. Our Lord would abide in the house of a humble man, who proved this in his experience. The fourfold restoration by Zacchaeus of his fraud symbolizes the healing of his sins through the four virtues, known to the Church Fathers as courage, prudence, righteousness, and self-control. As the Blessed Theophylact concludes, Zacchaeus had long lived in the house of his father, the devil, and when he went out of the house of his father, out of himself and changed, he found salvation, as had Abraham.

Archbishop Averky noted, “The repentance of Zacchaeus is a model of true repentance that is not limited by a fruitless remorse over sins committed, but strives to expiate the sins through virtues that are the sins’ opposites.”

A couple other short items of note in this story include further Zacchaeus’ short stature. Some talk of the Napoleon complex by which short stature can relate to a desire for power. But as fallen human beings we are all short of stature in God’s eyes and prone to power. Zacchaeus gave this up symbolically by climbing the tree. In Egypt the sycamore-fig tree was widely cultivated, and it is thought that its cultivation spread from there to the Holy Land. In ancient Egypt that tree was known as the Tree of Life. So too St. John of Damascus referred to the Tree of Life in Paradise and in the City of God, the New Jerusalem, as symbolizing our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Maximos the Confessor spoke of the logoi or words of God, constituting our identity, as singing in the tree of the Logos. Jesus Christ referred to Himself as the true vine, and the Apostle Paul said that those becoming Christians who were Gentiles are engrafted in that true vine or tree.

Zacchaeus, although a Jew, had to leave his love for power and money to become a Christian, a follower of our Lord, climbing the tree and then following without hesitation our Lord’s command, and surrendering that which he had worshipped, his wealth. In the news today, new forms of crypto currencies raise questions about the nature of money freed from the gold standard. So this ancient Gospel account reminds us also of scriptural and canonical limitations in the Church on greed. We see this in prohibitions on usury. In the Old Testament we see how the laws of God incorporated regular forgiveness of debts in Jubilee Years and also recycling of land ownership, a reminder that the gifts and blessings of the Creation come from God. They are ours only in the sense that we are good stewards, as in the parables of the New Testament, for our Lord. Central to that sense of a gift economy based in God is philanthropy and alms-giving, as we should remember as we enter into Lent as well. As the Apostle Paul wrote, the love of money is the root of evil, because it involves a fundamental lie about the nature of things, leading to idolatry. How much all people today especially in our global consumer culture are engaged in such idolatry, even in our worship of material images online, and of materialistic success in careers and image and status for ourselves. This curse affects in different ways all political ideologies today, which all participate in the worship of materialism.

Like Zacchaeus, brothers and sisters, let our eagerness for Christ at each day and each moment lead us to climb the tree of repentance, ignoring the sweet fruits of materialism for a glimpse of Him. He will already be seeing us, and let us heed His command with the speed of little Zacchaeus, to follow Him and host with generous hospitality our Lord, as Zacchaeus’ spiritual father Abraham had done.

For little Zacchaeus truly became great only in Jesus Christ after practicing the grace-filled virtues that provided an antidote for sin. He became the good fruit of the fig tree. The sycamore fig tree became to Zacchaeus a type of the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations because of his zeal, his repentance, his humility, and his active expression of repentant love in charity, entering into the Body of our Lord, His Church. Let us heed and follow little Zacchaeus’ example as we enter the weeks preparing for Lent, and as we also prepare this month for building a temple for our worship in proclaiming the Gospel to our region.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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