Monday, February 3, 2020

Zacchaeus — The Gospel in Miniature

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We arrived at the Sunday of Zacchaeus this last Sunday at the Liturgy with the reading of the Gospel According to St. Luke (19:1-10).  The story of the repentance and conversion of the publican (tax collector) who was "small of stature" prepares us for the upcoming cycle of pre-lenten Gospel readings which will, in turn, prepare us for the beginning of Great Lent on Monday, March 2. 

Most attentive Orthodox Christians already know this, as well as knowing the actual story of Zacchaeus very well. Yet, knowing any particular Gospel passage well does not mean that we have exhausted the meaning of that passage.  The Gospel can never grow old, or worse, stale.  The "words of eternal life" (JN. 6:68)  are contained in the Gospels. Therefore, the Gospel is a "living text," which means that every time we hear it, we are open to new insights and new depths of meaning that can even startle us.  Something like an endless "aha!" experience.  Repeated reading and/or hearing of any passage, therefore, should not blunt the revealed truth of the passage, but continue enriching our understanding of the Good News revealed to us in Christ.  

Bearing this in mind, I would submit that in the wonderful story of Zacchaeus, we are hearing the Gospel "in miniature."  For in this story there are sin, repentance, grace and salvation, precisely that interplay of various factors that predominate in the revelation of the Gospel. 

If we were to break that down in terms of this particular story we find that in the concise framework of ten verses, St. Luke narrates an encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, a sinful man who, in his sinfulness, is representative of all humanity.  He has "missed the mark" - the meaning of the Greek amartia which we translate as sin - with his admission of defrauding others, among perhaps other failings.  The publican was synonymous with a thief, as there was no system in place that could check the abuse inherent in collecting taxes for the hated Roman occupiers of Israel.  And, as a publican/thief, he was "rich" but at the expense of the neighbors he was defrauding.

Yet the story quickly shifts its emphasis to the almost humorous detail of Zacchaeus climbing up a sycamore tree in order "to see Jesus."

Jesus scandalizes the spectators who are witnessing this drama by desiring to enter the home of the sinful publican.  There is no place that is "off limits" for the Messiah as He has come first to call "the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Scandal is "built into" the Gospel, for the ultimate scandal will be that of a crucified Messiah. In the presence of Christ, Zacchaeus publicly repents, expressed with the words, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold" (LK. 19:8).  
Repentance is always sealed with divine grace, as Jesus then publicly states, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (v. 10).  We are all "lost" in sin, so the Son of Man has also come to save each and every one of us.  Hence, our contention that the story of Zacchaeus is the Gospel "in miniature."

That salvation, however, cannot be assumed or taken for granted.  The gifts of grace and salvation are bestowed upon us inasmuch as we too will repent and change our pattern of living.  That will depend on our capacity to "see" that we are also "small of stature" - each and every one of us.

Zacchaeus was apparently a short man, and thus he was literally "small of stature," and this forced him up into that sycamore tree.  But clearly, his lack of stature was a metaphor for his sinfulness.  Our human nature - created in the image and likeness of God - "shrinks" through our sinfulness.  Sin makes us a lesser being than what we were created to be.  No amount of status, wealth or power can protect us from the corrosive effects of sin. 

Once we see and acknowledge that painful truth then we, too, must find a way to overcome our shrunken stature even if it means "losing face" with our neighbors.  (How humiliating it must have been for Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree in front of his neighbors!)  This becomes difficult if we expend a great amount of energy building up a self-image that we (foolishly?) hope will make us impervious to criticism or ridicule.  The affirmation of others grants credence to our self-affirmation. 

As we strain to protect that artificial good image, we can further become blind to our flawed character.  Then we will learn the hard way, that the more we struggle to preserve the little stature that we have, we will only succeed in further shrinking in stature!  Such is the "human comedy."  But it is actually all quite tragic since we are all participants in the divine-human drama of sin and repentance and the salvation of our souls.

That brings us to the paradoxical nature of the Gospel:  the more we can acknowledge our short stature through sinfulness, and begin the process of conversion through repentance, then the uplifting process of growing "to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (EPH. 4:13) can begin. This is an endless process of spiritual maturity and growth - a process that continues in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

There is no room for comparison here, meaning that we cannot find solace in the "fact" that others are clearly so much more sinful than we may be.  To shrink from including ourselves in the company of Zacchaeus, the cheating publican, would be to undermine the power of the Gospel in our lives.  We must humbly align ourselves with Zacchaeus — even "become Zacchaeus" in terms of a shared experience of being forgiven — as we read and/or hear this text.  If we approach the story of Zacchaeus with the presupposition that we are "better" than him, than the living text of the Gospel becomes a "dead text" — perhaps informative or interesting, but unable to open our minds and hearts to God's graciousness.  Let us avoid any such temptation as we continue our movement toward Great Lent the glorious paschal mystery which is our final destination.

"For the Son on Man came to seek and to save the lost."