Saturday, February 3, 2024

Offering Ourselves to God and Neighbor like Zacchaeus: Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday of Luke and After-feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Orthodox Church


1 Timothy 4:9-15; Luke 19:1-10

Today we continue to celebrate the Presentation of Christ, forty days after His birth, in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Theotokos and St. Joseph bring the young Savior there in compliance with the Old Testament law, making the offering of a poor family, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.  By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the old man St. Simeon proclaims that this Child is the salvation “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”  The aged prophetess St. Anna also recognizes Him as the fulfillment of God’s promises. 

Even as we celebrate His appearance in the Temple, which is recognized by these great saints, we also remember today a very different type of appearance and recognition in Zacchaeus’ encounter with Christ.  Zacchaeus had not lived at all like these righteous elders, for he was a Jew who had become rich collecting taxes for the Romans from his own people.  He was both a professional traitor and a thief who collected more than was required in order to live in luxury. No one in that time and place would have expected the Messiah to appear to such a man or for Zacchaeus to have responded to Him as he did. 

We really do not know why Zacchaeus wanted to see the Savior as He passed by.  He was a short little fellow who could not see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better view.  That must have looked very strange:  a hated tax-collector up in a tree so that he could see a passing rabbi.  Even more surprising was the Lord’s response when He saw him: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  The One Who was presented and recognized in the Temple as a forty-day-old Infant now enters into the home of a public sinner, where the tax-collector received Him joyfully, as had Sts. Simeon and Anna many years earlier.   

This outrageous scene shocked people, for no Jew with any integrity, and especially not the Messiah, would appear in the home of such a traitor and thief.  He risked identifying Himself with Zacchaeus’s corruption by going into his house and presumably eating with him.  But before the Savior said anything to the critics, the tax collector did something unbelievable.  He actually repented.  He confessed the truth about himself as a criminal exploiter of his neighbors and pledged to give half of his possessions to the poor and to restore four-fold what he had stolen from others.  He committed himself to do more than justice required in making right the wrongs he had committed.   In that astounding moment, this notorious sinner did what was necessary to reorient his life away from greedy self-centeredness and toward selfless generosity to his neighbors.  As a sign of His great mercy, Jesus Christ accepted Zacchaeus’ sincere repentance, proclaiming that salvation has come to this son of Abraham, for He came to seek and to save the lost as the Savior “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.” 

The overwhelming transformative grace of God shines through this memorable story.  We do not know Zacchaeus’s reasons for wanting to see the Lord so much that he climbed up a tree, but he somehow opened himself to receive the healing divine energies of the Lord as he did so. Christ did not have to condemn Zacchaeus, whose spiritual vision had been clarified enough to know that his life was full of darkness.  He instead took the initiative to establish a healing relationship with someone considered a lost cause by all conventional standards. When people complained that He had associated Himself with such a sinner, He did not argue with them, but instead let Zacchaeus use that tense moment to bear witness to his gracious healing by giving half of what he owned to the poor and restoring all that he had stolen four-fold. 

Zacchaeus was so transformed by Christ’s appearance in his life that he became a brilliant epiphany of His salvation. He became a living witness that Christ is truly the salvation “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”  In the coming weeks as we prepare for Great Lent, we will recall how the Lord’s mercy extended to others who were thought at the time to be cut off from God.  For example, Christ’s mercy reached even the demon-possessed daughter of the Canaanite woman, who—like Simeon—understood that His gracious healing extended also to Gentiles.  Not the proud and self-righteous Pharisee, but the humble publican who knew his sinfulness went back to his house from the Temple justified.  The astonishing mercy of the father in welcoming home the prodigal son shows that the Lord restores even those who have lived such disreputable lives that they end up completely miserable in pig pens.  And in our pre-Communion prayers, we remember also the penitent thief on the cross to whom the Lord promised Paradise in response to his simple plea, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” (Lk. 23:42)  

            Even as we continue to celebrate His Presentation in the Temple and recognition by Sts. Simeon and Anna, we must never think that the brilliant light of Christ appears only within buildings set apart for religious services or in the hearts of people who are known to be especially righteous. Indeed, His Presentation reveals that He is the Savior of all, including those thought to be strangers and foreigners from His Kingdom. Of course, that includes us.  As St. Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, “you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:19-21)

            The Temple in Jerusalem, which the Lord entered as an Infant, foreshadowed the true Temple of the Kingdom of Heaven.  As we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ is the true “High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.” (Heb. 8: 1-2) “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:12) As members of His Body, the Church, we participate already in the life and worship of heaven, especially in the Divine Liturgy.  As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?...For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.” (1 Cor. 3:16-17)  

            We cannot truly celebrate this feast without uniting ourselves more fully to our Great High Priest, which means offering every dimension of our lives for greater participation even now in the life of the Kingdom of heaven.  Zacchaeus shows us how to do that, for He responded to Christ’s appearance in His life with extravagant generosity as he gave back far more than he had stolen.  He later ministered with the apostles and ultimately became the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. He went from making his life a temple to the love of money to a true temple of the Lord.  We must follow Zacchaeus’ example by taking tangible steps in our daily lives to offer ourselves more fully to Christ and to our neighbors, even as we resist the temptation to think that anyone is beyond receiving His salvation.  We must live as the holy Temple we are as members of the Body of Christ, our Great High Priest.  If Zacchaeus can become a saint, then there is hope for us all in Jesus Christ, Who is truly the salvation “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”
















No comments: