In the story of Zacchaeus today, we’ve heard it many times, or many of us should have heard it many times, of Zacchaeus, a very short man who was an arch tax collector and, as we all know and we’ve said it so many times, arch tax collectors were not exactly the most popular people at the time of Christ.
Why? Because they were Jews who were kind of betraying their fellow Jews by working with the Romans in order to help the Romans collect the taxes from their own people. And this was considered a great sin amongst the Jewish people because they were oppressed by the Romans, they didn’t want them there, they wanted to free themselves from it, and to work with the Romans was to be seen as a traitor. And furthermore, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the tax collectors became very rich.
Why? Because not only would they collect the taxes for the Romans but they would collect more than what was expected so that they could line their own pockets and make themselves rich, so they would take a certain service fee, I guess you could say, off the top.
So, people like Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel were extremely rich, and they were getting rich off the hard work and the pains of their fellow human beings, their fellow Jews who were part of the same religion. And so they were considered even more as traitors, and they were more hated than the Romans themselves because they were of their own people who were rejecting the true faith and working with the enemy. And so we see that this is one of those people that Christ seems to always be attracted to in the Gospels. It is these types of people that Christ always goes to, and always gets criticized by his fellow Jews why he is hanging out with these kinds of people.
So, we hear in the story that Zacchaeus heard that Christ was coming. He was too short to see because the crowds were big, and so he climbed up into the sycamore tree to see Him, and when Christ came and saw him He said, Zacchaeus come down, I will stay in your home tonight. And when they went into his home, of course everybody else in the entourage began to murmur, Look where he’s going! This is beyond unacceptable for us! They had seen Jesus associate with other people of low repute before, but to go into the house of a tax collector was, I guess you could say, the final straw.
It was one of the worse things that you could do. Then of course we see that Zacchaeus repents and, meeting Christ and realizing his fault, the first thing that he does is that he decides to give back all the money that he has stolen, in essence, or extorted from his fellow human beings, and the rest to the poor. And the final line reminds us of why Christ is there, and it says that, The Son of Man came not to seek the holy but to save those who are lost. And, of course, this is a recurring theme, and it’s a theme that is not very popular in our day and age especially in our churches here, especially in the Orthodox churches but in many Christian churches.
Why? Because many times we get so comfortable with our communities, we get to know one another, we do so many events together, we see each other every Sunday, and it becomes so comfortable that our church has become almost like little clubs, and those clubs become the clubs of the holy, the clubs of the ‘good people’. And usually when we see strangers come into our communities or we see people that we know, perhaps, are not living the types of lives that we would deem to be worthy or we would deem to be holy even though we ourselves aren’t living those lives either, we tend to try to push those people away, and we try to not associate with them either, we don’t sit with them or we judge them, we are worried about their pasts, maybe they’re dangerous, maybe they’re not. And so the first thing we do is judge them, and we would prefer not to see them in our community as often as sometimes we do.
Of course, when we do this it’s one of the greatest sins, I would say, because we are becoming like the rest of the Jews who are murmuring in the crowd. Because not only does Christ say it time and time again in the gospels that He has come to save the lost, the lost sheep, those who are in peril, those who are sick, you know the healthy have no need for a doctor but those who are sick, but the Fathers of the Church remind us and they constantly call the Church not the club for the holy but the hospital for the spiritually sick. This is what the Church is. We who are here are not here because we are special or because we are perfect or because we are better than other people, or we are better than non—Orthodox or better than non—Christians, but rather we are here because we recognize in ourselves that there is something wrong, that we fail, and so we come here for guidance, we come here for healing, we come here for the grace of God. These are the reasons why we should be here, and if we are here for those reasons then very quickly we will forget about the person sitting next to us and whether they are as holy or better or worse than we are. Of course, in theory that sounds great but in reality doesn’t always happen.
Why I’m saying all this is because reading the Gospel today I was thinking back to our re—catechism session which we just started last week, and which we will have again this Wednesday as well, and this upcoming session, this Spring session that we’re having with re—catechism for those of you who come and for those of you who follow maybe the discussions online as well, the theme is The Challenges of Orthodoxy in the Modern World, so it’s a very kind of modern approach in looking at the challenge that we face, our Church as Christians trying to witness in a predominantly secular society. And I use the word secular because the first discussion that we had this past Thursday, the title was Secularism, the Heresy of our Time. And what is secularism really? The definition of secularism is ‘the worldliness’.
It is when we as human beings prefer, more so than not, to live according to the way we want to live, according to the worldliness. So we prefer to choose material things over spiritual things, we prefer to chose material gain or worldly praise or worldly power over the praise of God, over the love of God, over the gifts of God. And it is a phenomenon within our society that is very subtle and it’s almost invisible just because it is the natural way we live in North America. And I would say that in many parts of the world not just North America, but in all first—world countries at least where we have pretty much everything, thank God, and we’re not really suffering as people are in third—world countries. But it is such a subtle thing that it becomes part of the fabric of our lives and we don’t realize that there is anything wrong.
And so we become so accustomed to the comforts that we have, the conveniences that we have, and slowly but surely we can notice, if we look back into our daily lives, that we constantly begin slowly to choose the worldly over the spiritual. And this happens all the time. Every time we say that, you know, I’ve had a really long day, I’m very busy, I’ve been out all day, I’ve been running around over here, I’ve been running over there, I’ve been out with my friends, I’ve been going to the extra—curricular activities with my children, I was at work all day, I come home, I’m so tired, I fall asleep and, you know what, I haven’t even prayed in, like, the last month.
Well, when we do that we are secularists. We have fallen into choosing secularism over spirituality. You know, every time we actively make a choice, for example — and I know this is going to upset some people but that’s ok — you know, we actively make a choice that if my children have, for example, hockey on a Sunday, well, you know what, they need to play their hockey so let’s go to hockey and let’s forget about Church for perhaps four months at a time, or six months at a time. So our children, by the end, have no concept of what Divine Liturgy is, or have forgotten altogether that we’re Orthodox Christians, because we’re actually teaching them that hockey is actually more important, or soccer or any other kind of sport. That is secularism effecting our lives.
Every time, for example, restaurant owners — I know we have many of them in our community here — every time we refuse to close our restaurants on Sundays, because that’s when you make the most amount of money, because we know Sunday brunch is the most popular time especially in Winnipeg right? Every time we do that, then our children grow up never going to Church because their parents were always working. And then when their children are twenty-five and have never stepped foot in church, they come to the priest and say, Father, please go find my child and bring them back to Church because they don’t come any more. And of course my answer is, Well, it’s almost impossible for me to do that now because you have taught them for the last twenty-five years that it is more important to work and make money than to praise God.
And so these are the realities, and we all do it to a certain degree, and I do it as a priest. Many times I’m very secular. Many times I’m influenced by this society. You know, I pay more emphasis to what’s on TV or what’s in the theaters or the latest technological gadget or whatever it is that takes me away from the time I should be spending on my spirituality, rather than learning more about my faith or actually attending Church or communing or going to confession or actually participating in the Holy Sacraments. And so all these things, they permeate our lives and they affect us in a very negative way.
And so we see that when we hear gospels such as today of Zacchaeus, these kind of very radical and dramatic examples of repentance, what usually accompanies these great acts of repentance? Look at Zacchaeus who was very rich. What was the first thing that he did? It’s very interesting. He didn’t say, Sorry. He didn’t say, Lord, you know, you’re right, I’ve lived a sinful life, I’m going to go and ask forgiveness from everybody. He doesn’t do that first.
The first thing that he does is he gives away his possessions, he gives away his money. It’s very interesting. He gives half of it away to those who he wronged, and gives the other half to the poor which basically means it leaves him with almost nothing. It’s very interesting that he gets rid of the worldly stuff because it’s the worldly stuff that burdens us.
It’s the worldly stuff that chokes our spirituality sometimes and makes it difficult for us to see what is truly there. It is the worldly things, and we all say it, we all say, Father, I wish I could be more involved but I’m just so busy right now, I wish I could bring my children to Church more often, I know we enjoy it, we come and we feel peace, but you know we have so many programs in our lives right now, we’re just so overworked, we’re so burned out. We all have made this type of complaint in our lives at one point or another. I think all of us have especially us with young children, and yet this is the type of statement that is a warning, or should be a warning for us that something is not going right.
And so I’m not saying that all of us should just suddenly take everything, give it away and go live on the street, but rather that gospels like today, and sessions like re—catechism, and these kinds of discussions should be happening in our households. And we should keep at the forefront of our lives and of our discussions with our children the idea that there needs to be priorities in our lives. And if we’re all going to the same place, if we hope we are, and in that place where we’re going we cannot take any of this money, we cannot take any of these cars, we cannot take any of these homes, then maybe we should be putting that at the forefront of our lives.
It doesn’t mean that all the other things are not important, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to do all those other things, but sometimes we need to stop and take stock of what we’re doing in our daily lives and make sure that Christ, God, our spirituality are at the forefront. And everything else takes the back seat. That is the only way that we can truly be real human beings. I won’t say Christians, I say real human beings because a real human being understands who his Creator is and what his relationship is to Him. And so, this is what I believe we need to do and this is what the daily Gospel is actually calling us to do.
And so perhaps this is what we need to do in our own lives. We need to kind of re—evaluate what we’re doing and be honest with ourselves, and not be influenced by modern society that tell us that this is just the way things are, it’s ok to be this way, because it’s not. And we hear it time and time again by Christ himself, we see it in the lives of the saints and the Fathers of the Church the last two thousand years of church history, and it’s really something that we really can’t avoid. We can avoid it but then we are in danger of becoming just like everybody else, secularists which eventually leads to atheism because the worldliness and the materialism, that’s where it leads to. Because material things are really nothing in the end, they are all creations.
One of the most interesting bumper stickers I ever saw in my life which I always remember says, We always have to worship the Creator and not the creation. Amen.