Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ascending with Zacchaeus

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Today salvation has come to this house.” (LK. 19:9)

According to our liturgical calendar, this past Sunday was called “Zacchaeus Sunday.” And this particular Sunday is the first “signal” that we are approaching the beginning of Great Lent. Those with the slightest familiarity with the Church’s liturgical cycle know that we are now five Sundays and four weeks away from the Lenten season. Great Lent, therefore, will begin on Monday, March 7. With the four pre-lenten Sundays subsequent to Zacchaeus Sunday, no one can claim that Great Lent caught him/her unaware. We are given ample “warning” for what just may be a seismic shift in lifestyle once we embrace Great Lent.

Zacchaeus Sunday, of course, is based upon the appointed Gospel reading of LK. 19:1-10, and the account there of how Zacchaeus and his household were “saved” by the healing and forgiving presence of Christ. This was in response to the conversion of Zacchaeus and his repentance before the Lord. It is quite interesting that we have the name of this particular publican. Perhaps he was a known member of the earliest post-resurrection Christian community centered in Jerusalem, yet scattered throughout Israel. Be that as it may, this conversion had a strong impact on the early Church as this account was recorded by the evangelist Luke.

In a relatively short, yet very dramatic narrative, St. Luke vividly brings to life not only the encounter between Zacchaeus and Christ, but a series of profoundly interconnected themes that deserve our close attention. These four are clearly essential:

+ desire
+ repentance
+ atonement
+ salvation

Zacchaeus, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his now classic study Great Lent, is the “man of desire.” It was his burning desire “to see who Jesus was” (19:3), that led him to “climb up into a sycamore tree to see him.” (19:4) Though despised as a publican/tax-collector who defrauded his fellow villagers in Jericho, that position gave him a certain begrudged “prominence,” so the spectacle of Zacchaeus scrambling up the sycamore tree must have exposed him to public ridicule and derision. Zacchaeus’ desire must have been strong indeed to suffer that anticipated reaction. Thus, desire to “see Jesus” can lead anyone to overcome many of his/her human frailties and limitations, as well as the fear of violating any of the accepted rules of social etiquette if necessary. Our human limitations, that sinfulness that leaves us all short of the glory of God (ROM. 3;23), is represented here by Zacchaeus being “small of stature.” Our own sinfulness “cuts us down to size” and leaves us short of the stature of Christ that we are meant to grow into. Desire to change is a first movement on to the path of this desired growth. In hearing or reading this passage, we learn to humble ourselves in the realization that the sinful publican Zacchaeus has attained a stature that we need to emulate: “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (EPH. 4:13)

Once Zacchaeus and his household are blessed with the presence of Christ, he openly repents of having “defrauded anyone of anything.” (19:8). His heart has been “wounded” by the obvious love of Christ who, in turn, had to suffer the reproach and murmuring of the witnesses to this event for being “the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (19:7) Jesus had heard this before, but always remained untroubled or “above” such accusations in His messianic role of bringing “good news” to “prostitutes and publicans.” Zacchaeus atones for his former sinfulness by openly declaring “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (19:8) This is not a legalistic transaction. Zacchaeus is not purchasing the favor of God. Rather, he is moved to a concrete expression of a changed life that goes far beyond mere words or internal disposition.

The unmerited gift of salvation is how Christ “seals” the initial movement of Zacchaeus toward the restoration of his full stature. Salvation – soteria – means wholeness; the wholeness of soul and body that only God can restore. Zacchaeus has received this gift of salvation because, contrary to certain elements then current within Jewish piety that would have left him marginalized as a religious and social pariah, “he also is a son of Abraham.” (19:9) The salvation of Christ is extensive and intensive: universally offered to all of people, and offered to the “worst of sinners.” This is made clear by Christ’s solemn pronouncement that closes the narrative concerning Zacchaeus: “For the Son of man came to seek and save the lost.” (19:10) All – Jew and Gentile, the righteous and the unrighteous – are lost but God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I TIM. 2:4)

In one of the many fine paradoxes - or ironies – found in the Gospels, the despised publican Zacchaeus becomes our teacher: “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (MATT. 20:16) When that sinks in deeply, we can begin our own ascent to God on the ladder of the virtues, as Zacchaeus ascended on his humble sycamore tree.

Fr. Steven

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