Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus . . . .”
This morning we meet once again our old friend, Zacchaeus of Jericho, the chief publican or chief tax collector. We have been at this long enough to know that when Zacchaeus shows up, we have four weeks before we dive into the Fast of Great and Holy Lent.
Zacchaeus, as the Evangelist remarks, is rich – very rich. His wealth has come to him by virtue of being the chief tax collector, which means that he has under his control a substantial workforce of tax collectors who report to him, and perhaps from whom he collects more than his fair share. He is employed by Rome, that is, by the occupying military forces. But that does not deter him nor those under him from gouging their neighbors in the collection of that which is due Caesar. So long as Caesar gets what’s coming to him, he has no qualms how it is gotten nor even if the populace is overcharged. The simple fact that Zacchaeus collaborates with the despised Roman forces does not sit well with his brethren of Abraham’s lineage, let alone the fact that he is a tax collector! All of this makes him suspect and a sinner – a great and irredeemable sinner – in the eyes of others. No one who is pure and righteous – as the name of Zacchaeus means – would do or be what Zacchaeus does and is. This puts him – and all those like him – far from God, outside of God’s reach, and certainly makes mockery of Father Abraham.
Zacchaeus is rich, as we said, very rich, which also makes him unsavable, at least by some standards. For did not our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ say to St. Peter and the others just a few Sundays ago in response to the turning away of the rich young ruler just how hard it is for those of means and prosperity to be saved? “’How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of God!,’” Jesus declared. “’For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.’” You get the mental image, don’t you, of just how utterly impossible it is to thread a camel through an eye of a needle? Peter got it. And he replied, “Then if the well-off and well-to-do can’t be saved, who can?,” which implies that if those with possessions can’t get into Heaven, how in the world will someone like me – a poor, blue collar fisherman – ever hope to make it? To which our Lord replies, “’The things which are impossible with men are possible with God’” (Lk. 18:18-28).
Zacchaeus here, then, becomes the possibility promised by Jesus. Zacchaeus here, then, becomes evidence in the great laboratory of God’s infinite, longsuffering grace that the rich are not inevitably consigned to damnation. Zacchaeus proves that it’s not impossible for the rich to ever be saved, but that it’s congruently more difficult, even if you have come by your possessions honestly and justly, which Zacchaeus has not. This perhaps has led one Church Father to opine: if you have possessions, if you have riches and wealth and all that goes with it, you are either an heir of wickedness or you have gotten your possessions through wicked means.
By all accounts, then, beloved, Zacchaeus is, on this side of eternity, a loss, without hope of salvation, against whom the doors of the Kingdom of God have been slammed shut! And, the reality is no one in Jericho even cares! Because Zacchaeus – and all who are just like him – get what they deserve.
But, along comes One – the One – Who does indeed care. He is passing through Jericho with God’s healing and salvation. On the outskirts of this city, a blind man received his sight – much to the astonishment of those eyewitnesses! And the old sinner, Zacchaeus, will soon be found. Note what I said, beloved, Zacchaeus will be found. Found by whom? By what? God will find him. God is coming for him and for all souls like Zacchaeus impossible to save. God-in-the-flesh is making His way, just as He always does, and His journey is not without intention. It is the divine initiative of the love of God poured out “for us men and for our salvation,” for the health of our soul and body (Nicene Creed). The love of God enfleshed and once lying in a manger, now picks His way through the streets of Jericho, and there dangling among the limbs of a sycamore tree – no bigger than a fig tree – His eye meets the eye of that notorious chief tax collector. All of this is reminiscent of God’s walk through the Garden in search of His fallen children hiding from His gaze. Their sin has made them outcasts from Paradise (Gn. 3:1-234)! Who can be saved? With fallen sinners these things are nigh unto impossible, but not with God – the God Who is good and the Lover of mankind, Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth (Ek. 18:23, 32; 1 Tm. 2:4).
The eye of the Master, of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, meets the eye of the unworthy one. And He speaks to him who is condemned by his sin and deemed unsalvageable by those about him. “’Zacchaeus,’” Jesus calls, “’make haste and come down, for today I must abide at thy house.’” God comes to us sinners. God comes for us sinners. And He speaks His saving word, “’[M]ake haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’” God is always the great Lover of mankind and the Initiator of salvation. Zacchaeus responds to the Son of God’s divine overture, a response unsolicited and freely offered. Zacchaeus responds to the grace of God beckoning to him by name. For the Good Shepherd in search of His sheep knows each of them and calls them by name. And, what does He do? He leads them out. The sheep follow their Shepherd’s voice, and He leads them to green pastures and gives to them who follow Him Eternal Life. And they shall be saved, Jesus says (Ps. 22 :1-6; Jn. 10:1-28).
Not only does Zacchaeus do as Jesus commands, but his love for the Master gushes forth in torrents of repentance and amendment of life. Love is not coerced. It is a response! “’Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore to him fourfold.’” Here is what repentance looks like. Here is what repentance does: it bears fruit worthy of it (Mt. 3:7-10; Lk. 3:8-14)! Repentance is our free will response to the voice of God calling us to Himself, “Come down from that tree you got yourself entangled in! Return to Me! Make haste, don’t delay, for today is the day of salvation, not tomorrow! Today My grace is present for you. Today!” (2 Cr. 6:2).
Zacchaeus goes above and beyond what the Law called for. Love always does that. Thankfulness for the mercy of God unearned does that. Of course, those witnessing this divine encounter of God’s own choosing don’t understand that. They don’t get what God is doing “for us men and for our salvation.” Ingratitude never does. A judgmental attitude never does. A change in another is always suspicious to those who are unwilling themselves to change or to truly repent and amend their lives. A change in another is mocked and ridiculed and snickered at as a “jailhouse conversion” because as anyone reasonable knows “a leopard can’t change it spots.” Have you ever noticed how the world questions change, how it pretends to be incredulous if someone admits to having thought such and such a way once but now have changed their mind, that they see things differently than before, as though we can never ever change a thought or our ways? It’s almost as though the world needs us never to change, that we’re not allowed to change because if we do then it calls into question the world’s own unwillingness to repent and amend life. It’s impossible! It’s ludicrous, says the world. But, with God, aren’t all things possible, even the threading of a camel through the eye of a needle? We cheapen repentance by our sarcasm and murmuring like old Israel and those ungrateful laborers in the parable of the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). In fact, by doing so, we call into question our very own “alleged” repentance!
But, repentance always seeks to return the favor of God, His grace and mercy and steadfast love. Repentance seeks to love because God has first loved (1 Jn. 4:19). Those who are forgiven little, love little, our Lord once observed, but those who are forgiven much, love much (Lk. 7:47). Does our repentance demonstrate little love or much love for God?
There’s something to be said about being in the right place at the right time. Old Zacchaeus didn’t intentionally go looking for God, so it seems, at least not that day. But, God came looking for him! God, Who knows all of His sons and daughters, leveraged the slightest curiosity of Zacchaeus who climbed the tree in order to see Jesus. God does not ignore even the tiniest drop of tears (Pre-Communion Prayer #6). In fact, isn’t this what Sacred Scripture says, that God is found by those that sought Him not? “’I am sought,’” He says, “’by them that asked not for Me’” (Is. 65:1-2; Rm. 10:20). But, when we are captured by the grace and mercy of God, it changes our lives, it changes our hearts, and it changes our minds. And, for those who do go looking for God, the divine promise stands firm: those who seek for the Lord will indeed find Him, if they do not give up (Dt. 4:29-31; 1 Ch. 28:9; 2 Ch. 15:2; Mt. 7:7-8; Lk. 11:9-10, 13; Ac. 17:27).
Interestingly enough, even though Zacchaeus may not have intentionally set out in search of God that day, he nonetheless took the steps necessary to see Jesus. The Fathers speak of attracting God’s grace to ourselves, by doing things for the sake of God, by cooperating with God Who is about the business of seeking us. What may have started out as the tiniest bit of curiosity on his part, that is, Zacchaeus heard of the things Jesus had done on His way into Jericho and had heard that he was going to pass by, so he climbed up into the tree, became for him God’s surprise. God the Creator and Redeemer of us all is about the business of salvation – of saving us, of coming to us, of moving toward us – so that we might be found by His grace. What had been the simple act of trying to get a better view (because he wanted to see Jesus) became in God’s hands Zacchaeus’ salvation, much to the consternation of all those naysayers who begrudged God’s action of redeeming a fallen and lost son of Abraham.
God comes to the most unlikely candidate to manifest to us that none of us are written off by the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. None of us are ever beyond the pale or the scope of salvation, unless we make it so, unless we turn aside from Him. “’Behold,’” says our Lord, “’I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me’” (Rv. 3:20). “’Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must abide at thy house. . . . For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.’” For “’The things which are impossible for with men are [indeed] possible with God’” (Lk. 18:27).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Tm. 4:9-15