Today's Gospel concerns "a man named Zaccheus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich." In this context, of course, a publican is not the owner of a pub, but rather a tax collector. For this reason was Zaccheus despised by the Jews as a sinner and an outcast, a traitor to his own people, a vile collaborator who conspired with the Romans to oppress the Jewish people by means of extortion and violence. A tax collector in those days could, indeed--like a modern day Mafia don--force people to pay over and beyond what was actually due to the government, pocketing the difference for himself. For this reason was Zaccheus considered by the Jewish elders to be beyond redemption.
Nevertheless, both St. John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ begin their ministries with the words, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!" The call to repentance--to "turn again"-- is indeed at the core of our Christian Faith. The whole of our earthly life, in fact, should be devoted not to vain and frivolous pursuits, but rather to an ongoing struggle for genuine repentance--to make a 180 degree turn from the darkness of our egotistic desires and sinful passions to the light of God's redeeming grace.
So it is that Zaccheus--inspired by divine grace--sincerely repents, promising to give half his goods to the poor, while restoring fourfold whatever he had unlawfully taken from his victims. And so Jesus declares, "This day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost." As in the Gospel parable, our Lord willingly leaves the ninety-nine sheep in order to save the one that was lost (over whom the angels in heaven rejoice).
"By grace we are saved," writes the Holy Apostle, and indeed--apart from the grace of God, no man living can be made worthy of eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom. "For God desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live."
Yet there is nothing magical or automatic about salvation. Even sinners such as you and I can be saved--but only if we strive and struggle in this earthly life to be made worthy of this grace. Zaccheus, after all, sought to see Jesus. He ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree. And finally, at our Lord's behest, he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. And having done so, he stood and confessed to Jesus his willingness to renounce his sinful life.
And so--while it was by the grace of God that Zaccheus was saved--it was only through his own freely-chosen efforts that this grace could penetrate his stony heart. We are, indeed, saved by grace, but unless we open our hearts to receive this grace, ever striving to purify our hearts of every sinful passion and to fulfill the Gospel commandments, we will in the end be cast into that place of outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.