Turning toward

Sunday of Zacchaeus

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:1-10).

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the last normal Sunday we will have for a while: On the last Sunday before the Lenten Triodion begins, we read the account of Zaccheus the tax collector. The last two weeks’ Gospels and today’s Gospel belong together, as three views of the same thing.

Two weeks ago Sunday we had the blind man who followed after Christ, shouting “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” and incidentally giving us the Jesus Prayer (Luke 18:35-43). Last week the Canaanite woman petitioned Christ for her daughter’s healing, crying out, “Son of David, have mercy!” (Matthew 15:22). Today Zacchaeus the tax collector makes a scene by climbing a tree like a child to see Jesus pass by. The Church has given us these three accounts to teach us how to prepare for Lent, with examples of humility.

These people all grabbed attention by what they did – so how is that humility? I’ll get to that in a moment.

Normally when we think of pride, we think of seeking attention, demanding affirmation. When we are driven to seek attention or praise, when we’re entitled and superior and think highly of ourselves, we label that whole category Pride. When we come to confession and we’ve made room in our hearts for thoughts of superiority, judgment, correcting others, feeling conceited and satisfied by whatever good we’ve done – we confess all that and call it pride.

Pride, at the heart of it, is excessive attention on ourselves. The opposite of love, which flows out like a river of living water, is self-attention which directs everything towards us. It can take the form of vainglory and self-exaltation – but it can also look like what our culture calls “low self-esteem.” Our meditation starts to sound like: “My sins and corruption are so big that I don’t see how God can forgive me. If people really knew me they’d turn away from me in disgust. Everything that’s happened to me has been my fault. I’m ugly and stupid and I’m going to hell and I deserve it.” There’s a lot of “I” in that kind of talk.

And I don’t mean to add to the burden of someone who’s already carrying that load of pain by saying, “Also, you’re sinning by being proud.” The Lord looks at us when we are orbiting that kind of black hole, and instead, he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).

Here in America when we preach about coming to Jesus it’s usually in the context of guilt, and pardon from sin and not going to hell when you die. The sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a classic of American preaching.

And teaching on hell has its place from time to time; Christ and the apostles warn us repeatedly about what we can become through negligence and hypocrisy, and where that path ends. In four weeks we will have the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and the hymns at Vespers will there to sober us – to motivate us to prepare to give account of our actions when the Lord judges us.

But avoiding punishment is not the Gospel. In my experience, a person who is driven to Christ out of fear of hell needs a reason to stay Christian; that moment of fear is going to pass, and our soul is still hungry.

“Ye shall be witnesses of me,” the Lord says (Acts 1:8). and if we are truthful witnesses of the God who is good and loves mankind, then we can testify firsthand to hope and welcome and healing and freedom. These are things we have at least begun to possess, and things we have tasted and seen in the God whom we are learning to trust.

Repentance is not defined by mourning and prostrations and long prayer rules; the Greek word means “turning the heart.” And it is specifically a turning toward the One who calls us to himself; the one who knows our secrets and shame, and still wants us. The saints who grieve for their sins don’t weep alone in despair, but in the presence of a Love that’s pure and transforms and makes saints out of sinners.

That’s why the Church gives us the prayer of the blind man and the Canaanite woman. When we bring our failures to the Lord and confess our sins, we resolve to struggle for freedom from passions, we are tempted to hope that this time we will resist tempations and compulsions with white knuckles and strength of will. I think we’ve all proved to ourselves that repressing and denying our passions is a road to defeat. Focusing our attention and will on not committing that sin, makes it the center of our thoughts. And we become like what we contemplate.

Instead, with the blind man, we are taught pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” and turn toward the Good One who loves mankind.

Remember your baptism? Facing away: Do you renounce Satan? I renounce him. Now turn toward the East: Do you unite yourself to Christ? I unite myself. I have united myself.

Have you ever walked across a beach or a snowy field, then turned and looked at your footprints? It felt like you were walking in a straight line, but footprints don’t lie; you were all over the place!

What happened: You looked at the tree or gate or whatever you were walking toward, and you walked straight toward it. You looked around, enjoyed the beauty around you, and then back at that tree, and now you were walking straight toward it again. You effortlessly aimed at the thing you were looking at. Whatever direction you were walking, your steps became straight as you kept turning toward your goal.

Repentance from sin is necessary. (“Do you renounce Satan?”)  Zacchaeus says, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Anybody can say “Today I’m going to stop drinking, I’m going to quit arguing online, I’m never going back to a website that pollutes my soul. I’m going to deal with the entitlement and anger that’s hurting my family.” We mean well when we decide to turn from our sins, but “he who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:12). It’s when Grace – the effective, personal action of God – is present, that we are able to not only turn from sins but turn to the Lord. We turn toward him and he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

In the Eighty-third Psalm, we read, “Blessed is the man whose help is from thee; he hath made ascents in his heart, in the vale of weeping, in the place which he hath appointed.” (Ps 83:6 LXX). Now sometimes the old-fashioned language in our Psalter is lovely and poetic, and sometimes it’s a little …opaque. Here’s that passage in modern English: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs; the early rains cover it with pools” (Ps 84:5-6 MT).

They have set their hearts on pilgrimage. They are going up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. They have determined to turn, and keep on turning, toward the Lord their hope. And their way leads through the valley of weeping, or “valley of Bakha” in some Bibles. Bakha means weeping but it’s also the name of a literal place: A barren, dry valley, full of thorns. And as the ones whose hearts are set on turning to God pass through the dry, exhausting Valley of Weeping, they turn it into a place of springs and early rains. Does that remind you of the verse in Hosea? “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His coming forth is as certain as the dawn. And he will come to us like the rain, like the spring rains watering the earth” (Hosea 6:3).

If you’ve ever worked a graveyard shift, you know this kind of hope. It’s not a wish, like “I hope the store will be open when we get there.” “I hope I’ll pass my exam.” The word hope in scripture refers to confident expectation. I’ve been a midnight security guard and a midnight janitor. About 3 or 4:00 in the morning is the darkest part of the night. Your strength is gone, you can’t think very clearly, and you just want the shift to end. But you know the sun will rise. You don’t wonder or fear it won’t – you take comfort in one reliable fact: no matter how bad you feel right now, the sun is coming. Every night ends. “Those who sow in tears will reap with a song of joy. The one who goes forth weeping, carrying precious seed, will return again with rejoicing, carrying sheaves of grain” (Psalm 125:6-8 LXX).

Repentance is an expression of hope. Confident expectation in the welcome of the Lord who calls us to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 33:8lxx).

Today Zacchaeus shows us a model of repentance. He’s a tax collector, which means his job is to collect the taxes the state demands — plus some extra for himself, that’s how he makes a living. And, as St Luke reminds us, he is rich; he’s done well profiting off the people he cheated. Now he says, I’m giving it away. He went out to see Jesus, his heart was moved, and he turned toward the Lord. And “Today salvation has come to this house. For the Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost.”

The repentance of Zaccheus is action; he doesn’t say “I have sinned and I feel really bad about it, and now instead I feel devotion to God and I mean to be a better Christian.” Judas regretted his sin and it didn’t save him; repentance is action, making amends, making whole what we’ve destroyed.

And Zacchaeus is a model of humility. We’ve all seen our kids climb trees, including trees that are too weak and thin to support anyone’s weight. Kids climb trees, it’s fun and natural, and they love making adults panic. But you don’t see a lot of adults climbing trees for fun. Especially in a Semitic culture like first-century Judea, grownups act with some degree of propriety – and a grown man does not climb trees like a child. (Your cassock rides up, everybody can see your legs…)

Zacchaeus doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He’s the tax man, everybody hates him anyway. So he shinnies right up a tree to see Jesus pass by without a thought for his own dignity. He’s not seeking attention – in fact Zacchaeus is oblivious to what a spectacle he’s making and how many people are pointing at him. His heart is starting to turn toward the Lord.

A few week ago the blind man heard Jesus was passing by and shouted out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Son of David means Messiah, the king whom God promised to send on the throne of King David. He’s literally praying the Jesus Prayer. But not under his breath, with a wee little prayer rope in his pocket. Jesus is passing by, this man is blind, and he wants Jesus to do something about it. And the Canaanite woman won’t go away – she keeps demanding, “Son of David, have mercy!”

Oh hush, behave yourself, you’re making a scene. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” They won’t be satisfied till they are heard by the Lord. Like Zacchaeus, they are attracting attention – but not through pride. The blind man has not a single thought for his reputation or for what anyone thinks. He’s not thinking about himself at all. He has something to ask the Lord. And when he turns toward the Lord, he hears: “Receive your sight! Your faith has made you whole.”

You know, when the Lord says to one person “Your faith has saved you,” and to another “Your faith has healed you,” it’s the same sentence in Greek. Salvation is wholeness, reconciliation, rescue, protection, release from bonds. If our contemporary popular religion has reduced the word salvation to Not Going To Hell When You Die, well, that’s a shame, but it’s not the faith of the apostles.

When a criminal is pardoned, he’s still a criminal. He’s still guilty of a crime – he’s just not going to be punished and his name is officially cleared. He’s guilty but has escaped punishment. That’s not how the Lord forgives and saves us.

The king in Matthew 18 forgave his servant’s debt by simply saying “Your debt is forgiven, you don’t owe me anything” (Cf. Matthew 18:21-35), God forgives because it’s what he wants to do and nobody can prevent him. And he doesn’t stop there, but he unites our nature to his own nature in the Person of Christ; and in Christ he seats humanity with himself on the throne of the universe; he takes us who are dead in sins and makes us alive together with himself (Ephesians 2:1-7; Colossians 2:13), and commits himself with a holy covenant (Hebrews 8:7-12) to conform us to the image of his own holiness and beauty and perfect freedom and love.

So the Lord calls us to repent – to turn toward him who calls us upward (Philippians 3:12-14) – because the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 4:17). Christ already reigns in heaven, and we pray every day, “Let thy kingdom come, let thy will be done on earth” (Matthew 6:9-13)  here in me and my family, in my choices and my thoughts, every minute and every hour.

Now we’re about to enter into the season leading up to Lent, and the Church calls all of us to imitate the humility of Zacchaeus, the Canaanite woman, and the blind man, who did not combat pride by thinking lowly thoughts about themselves. Instead they turned toward the Lord, invited him home, received sight and salvation and the grace of repentance, because they let the Lord fill their thoughts and they became like him.

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.