Zacchæus Sunday

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
We turn a new Leaf
Zacchæus Sunday
1 February, 2009
1 Timothy 4:9-15 ; Luke 19:1-10

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

When we hear in the Gospel reading today about our Lord’s encounter with Zacchæus, we know that Great Lent is near, and that we have to start to get ready. Every year when we hear this Gospel, Zacchæus comes to us and tells us it is time to get ready to meet the Lord, just as he is meeting the Lord today.

What does Zacchæus show us in his meeting with our Lord today ? He is anxious to see the Lord because he had never encountered Him. Zacchæus was a tax collector in the Roman Empire, and therefore, he was a robber. In the days of the Roman Empire, every year the emperor decided, together with the senate in Rome, what his budget would be, and what he wanted to do. A decree went out to all the official tax collectors in the Roman Empire telling them to get such-and-such an amount of money out of the people, and send it to the emperor. Only the tax collectors knew what was this amount of money. The tax collectors generally took whatever they wanted from the people. It was a serious sort of game between the tax collectors and the people. The tax collectors extorted from the people as much as they could, and the people hid from the tax collectors as much as they could. When the tax collector came to the house, he could just say : “I am taking this, and this, and that, and the cows and the sheep”. He could strip the household clean if he were that sort of person. Some of them certainly did.

Zacchæus was in an even worse position amongst the Jewish people because the Jewish people were a conquered people. They resented being occupied by the Roman army. When the Roman Empire chose Jewish people to be tax collectors amongst the Jewish people, all the Jewish people considered them to be absolute traitors, which in a way they were. Certainly, as we hear in the Gospel today, they were called sinners. When Jesus encounters Zacchæus, to the great shock of Zacchæus, He says : “I am coming to your house”. (There was a song I learnt in childhood that said : “Zacchæus, come down from that tree because I am coming to your house for tea”. However, that was before they had tea in those parts.) Zacchæus encounters the Lord, and hastens to host Him in his home.

Immediately, our Saviour is severely criticised by all sorts of people because He is eating in the house of a sinner. One was not supposed to associate with such people in Jewish society. However, in our traditional Orthodox way of life, we customarily do not invite simply anyone to our home to eat. If we are going to eat with people, there is a communion established between us when we are eating at our table, because the table at home is not so different from the Holy Table here in this Temple. In Orthodox consciousness, the two things are directly connected. Therefore, we have to be careful to invite not just anyone to dinner in our home. That is the custom, although it is not always what we do. This custom does not exclude the stranger or the needy, as we see everywhere.

What happens today when Zacchæus accepts the Lord’s inviting Himself to his house ? In the first place, we have to understand that at such a dinner it was not simply our Lord and Zacchæus and his family who were present. When a dinner like this is taking place, this is going to be (even though it is sudden and unexpected) a dinner at which our Lord and His disciples would be present (which is one reason why we hear about it today in the Gospel), but also there would be friends and relatives of Zacchæus, and other people at the dinner. (It would be something like our experience in this church on Sunday after the Divine Liturgy with all sorts of people sitting down together at the table.) So, Zacchæus stands up today, and we hear him say (and in saying these words, he is doing repentance) : “‘Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor’”. This passage is preparing us for us for Great Lent because in Great Lent, giving to the poor and caring for the needy is one of the major occupations in which we should be involved.

We often think that Great Lent is simply about going to church much more often, reading more, and eating different things (but not necessarily less). There is more to it than that. As you will hear over and over again in our hymnography in Great Lent, giving to the poor and needy, the widows, the orphans, and so forth, is one of our major preoccupations in Great Lent. This emphasis is supposed to be helping us remember how our lives should be all the time. Zacchæus stands up and says in repentance : “‘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’”.

Zacchæus still ends up not a poor man. Although he had taken so much one way or another as a tax collector, this was what he was allowed to do. He did not do anything illegal. This was all legal in the Roman Empire. Maybe it was not ethical, but it was certainly legal. No doubt, he was a very good business man, and he knew how to invest everything so that he gained even more from his investments.

That is why, under these circumstances, he ends up being not a poor man. I am quite certain that he went on to be more than that because there is a Zacchæus who is an apostle of the Seventy, who became a bishop of the Church. I rather think that Zacchæus ended up doing much more (although we are not told that in the Scriptures today).

It is important for us to remember that repentance is not what many people think it is. Many people say : “Boo-hoo, I am so sorry for what I did wrong”. They weep and weep, feel dejected and morose, and all those things. There may be weeping involved, but weeping and saying : “I am sorry” is not the main thing. Repentance is doing. It is not talking. The word “repent” means to turn about. Zacchæus is showing us exactly what this means : he had led a corrupt and broken life ; it was a life that was obviously completely selfish, and he turns about today in front of us, in front of the Saviour. He says : “I am correcting everything that I did wrong insofar as I am able”. And he does it.

However, he goes much farther than that, because now he is following the Saviour. He is following the Saviour who comes to him, who encounters him, who shines the light of His love into his heart, and enables Zacchæus to do what his heart is telling him to do. That is why he wanted to sneak up into the tree and see the Lord in the first place – to turn about, to serve the Lord, to follow the right path of life. Zacchæus turns from darkness to light, from death to life, from fear to love, from selfishness to selflessness. He turns about completely today in front of our eyes. This is a very big lesson for us all to be learning today.

Besides the important example of Zacchæus, today we have also heard the important words that the Apostle Paul is speaking to Timothy. He is saying those words that are addressed always to every priest (and bishops, too) : “Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” so that the faithful will know what is the right path. What is not mentioned by the Apostle (but is implied, anyway) is that the clergy – bishops, priests, and deacons – are called to be an example primarily in repentance : the same repentance as that of Zacchæus. Without repentance, this goodness, purity, joy, peace, and all the other gifts of the Holy Spirit are not going to come. Repentance is the first step.

“Repentance” ? you might say to yourself. Repentance for the “bishop” ? “priest” ? “deacon” ? Well, the fact is that bishops, priests and deacons are human beings. Bishops, priests and deacons can, and do make mistakes. Bishops, priests and deacons are given extra-special attention from you-know-who-down-below because they are leaders of the faithful. This is why they can make some mistakes. Sometimes, they can make catastrophic mistakes because they get distracted, led astray, confused. Sometimes, they can trip badly because Big Red is so effective in his divisive and distracting techniques. How often have I said in my life (as I have heard other people, also, say in confession) : “I forgot myself. I forgot this or that. I forgot my sense of direction”. Where does this forgetfulness come from ? It is not only because I am lazy or careless (although I have been, and am, often enough). Forgetfulness is something that is sown into our hearts by you-know-who-down-below.

Many of you will have seen the movie, The Lord of the Rings, or read the books. (If you have not read them, you had better do so, for they are better than the movie.) In the third book, as the ring is coming closer to its destruction, the greater is the forgetfulness that falls on Frodo. The closer he comes to trying to get rid of this horrible, evil thing, the more forgetfulness, distraction, and even selfishness fall upon him and take over. He does not survive this exercise without his friend, Sam, does he ? No. Tolkien understood how evil works in people’s lives and hearts. He knew how to explain it to us so that we would understand when it is bothering us in the same way. We can see ourselves in these characters. Tolkien, being a believer, knew how to write right. Forgetfulness comes upon us because you-know-who-down-below is working on us in order to separate us and to take us away from the right path, from life, and from the Lord.

You and I, who are believers, have the responsibility of praying for, supporting, encouraging, strengthening and nurturing each other. We have the words of the Apostle to the Apostle Timothy which tell us how to do this. We encourage each other. We strengthen each other. We correct each other. As well as we can, we are to be an example for each other.

The Apostle Paul rightly reminds us that we all must pray always for our leaders. Our leaders lead us, and our prayers protect them and minimise the danger of their falling too seriously into the snares of the Tempter. The Apostle exhorts us to pray not only for the clergy, but also for the temporal leaders as well, most of whom do not even know the Lord. However, they still have to make all these decisions that affect our lives so seriously and so deeply.

Our responsibility as believers is to pray for each other, to support each other, to nurture each other, to correct each other, to be examples for each other. Let us ask the Lord to give us, all together, the Grace, the joy, the love, the strength and the sense of direction to keep doing this, so that in everything, we will glorify our Saviour, Jesus Christ, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.