Saint Maximus, Bishop of Turin in Italy – Two sermons on Zacchaeus.

Sermon 95. On Zacchaeus{1}.

1. It has been my frequent wish, beloved brethren, to preach on the parable from this section of the Gospel and to speak of the grace of the wealthy Zacchaeus in words of great eloquence and to be abundant in praise of him, since he was free-giving for his own salvation. For who would not praise a person who was able to give his own wealth to himself and to acquire everlasting dominion for himself by owning temporal property?{2} He gave his wealth, I say, to himself, because what we possess is another’s if we do not use it properly for salvation{3}; for whatever seems to be mine will not be mine when I depart from the world if it is kept from being useful to me in the world.

It has been my wish, then, to preach on Zacchaeus’ wealth and grace – that of a rich person, clearly, and of one for ever rich, because he merited to be richer to Christ than to the world, and he was wealthier in the possession of faith than in temporal goods. Zacchaeus must be praised, then, because although the rich are excluded from the glory of the heavenly kingdom (as the Lord says: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19.24)), he hastened to enter into the kingdom of heaven by means of those very riches and to pass through that strait and narrow needle’s eye with the twisted mass of his body. What is a ruinous hindrance to others was profitable to his salvation.

But do not be surprised that I should speak of the deformed members of a camel in a human being: in a human being the camel’s deformity is a question not of bodily but of spiritual disfigurement, not of awkward bearing but of base heart, for just as a camel is ungainly because of its disproportioned members, so also a human being is deformed because of the harshness of his sins. This is what the Lord means when He says: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. That is to say that it is difficult for a sinner to pass through that hard and narrow way of heavenly life (Cf. Matt. 7.14) – one that is poor and mean – with the deformity of sins. It is most necessary for one who wishes to pass from a hulking and base ungainliness to the exalted substance of that purity to simplify and mortify his way of life. Unless he does this he stumbles against the narrow gate of heaven like a burdened and deformed animal{4}.

Zacchaeus must be praised, therefore – he whose riches were unable to keep him from the royal threshold. He is greatly to be praised because his riches brought him to the threshold of the kingdom. Hence we understand that wealth is not a hindrance but a help to attaining the glory of Christ if, while yet possessing it, we do not squander it on wantonness but give it away for the sake of salvation, for there is no crime in possessions but in those who do not know how to use possessions{5}. For wealth is a temptation to vice for the foolish, but for the wise it is a help to virtue; to the ones an opportunity for salvation is given, by the others a stumbling block of perdition is acquired.


The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin, trans. by B. Ramsey, New York 1989, p. 218-220.


Sermon 96. A Sequel{6}.

1. I believe that all the rich are rejoicing in last Sunday’s sermon and that they are happy to whom Zacchaeus opened the heavenly portal which had been closed to them on account of their possessions. For he opened the heavenly portal when he taught them to come to the kingdom by that very thing which kept them from the kingdom; that is to say that property, which was a reproach to them to their destruction, would be of use to their salvation. Zacchaeus, therefore, bestowed a great deal on the rich inasmuch as he saw to it that they would possess their wealth for ever and that those who were never poor here would not be beggars in the future, but that by a kind of lucrative exchange they would receive great things for little ones, heavenly things for earthly, and everlasting things for temporal. Clearly it is a lucrative exchange not to wish to have what you possess so that you might be able to obtain what you do not have, and to make a sacrifice by letting go of your money sometimes so that you might have the advantage of possessing grace for ever{7}.

Zacchaeus, then, although he was a publican and by the deceit of usury sought great wealth by loaning out money, was suddenly converted to such an extent upon seeing Christ that he sought spiritual grace with a greater desire than he had sought worldly money. He was converted to such an extent, I say, that, looking at his former deeds, he himself condemned his deceitful acts and, on the verge of correcting himself, he first corrected his awareness of desire{8}. For he said: Behold, I give half my goods to the poor, and if I have taken anything away from anyone I return it fourfold (Luke 19.8).

Suppose someone should say: “Why would a holy man, seeing the Savior before him, have given a half to the poor and not everything, since it is written: If you wish to be perfect, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me?” (Matt. 19.21) But in fact you will notice that he followed to the utmost because he gave not half but everything, for if you take away other people’s property from Zacchaeus, nothing remains to him. This righteous man, in order that his liberality might be acceptable, knew how to distribute justly – that is, by returning what was not his. For with God it is a welcome alms that comes from one’s own property and is not given from ill-gotten booty, for regarding generosity to the poor it is not spoils but gifts that are sought. What kind of a present, moreover, is that which one person takes with joy but which another gives up with tears, over which one is joyful and another sighs? Hence I know not how much the grace of the taker would help you, but the plaint of the one groaning burdens you greatly. For although you give what is your own, you offer a better alms if you return what is another’s. Seeing this, holy Zacchaeus returned what he had taken away so that what he gave would be acceptable, for he said: If I have taken anything away from anyone I return it fourfold. See how often he made amends for the one time that he had sinned! He was a good lender, knowing that he would make a profit if he restored with multiple interest the money that he had taken with interest. He should be a model for all of us, and a special model for this world’s lenders. But unfortunately there are many who do not imitate his grace but imitate his usury: they know how to seize things but are utterly unaware of how to restore them. And while he spontaneously returned fourfold what he took, they do not restore once what they have seized, even when they are compelled; they prefer to lose what is theirs at law than to restore what is others’ by making a settlement{9}.


The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin, trans. by B. Ramsey, New York 1989, p. 220-221.


1 Extravagans. Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10) is occasionally used as an example to show that it is possible for someone who is rich to be saved, despite Matt. 19:24: cf. Ambrosiaster, Quaest. ex Novo Test., pars 2a.27; Jerome, Ep. 79.3. Several Old Testament personages also serve in this capacity: cf. Jerome, Ep. 79.2. In this respect Abraham, not mentioned by Jerome, is a prime example: cf. Paulinus of Nola, Ep. 13.20. Joseph of Arimathea is another such: cf. Ambrosiaster, ibid. In the present sermon, which seems to owe something to Ambrose, Exp. evang. sec. Luc. 8.84-85, Maximus gives the impression that he is mitigating to a certain extent the strong stand against wealth that he had taken in Sermons 32 and 48.2 (cf. Sermon 32 n. 1). In Sermon 96, however, which is a sequel, he declares that Zacchaeus in fact gives away all that he owns, thus observing Matt. 19.21 to the letter. Others also say that Zacchaeus divests himself of all his wealth: cf. Jerome, In Matt. 19.23; Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 54.

2 dominion... property: dominio... dominatum. On almsgiving as an exchange cf. Sermon 22 n. 3.

3 salutem, which may mean either salvation or well-being. If salvation, then it refers to the salvation of the almsgiver; if wellbeing, then the well-being of the one receiving the alms. Augustine, Ep. 153.26, expresses the same idea, which is a common theme in patristic literature: “What is lawfully possessed does not belong to someone else; but what is lawfully possessed is justly possessed, and what is justly possessed is well possessed. Therefore what is badly possessed belongs to someone else; but a person possesses a thing badly when he uses it badly.”

4 On the image of the camel cf. Sermons 32.1; 48.2; 88.3.

5 This last distinction was an important one in Maximus’ time: cf. Ambrose, De Noe 2.3; Jerome, In Esaiam 11.6-9; Augustine, Sermon 72.3.4; Cassian, Conlat. 6.3.

6 Extravagans. The present sermon, which seems to follow on the previous one, continues to develop the theme of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and also recalls Ambrose, Exp. evang. sec. Luc. 8.84-85. Cf. Sermon 95 n. 1.

7 On almsgiving as an exchange cf. Sermon 22 n. 3.

8 et emendaturus concupiscentiae emendaret primitus conscientiam. The phrase is a difficult one. Mutzenbecher suggests that concupiscentiae is a dative that goes with emendaturus, which would make the phrase read: on the verge of correcting his desire, he first corrected his conscience. Sermon 95 n. 1.

9 On the image of almsgiving as a “pious usury,” based on Prov. 19.17 (“The one who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed”), cf. Ramsey 229. On the negative attitude of the early Church in general to usury cf. S. Giet, “De saint Basile a saint Ambroise: La condamnation du pret a interetau IVe siècle,” Rech. de sc. rel. 32 (1944) 95-128; R. P. Maloney, “The Teaching of the Fathers on Usury: An Historical Study on the Development of Christian Thinking,” VC 27 (1973) 241-65.