January 30, 2017 Length: 23:24
Learning from the bad and the good in the gospels. What is the purpose of Great Lent, and how do we go about achieving it? The story of Zacchaeus (this is our story!), along with all the other gospels on the Sundays before Great Lent teaches that we can only give a little bit of good to God, but if we give what we have (with faith, and of course, effort), he will magnify our small effort, and it will always be greater than the bad we do. We must give something. We also take note of the sin of the Pharisees and how it makes a person unable to be saved, not matter whatever good or bad they do. Luke 19:1-10
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is one of five Sundays before Great Lent begins. We’re already in that period of time, preparing for Great Lent. This is sort of an unofficial beginning to the preparation, because we actually start using the Triodion next week, which is the book that we use for all of Great Lent and Holy Week, but Zacchaeus is kind of a beginning, because it’s the gospel that is said before we talk about the Publican and the Pharisee, and Zacchaeus was a publican.
Now, all of these gospels for the next five Sundays are going to have bad and good in them. I talked about this yesterday in glossing over it, but it’s a really important point, because you have to understand what Great Lent is for. If Great Lent, you think, is to feel bad or just to fast—that’s not what Great Lent is for. Great Lent is for preparation. Great Lent is to become ready to have more of the Resurrection be filling you. The Resurrection’s all around us, God is all around us, life is all around us, but we don’t feel it all, because of our sins.
Great Lent is this period of time of concentrated preparation, and if you use it well, if you use that time well, things will go better for you. But it’s not a time for punishing yourself or feeling guilty or feeling moody or feeling bad about yourself. It’s a time of giving a little tiny bit to God, and then he gives us a lot. This is the way the Christian life is. We give a little bit to God. We can’t give him much. There’s nothing we can give him that is big enough, but God, in his love, takes whatever we have and magnifies it.
A Christian who understands this principle does not go too high or too low, does not think, “I’m such a terrible person” and then basically give up, because that’s basically what we do when we think we’re terrible. Nobody likes to think they’re terrible, and yet we seem to do a lot of time doing it, and when we do that, then we give up, sort of all-or-nothing. Christianity is in some ways all-or-nothing, because you have to give all your heart to God, but in other ways, it’s not at all all-or-nothing, because you give what you’re able to give to him. All right, so you’re lazy. Well, maybe you could do something. So you don’t fast well. Well, maybe you could fast a little. All right, so you have bad thoughts about people. Well, maybe you could pray for those people. You see, you give something to God, even if it’s small, and God magnifies it.
We see that in Zacchaeus today. We see good in him, we see the bad in the beginning, and we also see something terrible that happens after his conversion, which we have to take note of, because this, more than anything else, will destroy your spiritual life—you’ll be a Christian in name only, you’ll be a whited sepulcher if you participate in this sin. So let’s talk about Zacchaeus, kind of going through the things that happened in this incident, how they are him giving a little bit to God, and God giving him infinitely more. And it applies to you and [me]; we’re Zacchaeus.
Jesus is going through Jericho. Jericho, by the way, is in a parable, isn’t it? About the parable of the good Samaritan, a person going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jericho was not a nice place. Jericho was a place where there were thieves and robbers. Jericho was not at all like Jerusalem: it was hot; it was down in the valley. It really wasn’t held in good repute. So Jesus [was] going through Jericho, and the baddest guy of them all is Zacchaeus, because he’s the chief among the publicans. The publicans were people who collected taxes for Rome; they were proxies for Rome, and they were Jews, but they literally assisted in the enslavement of their own people. Of course, there was something in it for them: they got rich. But they had no respect from the Jewish people, except, of course, when their money caused them to have respect. But people certainly didn’t like the publicans, and the publicans knew that they were not really good people.
So Zacchaeus is very rich, which means he is extremely immersed in his sins. In order to get rich in an occupation like that you have to be ruthless, you have to not care about people, you have to basically be a criminal, a crime lord. But Zacchaeus had heard about Christ. Everybody had heard about Christ. They heard all these things: this person who speaks with authority, this person whom the scribes and Pharisees don’t like at all, this person who raises the dead, causes the blind to see, says things that they’d never heard before! Everybody wanted to see Jesus.
So he’s passing by, and Zacchaeus wanted to see him. But St. Luke, who was very careful, by the way—when you read the gospels, you’ll see that St. Luke is very careful in his phrasing; he’s very complete; he was a physician: he was a detail person, so he really says things carefully; if you can see, oftentimes, the other gospels, they’re not as careful in terms of exquisite details—so Luke says that Zacchaeus was small of stature. So he wanted to see Jesus. What could he do? He couldn’t, because of the press, or, in other words, the crowd: he’s too little. Couldn’t see over their heads. So he ran before the crowd, climbed up into a sycamine tree, and was waiting for Jesus to pass. Probably he didn’t want to be seen, probably he hoped that nobody would notice him, as if you wouldn’t notice somebody sitting in a tree, and he would be able to hear Jesus as he went by.
I’ve already talked about Zacchaeus being rich. You can make a typology out of the things in Zacchaeus’ life, and it applies to your life. We’re not talking Zacchaeus’ life only here; we’re talking your life and my life. Zacchaeus had many passions, many bad habits, many bad priorities that got him to where he was, and he was little. He didn’t know how to change these things. He must have been starting to think that the way he was living was not the right way to live, but he had no idea how to make the changes. He was weak, he was lacking in virtue, incompetent. So let’s translate that to us. Are we weak? Do we have trouble with our prayers, fasting, loving our brother, paying attention? We’re rich in sins, but little in stature. It’s a pretty bad thing, and if it weren’t for God being all-powerful, all-merciful, and good, it would be the end of us.
Zacchaeus didn’t say, “I’m bad, I’m terrible, I’m lost—I might as well just go drink wine or do whatever.” He ran before the press. This is effort. There’s no substitute for effort. You can say, “I’m a terrible person. I don’t pray,” and then not pray. Or you can say, “I’m a terrible person. I don’t pray, and I’m going to start praying—a little. I’m going to do something. I’m going to fast a little bit. I’m going to forgive my brother—at least I’m going to be kind to my brother, even if I don’t forgive him in my heart, I’m going to pray for him. I’m going to struggle.” You have to struggle. If you don’t struggle, you’re lost. There is no substitute for this, because God does not just wave a wand and say, “You’re good.” He doesn’t do that. There are people who believe that, but that’s not true. Christianity is not magic. Christianity is effort: living for God with effort. We’re weak, we’re little, but we do what we can. And if you do what you can, then God will react to this small amount that you give him.
The small amount is always enough if it’s what you can give. If the small amount is because you’re lazy, that’s not enough. I already said, “Well, what if you’re lazy?” Well, do what you can. Laziness is something that… I don’t mean to contradict; this is not contradictory if you understand the spiritual life. If you have trouble with a certain sin—most of us have trouble with laziness. Well, maybe you’re lazy because you’re watching TV and you’re tired and you don’t say your prayers. Well, I’ve got a solution for it. There’s about 30 of them, back in the parking lot. They’re called bricks. If you don’t have a TV, you don’t have to watch it. If you don’t have the strength to do that, then find some other way, but you have to do something. Don’t just stand around and say—or should I say “[lie] around”—and say, “I can’t do it.” That’s not Christianity. Christianity is struggle and effort, and you have to give God what you can give, which is never enough, but somehow it always is, because God makes it enough. It’s not enough on our own.
So his running and his climbing is effort. By the way, people knew him; people didn’t like him. People saw him running; people saw him climbing the tree. They must have really thought that was funny. He must have been embarrassed, but he wanted to do it anyway. He wasn’t thinking about the world. We think about the world too much, what the world thinks of us. We should think about what God thinks of us.
Zacchaeus is in the tree. He’s climbed up. He’s putting himself in the way of Christ. I think if you look at the sermons I’ve preached about this—probably I’ve talked about this point more than any other point—he put himself in the way of Christ. That’s what you must do every day. If you’re just living life, saying a few prayers, doing a little bit of this, doing a little bit of that, without focus, you’re not going to find your way. You find your way by purposely being in the way of Christ, by meditating on Christ. I don’t mean that you have to sit down and figure out how you think about Christ. I’m not talking about meditating that way. I’m talking about living your life according to who Christ is. That’s your first priority.
So you read the Scriptures and you pray with intention. You come to confession, you come to the services, you fast as best you can—you don’t ignore fasting, even if you’re not a good faster. This is trying to put yourself in the way of Christ, because the only healing in the world comes from Christ. If you’re not in his way, where he is, if you don’t bring him to you or make yourself in such a way that when he comes to you you can receive him, then you don’t receive healing. So Zacchaeus went out of his way to become in the way of Christ, literally, physically, above Christ, as Christ walked by.
Of course, Christ knew he was there, stopped and spoke to him. And there’s the beginning of the conversion. This is a beautiful moment. It’s akin to the moment when the prodigal son came to himself. But Zacchaeus hadn’t quite come to himself, but he was getting very close. This moment is very tender, very beautiful. Christ comes to the tree, and he looks up at a sinful man, rich but small in stature, weak, full of sins, and says, “Come down. Make haste to come down. Come down right now, because I’m going to your house.” This is unheard of. This great preacher—Zacchaeus would think he would be dining with the Jewish leaders and other such things. But he wanted to dine with a sinful man in a tree.
What must have been happening to Zacchaeus’ heart right then? This little warmth came into it, this little hope. “Maybe I can really change. Maybe I don’t need to be the person I’ve always been, that I really secretly despise. Maybe God can really reach up and help me.” What an idea. Probably one he hadn’t thought ever in his life. Certainly from the time he had become an arch-criminal publican. He probably thought his soul was lost, but then this man who preaches of God said, “Come down. I want to come to your house.” It’s a very significant thing in that culture, to come to someone’s house. So Zacchaeus gave a dinner for Christ.
Then there’s this sin I want to tell you about. Zacchaeus was a bad guy. He hadn’t changed yet. People hadn’t seen evidence that he was a good guy now, so people were murmuring. It’s an interesting word, “murmur,” because it is about talking softly, sometimes almost so that a person barely understands. It’s a soft word, but it’s a very destructive word, because it’s about judging your brother and it’s about not knowing about your own sins and it’s about hate. Yes, hate. Murmuring is hate, and hate makes a person unable to have God in their heart. No matter what else they do, no matter what other virtue they have, hate makes it impossible for God to be in the heart.
There are many sinners who have loved, and God has come to them and saved them and helped them, but there is not one “righteous man” who has hated that is saved. We’ll see one of those righteous men next week with the publican and Pharisee. That is the Pharisee, of course. So this murmuring you must guard yourself against. And this is something that you can do that might be small, because you might think all the other things that you do are so big—that you don’t fast and that you cuss and that you have lustful thoughts and all kinds of other terrible things, and you don’t pray very much, and whenever I ask you if you’ve read the gospel you hang your head and say, “Well, no” or “Well, I did one time last week”—all those kind of things.
If you can hold yourself from complaining about people, from judging people, from slandering people, from the so-called “water cooler talk,” all that sort of thing, if you can keep yourself from that, even if not completely but much more so than in the past, keeping away from it, God will see your effort. God is attracted to that, like a bee to honey. So it might be a small thing, because it’s not doing any really great thing—it’s actually not doing something—but God will see it, and God will help you with the other things that are big in your life, that seem like these gigantic mountains and stuff that you can’t change.
The people are murmuring, and Zacchaeus hears it. He’s a man who is accustomed to being able to tell people what to do. People didn’t like him, but he feared him, and he was a man of influence. He could say to somebody, “Go do something,” and they did it, because they know they’d be rewarded with money. But he was accustomed to a certain way of living and to having people do what he said, because, after all, he had the might of Rome behind him. But people are murmuring about him. Such a man usually would get very angry about that, feel disrespected. Zacchaeus did none of that, because, see, his heart was changing.
Right before our eyes now we’re seeing a man change: a man who was immersed in sins and makes a little bit of effort—not as much as his sins, smaller than his sins in terms of a good effort; you put it on a scale, the bad still outweighs the good—but God comes to him, and he starts to feel something in his heart. Then there is a difficulty: people slandering him, murmuring about him, shaming him. And he reacts to this difficulty with grace, because he feels God. If you have God in your heart, it doesn’t matter what other people say. So he makes this promise: “The half of my goods I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I restore to them fourfold.”
I think actually if you do the math, most likely that’s not possible for him to do without being completely bankrupt, without a penny. But he makes this promise because his heart is full of Christ now. And Zacchaeus went on to be a bishop and a saint, this little man who was rich in sins, but he ran before the press and got up in a tree, and Christ came to him, because it was the way he was going. That’s a little thing that he did, not very big at all, and God magnified it.
After God received him, Zacchaeus had many struggles left. I mean, he was a man accustomed to fine living and money and everything else. He had to divest himself of those passions. It wasn’t instantaneous that it happened, but there was the seed planted. If God plants the seed, as God certainly did when he came to that tree and said, “Come down,” then there’s nothing that can keep the tree from growing. Just do your little bit. Don’t be satisfied with it, don’t say, “That’s all I can do,” but say, “That’s all I can do now,” and God will magnify it.
This is really the whole point of Great Lent. It’s to develop this understanding of God’s love, our weakness, and reach out for God, just like a baby reaches out for his mother. God will always be there. Sometimes we don’t believe God will be there, but he is always there. So reach out with effort. Get yourself ready for Great Lent. If you don’t fast, fast a little bit better. If you don’t read the Bible, read it a little bit more. Make some effort. You will see your effort is rewarded, not because God says, “Oh, you’ve done these three things. I’ve got to do something for you now,” but because your heart will start to open, and if your heart opens—God’s already talking to you! We just don’t hear him. If your heart opens, it’ll be like Zacchaeus in the tree, saying, “Make haste! It’s time now to do something, to be received and to be improved.”
That’s what we’re trying to do this Great Lent. I hope that you all do it and don’t think of it just as a sort of—I don’t know—a long period of time before Pascha, or a time when you have to fulfill a bunch of rules, or a time when you’re always hungry for hamburgers, or something like that. Great Lent is a time to be ready to be the man in the tree, when God says, “It’s going to be okay. Just get out of the tree, quickly, and struggle with me, and I’ll provide all the ability.” It’s a glorious thing. It’s one of my favorite gospels, because I think the gospel is exactly about me and exactly about you. It’s exactly about human nature, and it’s the path to salvation—not an easy path, but it becomes easy. Glory be to God. Amen.