33rd Sunday of Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on Zacchaeus

Today is Zacchaeus Sunday, the Sunday before the Triodion, the three weeks prior to Great Lent. Zacchaeus Sunday is an invitation and you will soon see why. About Zacchaeus, he was a tax collector, a sinner. In our Lord’s day, tax collectors weren’t only responsible for collecting the taxes due to Caesar; they were also notorious extortionists, demanding from those who could not afford it more than was due in order to pocket some for themselves. Zaccheaus was such a man—notorious, ill liked, resented. And yet, of all the people that came out to see Jesus that bright day in Jericho 2,000 years ago, Jesus stops at this man, Zaccheaus, to the consternation and surprise, even outrage, of many.

Why does the Lord call up to Zacchaeus in that Sycamore tree? Why Zaccheaus? What did Zaccheaus do to deserve such an honor, such an encounter with the God-man? Christ dines in his house and brings salvation to him and his household.

You see, Zacchaeus has something often lacking among those who take Christ only on their own terms: single-minded zeal to see Him. He is bent on seeing the Lord, being near Him, and beginning a new life with Him. Zaccheaus, whatever his past sins—and from what we gather—they were many and well-known, refuses to let them hinder him in his desire to see and encounter the One, true God, to change his ways. There aren’t any promises that anything else will happen, just that maybe he will see and be near the Christ. That’s all. That’s his hope and faith—and that means everything to him because Zaccheaus, better than most, has understood some of the truth of Christ, the Messiah, God Incarnate, Who “fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).

“One is holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father,” we sing in the Divine Liturgy each Sunday. In Him alone, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He alone is “the One thing needful” (Lk. 10:42). We know this because it’s this truth of God and salvation in Him that alone can change hearts—a heart like Zacchaeus’ and that of thousands of others changed from sinners to Saints we commemorate daily in the Church calendar.

Zaccheaus has understood this—the reality of who Christ is—better than even some of Christ’s closest followers. And yet, of all people there that day, Zaccheaus could have easily been disqualified from seeing the Lord on at least two counts: one, because of his past sins against the people, and two, because of his short stature. How can the impure come before the Pure One? How can a man of such short stature hope to see the King whom everyone is clamoring to see?

Precisely! This is what faith and repentance look like! Of all the people there, Zaccheaus demonstrates such true faith. His faith is humble: he doesn’t think he’s greater than everyone else, worthy to see and encounter Christ. He’s not interested in having Christ conform to him, but rather, of conforming himself to Christ. He won’t be deterred: Zaccheaus is desirous of a change of heart, repentance, the transformation that only life in Christ brings.
The Lord, knowing Zaccheaus’ humble zeal to see Him and his accompanying repentant spirit, gives him more than could be imagined: a personal encounter with Him who is the Creator of all, the Giver of life. He gives Zaccheaus the opportunity to be received and restored by Him who alone is God. Christ says, “Zaccheaus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” What good news for Zaccheaus, but also for all of humanity–for you and for me!

Those who see this encounter are astounded. They shout: “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Here too, Jesus teaches us that we aren’t to look at past sins repented of—by ourselves or others: the Lord always looks toward our repentance, our redemption, our liberation from our past. He’s always bent on our renewal, our healing and salvation, our future with Him.

Christ’s love for us is also demonstrated here: It’s one thing for us to run after Christ, but this story with Zaccheaus and others, shows us clearly that Christ comes to us, sin-sick as we are. Christ desires our restoration and repentance, so that He can enjoy communion with us. This is such a clear picture of the love and mercy of God! Christ God doesn’t overlook Zaccheaus’ sin, for an unrepentant Zaccheaus would not have brought the Master to him. No, it isn’t that He overlooks the sins of any, it’s rather that He sees Zaccheaus’ repentance, his change of heart, and He forgives him: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 50). Such a heart is fitting to be with the God of love and mercy who always desires our salvation.

St. Tikhnon of Zadonsk articulates Christ’s love here as a confession: “I should have come to You as a transgressor of Your law. I should have fallen at Your feet, cast myself down before You, humbly begging forgiveness, pleading with You and craving Your mercy. But you yourself have come to me, wretched and good-for-nothing servant that I am; my Lord has come to me…”

Each of us has the opportunity to be like Zacchaeus, to open the ‘house’, our souls to Christ, to desire Him more, to invite Him into those raw, wounded, broken, sin-sick rooms of our own souls, so that He, the Great Physician, can heal them, make them fit for communion with Him, Who is Lord of All. This is why, by the way, that the story of Zacchaeus is always read at the blessing of a new home—to remind us of this same desire that you and I need if we are to receive Christ’s invitation and bring Him into the house of our souls as well as our physical dwellings. This is the great invitation of Zacchaeus Sunday.

So, ask yourself: What are my handicaps, where is my sin-sickness and disobedience to the Church, what impediments do I have in seeing and growing in and getting to Christ? We are at the threshold of our Lenten journey. Will you be like Zacchaeus? Are you willing to put away your past, broken patterns, your limited vision, and get to Christ, to really see Him, to grow in Him, to prioritize the life that is only in Him? Our salvation depends on it.

Zacchaeus didn’t satisfy himself with pious feelings or emotions; instead, he puts repentance into action: He promises to “restore fourfold” anyone he’s defrauded, giving half his goods to the poor. Such is the fruit and proof of his repentant heart and knowledge of the true God. Have you been neglecting any spiritual disciplines and tools of the Church? Have you been holding off repentance, a change of life? Now is the time to renew or begin that commitment before the Lord—now, as salvation draws nigh, as Christ seeks out whom He will dine with.
Christ proclaims, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him and he with Me.” (Rev. 3:20). This is the love and mercy that Christ shows to Zaccheaus. This is Christ’s love and mercy to you as well.

If we truly want to see Jesus and know Him, and His healing and salvation, if we want to receive Him when He visits us, if we are convinced that Christ is Life and that apart from Him there is no other life, if we believe the eyewitness accounts of the millions of Saints that have come before us of the reality of changed lives, then we, like Zaccheaus, need to make our life in Christ our priority, “the One thing needful” in our lives as well. We need the zeal of Zacchaeus.

We can make excuses, or, like Zacchaeus, we can, by availing ourselves of Christ’s presence, overcome our own ‘handicaps’, the patterns of giving into our sins, our past, the doubts we ourselves have about ourselves or that others have put on us, and we can zealously open our hearts to see Christ, to desire more of Christ. This is the God-given invitation before us. So ask yourself, where does my zeal lie? Where do I want it to lie? Seize the opportunity to follow the example of Zacchaeus who would not let anything keep him from Christ, and do the same!

Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church
21 January 2018, Sunday of Zacchaeus

Epistle: I Timothy 4:9-15
Gospel: Luke 19:1-10