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email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON THE GOSPEL READING

FOR SUNDAY OF ZACCHAEUS
25/1/2009

22nd JANUARY 2009

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This Sunday’s Gospel reading is the story of the Chief Publican Zacchaeus. We have mentioned Zacchaeus before and will probably mention him again next year and the year after. Whenever we hear this Gospel reading it is like hearing trumpets announcing that very soon we will enter into the period known as the Triodion. The Triodion is the book used by the Church for her services in preparation for Great Lent and during Great Lent and will begin in two Sundays from now with the reading of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Orthodox liturgical tradition always announces in advance and prepares for every major feast or season and lent is no exception. Thus the story of Zacchaeus is telling us to prepare ourselves for the great spiritual journey we are to undertake very shortly. A spiritual journey that has as its destination the greatest feast in the Christian calendar and this feast is none other than Easter, the Feast of all Feasts. So let’s hear the Gospel reading and then see its deep spiritual meaning which will reveal why the fathers of the Church assigned it to be read now as the herald and preparation for Great Lent.

 

The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke
Verses 19:1-10

At that time, Jesus passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature. And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house. And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. And Jesus said unto him, 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 was lost.”

The reading tells us that Jesus passed through Jericho and a little just after in the verses that follow this reading, it tells us where his was heading to: he was “ascending up to Jerusalem” to suffer the “voluntary Passion” and to save mankind with his death on the Cross. Every word of Christ, every movement and energy foresees the realization of this unique purpose: the deliverance of man from death which sin brought into the world separating him from God, and immortal life, in other words from the much desired relationship and communion with God.
Jesus’ passage through Jericho is to find the “Lost Sheep” the lost man for whose sake he will sacrifice himself on the Cross. The “Lost Sheep” who awaits the “Good Shepherd”, is in this case Zacchaeus, who was without God and lived to satisfy the desires of his carnal nature. In desperation of the life that he lived, Christ will call him to repentance and he will respond: he will meet his saviour and find salvation. But what kind of a man was Zacchaeus and others like him? Publicans were people who bought from the Romans, the rights to collect the taxes from the people, but instead of collecting the proper taxes that the Romans asked for, they burdened the people with double or triple amounts and were therefore very much hated and held in contempt as being the lowest of all men. Zacchaeus was a Chief publican so one can say that he was even more hated than the average publican.
Before he met Christ, he was on the road to condemnation, because he was entirely given to the world and had nothing to do with God. The only thing which he saw as a kind of god worthy of worship was money. That is why his soul burned and was in great thirst. He gained a great deal and the more he gained the more he thirsted. His desire for riches had enslaved and tormented him. He lived only to upkeep his earthly nature: in general his whole struggle was for the things that appear attractive to the world, but which in time decay and wear out; money, glory, pleasures of the flesh. For this very purpose he aspired and rose to the high rank of Chief Publican, in other words as the Head of the tax collectors, so that he could gain more money and fulfil his passions: his love for wealth, his love for sexual pleasure, his love for glory and all that comes with these passions. Only the one passion avarice - the love of money - is according to St. Paul “the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10).
Since he didn’t have any love for God it goes without saying that he didn’t love his fellow men either, but only loved himself. He was egoistic without a single care for other human beings. He pressured and tyrannized the poor. This he admits in front of Christ when he says “if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation” in other words those who he treated unfairly by falsely accusing them of higher earnings so that he could collect more from them. He would classify them as wealthy when they hardly had enough to eat. He would note down even the smallest of incomes and exaggerate the amount. He would sit idly by the roads so that he could stop and tax those who passed by and carried some sort of merchandise from one place to another. There was nothing he would not do to increase his own gains. His life was full of seizing and taking, full of unrighteousness and full of the tears of the poor people. Zacchaeus gave his heart to money and worldly riches and as Christ said “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. (Matthew 6:21) The wickedness of the publicans was so great that Christ mentions them together with harlots. (Matthew 21:31) They were seen by the people as very sinful people because of their greed and injustice. That is why they accused Jesus of accepting them and making them his disciples. They could not understand that many realized their wrong path and changed their life completely. Christ also desired their salvation just as he did all men.
When man has as his life the desired relationship and communion with God one can say that he is in his natural and physical condition. He continually does want is good and receives added graces and journeys towards the “likeness” of God. But abandoning God and any relationship with him, he draws life from the material world and journeys towards a false reality, according to Lucifer’s promise “you will be as god’s”. It is a false reality because all the things by which we draw life from in this world are temporary and are condemned to decay and death, whilst God created man to be immortal. That is why this way of life doesn’t offer completeness for man. It offers temporary pleasures for his carnal nature which don’t correspond to his spiritual existence which deep inside him seeks the “likeness” of God and communion with him.
This opposite way of life breaks and inner man and the human personality, whereas God created man as a unified being. Unification of the body and the spirit is the natural condition. The breaking and discord of this unity is seen in the case of Zacchaeus. He gave himself to riches and expected to live with great happiness and peace of mind, but although he had more than enough to care for the body, spiritually he had extreme poverty and because of this he was not at rest. On the contrary he was internally unrestful and disturbed. Although he had everything he still hungered and thirsted. His soul was starved because it was deprived of the “bread of life” and God’s grace. Even if he gained all the riches of the world, his soul would not have replaced the emptiness of God’s absence. Although he appeared to be in paradise his inner-self experienced a living hell. This was the great emptiness of his very existence which could not be filled with worldly goods. That is why he desired to find a source that would quench his thirst. The feeling of failure will become a starting point from where he will discover his true self, his freedom from the bonds of the material world which had enslaved him and his relationship with God and people, which will grant him completeness of life. He already begins a new course, a real repentance and inside him begins to grow the seeds of salvation.
Christ works for the salvation of man. With divine wisdom he sought out the “Lost Sheep” Zacchaeus and saw in his heart something secret and hidden which others couldn’t see. He saw the new seeds which started to shoot up in his heart, his desire, his zeal and the love in his heart for Jesus. Christ will make him a travelling companion on his journey towards the Passion. The road of shame, of spitting and mockery and Zacchaeus himself will also suffer being mocked for Christ. And not only will Christ save him by making him a sheep of his flock, but he will also appoint him as a shepherd of the flock, one of the Seventy Apostles.
The u-turn has already begun with the desire to see Jesus. But one may ask: Where did he know Christ from? The answer is that we carry within us the divine image. In the Acts of the Apostles it says that we are “the offspring of God”; (Acts 17:29) we are his relations, we descend from him. Christ is our archetype (the original) and that is why inside us we are drawn to him. We are images of Christ the heavenly Adam.
Now Zacchaeus was willing to repent and change his way of life. He acquires new interests. Whereas before he desired money now he doesn’t even want see it. He desires the heavenly: his love for wealth is transformed into love for the heavenly bridegroom. He desired only him who first loved him and willed to join himself to him. At this very moment Christ journeys to Golgotha to be crucified and to grant unto Zacchaeus and to everyone his divine Kingdom.
Zacchaeus wanted to repent, but he was still in the first stages of this repentance. He wanted to see Christ, but couldn’t because he was short and the crowd wouldn’t let him pass so he climbed up a sycamore tree to get a better view. The short in stature does not only refer to his bodily height but also to his spiritual height. He had only just begun his repentance and was therefore still a novice in spiritual terms, still a child and short in stature. For him to grow, he had first to cleanse his soul from the many passions and to rectify all the injustices he made. He still had to find love for God and his fellow men and when he would finally be cleansed and pass from the sensible to the spiritual then he would become in spiritual terms a giant.

Climbing up the tree was a good beginning for Zacchaeus, not because of the height of the tree or because he would have had a better view of Christ as he passed, but because of the actual act itself, which was for him an act of humility. It was an act of shame and he made himself a “fool for Christ”. This well to do respectable Chief Publican suffered for Christ’s sake the shame of climbing and the mocking comments from the people. It oversteps his pride which is the biggest obstacle for seeing God. He didn’t care about his image as the great Chief Publican or whether he would continue to be admired by the people. Internally be believes that he is a wretched person, full of filth, smelling like rubbish that is to be tossed out. He believes that he is worthy of being spat upon, because with his sins he has insulted the divine image which he bears inside him. For this very reason he doesn’t pretend in front of the people to be someone important. On the contrary, he has the courage to appear worse that what they accuse him of. The positive aspect of Zacchaeus’ action is that with his acceptance of the shame he partakes in the “foolishness” of the Cross, in the mocking of Christ who will not turn his face from the shameful beatings he will receive so that he could save mankind.
The climbing up the tree is seen by the fathers of the Church as an act of love for God, because it reveals the intention for repentance. Inside Zacchaeus begins a transformation which turns his love for money into love for Christ. Slowly, one step at a time, the divine image which for so long was buried within him, begins to reveal itself, and he was found worthy to see Christ. From only this sighting without even being preached to, he is lead to act and change his life. Seeing was enough to make the change, for the wolf to become a lamb ready to be slaughtered.
This change of heart does not go unnoticed. The Lord also sees Zacchaeus upon the Sycamore tree, but also sees his inner struggle, his readiness for obedience, for repentance, for a holy life and calls him to make haste and come down. It was not the crowd that stopped Zacchaeus from seeing the Lord, but rather his sins. Blessed are not they that climb trees but they that are pure in heart for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8) The all and everything is not whether we see Christ with our bodily eyes, but that we see him inside us and to be joined to him. And as St. John Chrysostom says: “Don’t rely on the sycamore, in other words on the sensual and physical sight, this will dry out and die so that in its place is planted the Cross.” If you make the Cross your way of life then you will see Christ, not only as a man but as the God-man. You will be raise above the sycamore says Gregory the Theologian. Therefore live the crucified life. Make dead the desire for wealth and the things of this world. And as St. Paul says in the Apostle reading we heard just a few weeks ago “Put to death your members which are on earth, fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry”. (Col. 3:5) This is want Christ is telling Zacchaeus when he tells him to make haste and come down. Put to death every kind of sin within you. Climb up upon the Cross and not upon the sycamore and raise your mind to the heavenly. Become charitable and merciful and crucify yourself with the one you want to see. Don’t remain on the sycamore, in other words don’t remain with just the physical sighting, I don’t want you to be lost; I want you to accept me into your home, into your soul. There I will take my rest so hurry and come down.
Zacchaeus did not expect such an invitation, such a great honour as to receive Christ into his home. He was therefore all too eager to obey Christ in everything and to do his will. His soul burns with love for him and his mind becomes enlightened. It reverts to its original nature and puts him on Christ’s road on the journey for the heavenly. With great joy he made haste and came down from the tree and welcomed Jesus into his home rejoicing. He rejoices for the great decision he took to change and is ready to declare it to the world. He will offer all his living, his huge fortune and from now on he will only have Christ as his fortune. Any worries of money are rejected and throw out of mind: and this will happen because he has seen Christ the Saviour. The outcome of seeing Christ varies in each person according to the grace given and the strength of each to receive it. With Zacchaeus grace entered so deeply into his soul that it brought about wondrous results.
The people who were not in a position to discern Zacchaeus’ transformation from impiety to piety accuse Christ “That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.” Zacchaeus quickly shuts the mouths of those who accused Christ and himself, not with words, but with a real repentance shown with deeds. The reading says: “Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” With this revolutionary decision he took and by carrying it out immediately, he shows his repentance in works and at the same time puts a stop to every accuser that Christ entered to eat with a man that is a sinner. Internally he is cleansing his soul and making ready his bridal chamber to live with Christ forever. He confesses before Christ and all those that were present of all the wrongs he committed to the poor and also those he unjustly accused of being wealthy to tax them more heavily. With his confession he reproaches himself. Self accusation is the sinful man’s shame because the only shame, the only embarrassment is sin. With confession, man accepts the shame of his sins and accuses himself as guilty of all things. But at the same time he also partakes in the mocking of Christ. With his confession, Zacchaeus becomes a fellow traveller of Christ and goes to Jerusalem to be mocked and suffer together with Christ all the other frightful passions.
He doesn’t put off enforcing his decision. He doesn’t say that he will give some time in the future half of his goods to the poor, but “I give” today, “I give” now. And he is not just saying it to make an impression, but is speaking from the heart before God. That is why Christ replies “This day is salvation come to this house”. This day, not tomorrow, not some time in the future, because today was the day of his confession and the correction of all his injustices. Thus we see that true confession is not only the recognition of our sins and pronouncing them, but also the correction of the wrongs which we have done. Zacchaeus has no more interest in taxes and wealth; all he cares about is the Lord’s passion. He will be rich in poverty; he will be rich in God. His decision is steadfast. This is what is meant by “Zacchaeus stood”, for as St. John Chrysostom comments: “not walking, not sitting, but standing to show the steadfastness of his soul.
In another place, Christ stressed that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matth. 19: 24) In Zacchaeus’ case the camel does indeed pass through the eye of a needle, because he found salvation. He was freed from his attachment to wealth and gave himself to the grace of God. This is salvation.
Christ said: “This day is salvation come to this house”, because Zacchaeus abandoned the biological way of life and lifted upon his shoulders the Cross of shame. He gives half of his goods to the poor and fourfold to those he wronged. He scatters well what he gathered wrongly, because he discovered his brethren. The fathers of the Church say that: “You see your brother, you see the Lord your God”. Zacchaeus is ready to sacrifice everything, even his own life for those whom he once looked down upon and took advantage of so that he could become rich. Now he accepts the cross and becomes dead to worldly wisdom and reasoning, he becomes dead to everything of this world and is crucified with Christ and receives salvation. He becomes a man without possessions and gains Christ, the one possession in whom can be found all the treasures that can fill his soul; that can solve the problem of the void that existed there before and made him a miserable wretch. He found what was missing inside him and he became whole. Having Christ, he now had everything.
When he had everything he was unhappy and now that he has given everything away he lives with the joy of salvation, the joy of the resurrection. He becomes a disciple of Christ and accepts inside him the Kingdom of God.
He becomes charitable, hospitable, capable of brotherly love, because he became a lover of God. Such was also Abraham, that is why Christ calls him “a son of Abraham”. He now believes that by showing hospitality to someone he is showing hospitality to God. For as he heard Christ say in one of his parables: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”.Now he is above the sycamore tree because he saw Christ from the height of the Cross of poverty.
St. Paul says that “the church is subject unto Christ”. (Eph. 5:24) Christ commands and invites all people and when people become subject and obey Christ, this constitutes the Church. Those who subject themselves and obey become members of the Body of Christ. And as members of the same body they become spiritual brothers and blood brothers of Christ. Zacchaeus accepts Christ within him and obeys and becomes one with him. Inside him there is also room for all people because he loves them as his true brethren and is willing to offer everything for them. He sees everyone as members of Christ as he himself is. It now saddens him to hear of injustices because he sees in Christ all people. His heart is filled with love and that is why God finds rest in it. True love does not comprise only of people, but also of animals, of trees and of all creation and as St Isaac says: “even of the devil”.
Zacchaeus enjoys the delight of Paradise, because he came together with Christ and other men in the Body of Christ, in the Body of the Church. This is the true life to which Christ guided Zacchaeus: The community of love which depicts the beauty of the Holy Trinity. When man gains a merciful heart as did Zacchaeus, he resembles God who is love. The characteristics of the Chief Publican, of the egocentric man, are transformed into the characteristics of a man of the new creation. This is the very reason why Christ, the Son of God came into the world.
As one of the Seventy Apostles, Zacchaeus preached people to not rely on what they see or on the things that decay. He preached that they should live a life of the Cross, in other words a life according to Christ and according to the life of the saints of the Church which is life and resurrection. Zacchaeus’ life is the same for all the saints. Love for Christ and all people and communion with them fulfils man as a person and this is salvation.
After the Ascension of the Lord, St Zacchaeus accompanied St Peter on his travels. Tradition says he became the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, where he died in peace. His feast day is celebrated on 20th April.
As mentioned in the beginning of this talk, the Church assigned the story of Zacchaeus to be read now as the herald and preparation for Great Lent. The Church is telling us that our Lenten journey must begin with our desire to see Christ followed with the recognition of our own sinfulness, just as Zacchaeus recognized his. Zacchaeus desired the right thing, he wanted to see and approach Christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, because repentance begins with the desire for God and for true life. The desire and effort to see Jesus begins the entire movement through Lent towards Pascha. It is the first movement of salvation. Zacchaeus made that first move, in his desire to see Christ he climbed that tree. If our desire is as strong as Zacchaeus’ then Christ will also respond to our desire and come to our house, he will come to live in our hearts and then we also will hear Christ saying to us “Today salvation is come to this house” Then our lives will also change as drastically as Zacchaeus’ and Christ will give us the strength and grace to climb even higher, to climb upon the cross together with Christ.
The example of Zacchaeus teaches us that we should turn away from our sins, and atone for them. The real proof of our sorrow and repentance is not just a verbal apology, but when we correct ourselves and try to make amends for the consequences of our evil actions.
All of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). We are also short in our spiritual stature, therefore we must climb the ladder of the virtues. In other words, we must prepare for spiritual effort and growth. This is the meaning of this preparation period: to prepare ourselves to be crucified upon the Cross with Christ so that be might also be resurrected with Christ. Amen.