Joy of All Who Sorrow

37th Sunday after Pentecost / Zacchaeus Sunday

Gospel [Luke 19:1-10 (§94)]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear father, brothers and sisters: Happy Feast! Nd Spraznecom!

So, at long last we finally come to this Gospel reading of Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector who climbs up the Sycamore tree to see Christ. Within the Orthodox Church, it is always this particular Gospel reading which heralds the beginning of the Pre-Lenten season and the start of our spiritual run-up to Great Lent. This year, with such a late Pascha, Zacchaeus Sunday falls very late, in the afterglow of the Feast of Candlemas and with all the spring bulbs coming up reminding us that the warmth of Spring, and Christ’s Holy Resurrection, is not far away. To interpret today’s pre-Lenten Gospel, as is our custom, let us turn this week to a lesser known Orthodox Father of the pre-schism West, St Peter Chrysologus, St Peter the Golden-tongued, the 5th Century Bishop of Ravenna.

In terms of its wider context within the Gospel of Luke, our reading directly continues on from the one we heard two Sundays ago, when we reflected together on the healing of the blind man who was sat beside the road from Jericho to Jerusalem and who cried out repeatedly to our Lord: ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’. In today’s Gospel we encounter a very different person but one who is also desperate to see Christ.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.

In his homily St Peter, draws a parallel with another Jesus, better known as the Prophet Joshua, son of Nave, who after the death of the Prophet Moses, led the Israelites successfully into the Promised Land. Jericho would become the setting for one of the most dramatic victories when, inspired by God, Joshua caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down when he, the people and the priests processed around the high walls of the city with the ark of the covenant to the sound of trumpets for seven days. Now another Jesus comes to the city of Jericho –

But because Jesus came to save what had perished, he enters Jericho, so that what the Law had demolished with a terrifying cry, Jesus would raise up with the proclamation of holy preaching.

Even Christ’s own disciples expected the Lord, as the Messiah, to come with fire and destructive power to inaugurate the new order of the Kingdom of God. Thus, earlier, in this Gospel, in chapter nine, when he was barred from entering a Samaritan village, James and John ask our Merciful Saviour –

Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?

But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.

For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.

As we hear at the end of our Gospel reading, God has become Incarnate, not to destroy, not to condemn, but ‘to seek and save the lost’.

A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was,

And so, we finally meet the protagonist of our story, this “chief tax collector”, Zacchaeus. It is important though that we understand fully just how hated and resented this wealthy man would have been. One of the most visible reminders of the occupation and domination of the Holy Lands by the gentile Roman authorities was its imposition of a sophisticated system of taxation throughout the province. The collection of taxes, however, was not made by Roman officials or soldiers, but rather through Jewish colluders who were willing to work with the enemy occupiers. Aware that this would be an unpopular and highly stigmatizing role, the Roman authorities enabled their tax collectors to charge a commission on top of the tax they were required to collect. It was this additional surcharge that enabled the tax collectors to become both so fabulously wealthy as well as so despised for their betrayal and their avarice. Yet, this tax collector Zacchaeus, pauses a moment from collecting his gold and extorting his fellow countrymen and yearns to ‘see who Jesus was’. In this moment, St Peter sees that something changed, something clicked in Zacchaeus’ heart.

The one who wants to see Christ looks towards heaven, from where Christ comes, and not towards earth, from where gold comes. So the rich man who looks up does not carry his riches but tramples upon them …

but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.

We then come to a slightly comedic part of the Gospel reading, this notion of the vertically challenged Zacchaeus struggling to see over the heads of the rest of the crowd who were following Jesus as He approaches Jerusalem.

He was exceedingly large in spirit, although he seemed small in body; he who was not on par with other men in his body but was touching the heavens with his mind.

His mind as well, as perhaps, we can add – his heart. Zacchaeus was aflame with this love with this determination to see Christ. Partly out of curiosity, but no doubt as well, partly driven by a desire for something beyond this world.

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

There is something inherently moving about this image of this small, rich, unscrupulous man running ahead of the crowd in order to see the One that had no where to lay his head, the One whose parents were so poor, that at the Purification of his Mother, 40 days after His birth, they could only offer up two pigeons. Yet, Zacchaeus had already stopped thinking about money and judging people in terms of their relative financial status, he was looking at things differently.

With what sort of steps do you suppose he reached the branches of a very high tree? He trampled on the earth, he went above the gold, he surmounted avarice, and stepped over his whole pile of riches …

He was already beginning to transcend his money, his ill-got wealth, a life-time of injustice and sin.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up

In his homily, St Peter draws an interesting parallel with our Lord seeing Nathaniel under the Fig Tree at the start of St John’s Gospel. Our Lord, as the Omniscient Creator of the Universe, did not need to look up into the Sycamore tree to know exactly who he was and where he was, He knew Zacchaeus from his mother’s womb. Thus St Peter underlines our Lord’s condescension –

He saw for the sake of pardon, he looked up for the sake of grace, he noticed him for the sake of life, and he gazed upon him for his salvation. God desires to come to know the person he looks at, and not as a stranger, but as One who knows he wants to look at him for his glory.

And Jesus said – “Zacchaeus, come down immediately.

St Peter beautifully links Zacchaeus’ Sycamore with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Paradise with the tree of the Cross –

Come down before the Lord from Adam’s tree, so that after the cross of the Lord’s passion you may climb up.

St Peter sees that Zacchaeus must come down to the Lord exactly so that he might spiritually begin to climb up higher.

Come down, in order to put down the burdens of such fraud, the weight of greed, the pile of usury … and the leadership of a very cruel position of authority; may you enter unencumbered into the school of poverty, the tutelage of mercy, the practice of kindness, the discipline of patience, the pursuit of the virtues … and then, once perfected amidst the difficulties of the Tree of Life, climb up.

I must – says the Lord – stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

With the coming of Christ, with the coming of God-in-the-flesh, there is an inherent love for the domestic, for the particular. He who is born aloft by the Cherubim, and adored by the Seraphim, comes down from on High and wishes to dwell with us, to make His abode with us. He wishes to come to our home wherever that might be, a palatial property in Jericho, a small fisherman’s dwelling next to the Sea of Galilee or even a flat in Norwich or the White House here in Mettingham. Let us not just keep Christ here each week at a safe distance in the Temple. Let us welcome Him into our homes and into our hearts.

The one whose home Christ does not enter will not attain to the divine dwelling place; and the one at whose table Christ does not sit will not recline at the heavenly table.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Just imagine what a sight this must have been. As Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh said in his Sermon on this passage, in order to understand just how striking Zaccheus in the Sycamore tree must have been, we should imagine some great, wealthy businessman or tycoon, in a pin-stripe suit, desperately climbing up a lamp post in the middle of the city to see Christ. And then, imagine the outrage fanned on by the Pharisees and the Jewish religious elite, of Jesus choosing not only to speak or acknowledge but actually to go and eat with such a terrible person, such a traitor. However, as St Peter reminds us in his own sermon from the 5th century –

When God seeks the sinner, he seeks, not the sins, but the person, so as to despise the sin, which is the work of the human being, but so as not to lose his own work, which is the human being … Is there any peril into which a mother does not plunge after her child?

Is it so surprising that our Man-loving Lord Who created and fashioned us and breathed into us His Spirit, should not seek to save His creation rather than leaving it to be destroyed by the devil?

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Then the miracle happens. Zacchaeus the rich, Zacchaeus the cheat, Zacchaeus the fraudster transforms a life of greed, avarice and selfishness in an instant. St Peter sees in Zacchaeus a beautiful example for all Christians to follow.

How does a Christian, whose term of military service is his life in this world, not plan to make up for earthly trials with heavenly leisure … Zacchaeus himself both teaches by word and demonstrates by example.

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

St Peter concludes his beautiful homily with these words –

The inhuman rich man, although he was a son of Abraham, became a son of Gehenna. But this man, although he was a son of robbery, by distributing his own goods and returning the goods of others is adopted as a son of Abraham’. 

Dear father, brothers and sisters: Lent is coming! The time of repentance and the transformation of our hearts draws a week closer. Are we ready to follow Zacchaeus up the Sycamore tree? Will we leave our obsession with the pursuit of wealth and gain, will we turn our gaze from this world to the seek after Christ? Christ wishes to save us and to come into our houses and into our hearts, but will we let Him? Let us not let Him pass us by but rather let us yearn to hear those same words He spoke so kindly so lovingly to Zacchaeus –

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”