Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sunday of Zaccheus

Sunday of Zaccheus

Zaccheus, the outcast, the publican, the Jew who had become a contract tax collector for the Roman occupying army, who not only served the foreign enemy but who also collected taxes and handled gentile pagan money, Zaccheus was a man who learned to take satisfaction in what it was that he had, but he mourned all that he didn’t have. His life was centered around the assignment of assessment, of levies and taxes, to various citizens so that the Roman government would be placated, so he could hand over what he had collected to the governor and then take out his share. And he lived in comfort, probably clothed in soft clothing and eating very well, but he found himself both out of communion with God and with his own people, both a traitor to his faith and to his nation, we would say a pretty deplorable person. But that’s not the way that he appears in the gospel.

He hears that Our Lord is coming to Jericho, and he has this little dream, this thought: Perhaps in some way, the fact that Jesus, who many said was the messiah, who some proclaimed to even be a divine oracle, perhaps this Jesus could say a word that he would hear that would show him the way out of his predicament. You see, when things are bad, when you feel threatened, when your strength fails, when the markets go down, when the person next to you is fired and you don’t know how long it will be till you’re fired, you do one of two things: You can eat, drink, and be merry – start celebrating the fore-feast of the Super Bowl on Sunday morning; or you can turn to God and allow him to comfort you, to relieve you of your burden, to give you joy and hope, and to provide peace for you so that you can say, “The Lord is with me, therefore I will not fear, I will not be afraid.” Well, Zaccheus had a hope that that was something he could receive, and so he came out to the street as Jesus was passing by.

Now we know that a lot of things happened on that entrance into Jericho. We know about the blind man who proclaimed our Lord to be the messiah, who saw with eyes of his soul what these people could not see with the eyes of their body. We know about the woman who later, with the issue of blood, touched the hem of His garment and was healed, and Jairus whose daughter was raised to life, but Zaccheus couldn’t get close enough to even see Jesus. He was small. The Romanian word for small is meek, and I remember that two years ago Andrew received an award at school. It said he received the Humility Award, and he said to me, “What is humility?” and I said, “It’s like being humble,” and he said, “But what does humble mean?” And I said, “You know, like ‘blessed are the meek,’” and he said, “Didn’t I tell you I was tiny?” Well, Zaccheus was tiny. He couldn’t see Jesus, and the big tall people wouldn’t move out of the way. They said, “Oh you tax collector, you jerk! Who do you think you are? We’re not going to give you fronts. You just get away from us.” So he got an idea: he figured out what road Jesus was going to come down and he ran ahead – down a side-street, up another one – and there, overhanging the road, was a sycamore tree. And he climbed up in the sycamore tree and he sat there on the branch and he said, “Now I can get a good look at him.” As Jesus comes by, Jesus looks up and he sees him there, and he addresses him by name. He had known his name since he was conceived in his mother’s womb; he had known about him since before creation, and he said, “Zaccheus, hurry up! Come down! I’m going to have supper at your house today!”

What does it mean that Jesus was going to have supper at his house? No good Jew would eat with a sinner, would they? They wouldn’t go into their house, they might become unclean. Especially not a tax collector – somebody who handled the coins and collected the taxes for the gentile dogs. No, you wouldn’t go near him. You were too good. But Jesus said, “I’m going to have supper with you today!” And the people, all around, instead of saying, “Hey! Zaccheus is being changed. The Rabbi is going to go to his house. Maybe he’ll stop sinning” – and by the way, it doesn’t say anywhere in the Gospel for today that Zaccheus was a sinner. He broke the rules of the Jewish nation, but it doesn’t say that he stole anything or cheated anyone. It’s the people standing around who decided, “He’s rich, so he must be a robber, right? We need to raise his taxes cuz he’s rich. He must have done something wrong to get that money.” So, they all start murmuring. They say, “Look! Jesus is going to be the guest of a man who’s a sinner.”

I remember one time we had a man in this church. He had not been born Orthodox. He was born a Uniate, and in college he had converted and he had become so Orthodox that he judged everyone else. He stood up at parish council once and said, “I move we outlaw all liquor at this church,” and one of the parish council members looked at him and said, “Are you a Protestant?” Anyway, this man told me I was a bad priest. Why? Because I’d go to the houses of people who were sinners. And I pointed out to him that was true, I had even come to his house.” And then I said, “Do you realize that two times in the bible when people reject Jesus, two times, the words they use are, ‘He’s gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner’? Do you understand what kind of judgment that brings down on your head, to use the same words the people who condemned Christ used to judge the people who were coming to him for mercy and forgiveness?”

Zaccheus stands up and he says, “Lord, I’m going to give half of everything I have to the poor.” Now this was not admission of any kind of guilt at all. It was an admission of a life that had been changed. All he had had before now was his money. It had been his idol; it had been his God; it had been is prepossession; it’s the only thing he had given any thought to. So how does he free himself from it? By giving it away. “I give half of all my possessions to the poor.” And then he says, “If I have defrauded any many, I will restore it four fold.” He didn’t say, “And the people I’ve defrauded, I will restore it four fold.” There’s no evidence at all that he cheated anyone, except to the extent that the Roman tax system itself was a fraud, like most tax systems are. He said, “If I have a cheated anyone, I will restore it fourfold.” Now this was the Jewish requirement, the law. If you took something by fraud, you had to pay it back four times. And so, this man puts himself, right now at this moment, in the context of being a good Jew, and Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this man’s house. For this man who is a son of Abraham has received me, and the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was being lost.”

This is the lesson that we always have the Sunday before we begin the Triodion. Next week will be the Pharisee and the Publican. It’s the last lesson. Next week when I come to your house and I sprinkle, I always say, “Lord who was baptized by John in the Jordan and who entered into the house of Zaccheus, has brought salvation” because these are two points that we identify at this time that have to do with blessing. So today, climb down from your sycamore tree. Quit looking at Jesus from a distance. Run up to him. Let him embrace you. Let him into the house of your soul. Give up the things that enslave you. Turn way from the things that hold you back from God. Welcome the Lord into your house, and receive salvation from him who came to seek and to save that which was being lost.

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