A very popular children's song gives the main outline of Luke's story:
Notice that Luke's account begins by purposefully telling us the "Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it..." Jesus' ultimate destination, as Luke emphasizes all through the Gospel, is Jerusalem where, as we know, he will die at the hands of the Roman occupiers, egged on by Jewish religious leaders.
Luke describes Zacchaeus as "short in stature", short enough, apparently, that, along with his well-known professional position and wealth, it was a problem. In addition to that, for Zacchaeus to try to mingle in the crowd, even if it was up front where he could see, was fraught with danger. Predictably, you can guess that he would have had some enemies...on several counts. It wasn't unusual in his time for assassinations to be furtively carried out by sticking a knife into someone in the midst of a crowd. There were, in fact, people known as Sicarii, from the Latin word sicarius = dagger-man, or assassin, Jewish nationalists whose intent was to use a concealed dagger or sica to eliminate Romans from Judea in this way.
Luke says that Zacchaeus "ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree", which, by the way, bears no resemblance to the American sycamore. It was, instead, a variety of fig tree, similar to a mulberry tree. "Trying to see Jesus", Zacchaeus hovers there, camouflaged by the leaves. When Jesus reaches the spot, he stops and looks up into the branches, addressing Zacchaeus by name. Imagine what that must've felt like to a man accustomed to the usual scorn and derision, or worse, by his fellow-citizens. "Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." Before Zacchaeus can think of anything to say, the onlooking crowd is utterly shocked! "What?!... he's gone to be the guest of a sinner!!", they grumble. Luke uses the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word used in Exodus when the people obstinately complain; grumble; murmur against God and Moses.
By contrast to the crowd, Zacchaeus "hurried down and was happy to welcome [Jesus]". Zacchaeus then announces: “Look, Lord! half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” There's an ongoing discussion as to whether this represents Zacchaeus' intent, or whether he may have already done it. Whichever is the case, this resonates with the Hebrew Scriptures, in Exodus 22:1-15, which spells out the restitution which was required when one was responsible for the loss of another's property. Restitution ranges from straight replacement for negligence, increasing up to two, four or five times replacement for various thefts. Exodus 22:1 says, "When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters or sells it, the thief shall pay...four sheep for a sheep...The thief shall make restitution..." King David also applied this rule in 2 Samuel 12:6 when he said, "And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." Zacchaeus chooses a generous recompense. He places himself on the guilty side of the spectrum outlined in Exodus, and intends to begin anew in maximum obedience to God.
Seen by Jesus, personally named by Jesus, accepted unconditionally for who he is by Jesus, Zacchaeus himself is transformed by the touch of divine grace. "Today salvation has come to this house", says Jesus, "because he too is a son of Abraham..." The one who was despised and ostracized. The one who was lost. The one whom Jesus came to seek out. The one has been recognized, acknowledged, found by divine mercy.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches, the Gospel account of Zacchaeus is read on the last Sunday preceding the liturgical preparation for Great Lent, and thus is known as "Zacchaeus Sunday." It was chosen to open the Lenten season in order to highlight two things: God's calling us to humility, represented in Jesus' call to Zacchaeus to come down from the tree; and God's calling us to repentance, exemplified by Zacchaeus' actions.
Many see the story of Zacchaeus as illustrating Jesus' words: "Blessed are the pure of heart, For they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). Zacchaeus whose name means pure, climbed up a tree, similar to the cross, and was symbolically crucified with Christ, enabling him to see God in Jesus.
An old hymn, in the following verses, gives you and me much to reflect on and pray about this week: