Zacchæus Sunday

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Repentance as Applied Love
Zacchæus Sunday
10 February, 2008
1 Timothy 4:9-5 ; Luke 19:1-10

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

The Apostle Paul is saying to his disciple and spiritual child, Timothy, today, that as a bishop in the Church, he has to set an example to the faithful by his way of life. He is to be a template for what a Christian life is supposed to be like. It is important for you and for me to remember that a priest also has this responsibility to set the example of how to live a Christian life. When a new priest is ordained and given the pectoral Cross to wear, this Cross customarily has engraved on its reverse, the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy : “Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity (1 Timothy 4:12). However, at the same time, this responsibility does not stop there with the priest. The responsibility passes on to all the faithful, because all the faithful are, in their own way, priests in the Church. There is what is called “the priesthood of the laity”, and it does have its concrete expression. One of the ways in which it does express itself is in the fact that we are supposed to be setting for each other, and for people around us, a good example of what it is to live a Christian life.

Today, we hear in the Gospel about our Saviour’s encounter with Zacchæus. This Gospel reading about Zacchæus comes to us every year more or less at this time, and it always tells us that Great Lent is coming in a few weeks. Of course, that also means that the Great Feast of Pascha is coming a few short weeks after that. It is sort of a harbinger of spring, you could say (even though the weather outside is not exactly spring-like today). Nevertheless, we are talking about the spring that is Pascha. In conjunction with the instruction to Timothy, Zacchæus is reminding us how we are supposed to be living.

We have to remember, of course, that Zacchæus was not a tax collector employed by the Canadian government. He was not just a tax collector – he was a chief tax collector 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire. When a person was a tax collector in the Roman Empire in those days, it meant that the Emperor commissioned a number of people to go out into the Empire, and to get for him that year the money he needed. The Emperor required this money in order to operate the government, to pay the civil servants, to pay the army and navy, and everything else he wanted to do. Of course, he would take as much as he wanted for himself. Therefore, all these tax collectors went out without any sort of limitation. They went around and extracted all this money for the Emperor, wherever they could, however they could. Each area had its quota, I suppose, according to the government. These tax collectors came to the house, and said : “We are taking this, and that”. No-one could say “no” to the tax collector, because it was the Emperor who said that this money was owed to him by all his subjects. No-one could ever say “no” to a tax collector of the Emperor. That part has not changed much, because today, we cannot say “no” to a Revenue Canada tax collector. However, the manner in which our collectors collect taxes is very different.

Regardless, in those days the tax collector was not the favourite person of anyone in any society in the Roman Empire. Today, we see in the Gospel that Zacchæus is in double trouble with his people. The Jewish people were a conquered people, conquered by the Romans and subjected to the Romans in a slavish way. When Zacchæus, a Jewish man himself, was collecting taxes from the Jewish people on behalf of the Roman Emperor, we can guess how all the Jewish people around felt about him. They had not very pleasant feelings about this man. There were many more collectors just like him, too. The Apostle Matthew was also such a person, but he was not a chief tax collector. He was just a simple tax collector.

For whatever reason, Zacchæus is determined to see our Lord because he has heard much about Him. At the same time, he is a little man. (He must have been like my grandmother who was four-foot-nine. She always said that good things come in small packages. So did we, because she was a pretty good grandmother.) Zacchæus could not see over the heads of people (that is why I said that he was like my grandmother in height.) In order to be able just to see Jesus while He was walking by, surrounded as always by many people, Zacchæus gets up onto the branch of a sycamore tree which was by the path where Jesus was going to go. There he would be able to see Jesus, and see who it is that people are talking about all the time. Instead of Zacchæus’ just seeing who it is that everyone is talking about, Jesus walks right up to him, and says : “Zacchæus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house”. (When I was a little boy in Sunday school, they used to have a song which was rather quaint. In that song, Jesus would say to Zacchæus : “Zacchæus, you come down, for I am coming to your house for tea”. I do not think that they were drinking tea in those days, although it is possible that tea from India had gotten as far as the Middle East by that time ; but that is another story.) It was not at all what Zacchæus expected, and it was not at all what the other people around him expected.

Immediately, the other people start to criticise our Lord, saying : “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner”. He was not a sinner just because he stole, because that is what tax collectors did, and they took far more than they were supposed to. You notice that the Gospel says that he was rich. Zacchæus was considered to be a sinner also because, as a tax collector, he was considered to be a traitor. When they are saying that he is a sinner, they are being mild in their criticism of Zacchæus. However, the Friend of sinners such as you and me and the Apostle Paul (as he refers to himself), Jesus the Christ is there, eating in the home of Zacchæus. This was doubling up the trouble our Lord seemed to be in (according to the people who were criticising Him). However, our Lord knows people’s hearts. He knows that there is more than meets the eye in Zacchæus when He walks up to that sycamore tree, and says : “Today I must stay at your house”. When our Lord goes to Zacchæus’ house, Zacchæus, just as any person would do (especially if they are Orthodox), gives Him food. Someone cannot come into your house, and get away without being offered food. That is the Orthodox way, and we inherited that from Judaism. The fundamental expression of Christian love is the giving of hospitality. Our Lord could not escape without eating.

While our Saviour is sitting in the house of Zacchæus, His presence affects Zacchæus ; the words of life that come from Him affect Zacchæus. In the midst of all the people he is feeding (all those people that came with Him, and it was rather more than we who are gathered here today), Zacchæus stands up, and says to Jesus (and this tells us how rich he was) : “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold”. He absolutely had to have a lot of money in the bank to be able to say such a thing. Zacchæus would still have had something left to live on after having given away all this. However, we can understand what a big change had taken place in the heart of Zacchæus just by being in the presence of the love of Jesus Christ. He stopped putting himself first. He stopped putting money first. He stopped putting security first. He suddenly and unexpectedly found his security, his love, his life, his hope in Jesus Christ. Then nothing else mattered except the love of Jesus Christ. This tax collector, who had been putting plenty of money aside, immediately understood what was necessary. (What is necessary, all sorts of people did not understand, and even the Apostles were slow to understand sometimes.) It is a lesson to us. That is why this Gospel is coming to us now before Great Lent. Zacchæus gave half of everything he had to the poor. He cared immediately. The love of Jesus Christ was caught by Zacchæus, and he immediately understood what was necessary. Our Lord had seen what was the potential of this man, Zacchæus, and Zacchæus immediately began to live up to that potential.

Zacchæus shared his riches with the poor, and with the people whom he had wronged. On top of that, the rest of his life will have been characterised by exactly what he did at this moment. Even though he would still probably be a rich man by most other people’s standards, he will still have multiplied his hospitality thereafter. As he did on this day with our Saviour, Zacchæus would have been bringing into his house all sorts of people who did not even like him. Even though they did not care at all for Zacchæus, a crowd of people entered this house with our Lord because they were with Him, and they felt they had to go in with Him. They, themselves, now learned a big lesson. Long, long ago in the early days of our Church’s life, the Fathers were encouraged to read this Gospel at this time of the year in preparation for Great Lent, because this is how everyone learns this lesson.

All through Great Lent we are going to be reminded, ourselves, that in order to express our love for Jesus Christ we have to give alms to the poor. All sorts of people are forgetting this element of Great Lent, thinking that the fast is mainly concerned with depriving ourselves of meat, with bemoaning ourselves and our sins, and so forth. Lent is not just that. Yes, we are supposed to feel regret for our sins, and we are supposed to turn about, therefore, in repentance. Great Lent is completely concerned with our turning about from our selfish ways. In conjunction with this focus on repentance, the hymns all through Great Lent are addressing the priority of daily giving to the poor.

More than anything else during Great Lent, we should not be concerned about what we are giving up so much as what more are we giving to the people who need help – the poor, the needy, the person that our Lord is sending to me this day. It is not everyone who is lacking cash. Mostly these days people do not lack so much cash, but they definitely lack love. Even if we Orthodox Christians do not have a lot of cash, we do have love. We do know how to share this love. We do know how to share our hospitality, and our table also. We know how to care for people because we, like Zacchæus, have been touched by the love of Jesus Christ. Our hearts have been moved by the love of our Saviour, and we know that because of this love we can give people even what we do not have enough of, ourselves. We think that we do not have enough of this love, but our Lord provides enough, and more than enough for us. The fact is, the more you are living the Orthodox Christian life, the more you do things out of love for each other, the more love our Lord gives us to give, and to act on. This love, which our Lord has given us (and which He is continually giving us) only increases if we give it away. If we do not give it away, love decreases. In stagnation, love never increases. Our Lord’s love only increases in activity, in its exercise.

Brothers and sisters, here we are in this Temple, which is all freshly painted, and which now has insulated windows. That our Lord made this possible is, itself, an expression of our Lord’s love for us. This Temple that people had thought had come to its end, in fact, did not come to its end. It had to wait for Him to put the right resources into place at the right time with the right people. This Temple is once again a sign of the love of Jesus Christ to this city, in this part of the city where people need it most. We are capable of giving this love. I have already seen an example of how it happens in this parish. Let us give glory to God for His love for us. Let us give thanks to God for His love for us. Let us ask Him to help us more and more to live this love so that people can have the same joy that we have, the same hope, the same strength from serving Him, worshipping Him, and glorifying Him, our Lord who loves us, the all-holy Trinity : Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.