Sermon delivered January 25, 2009.
Just about everyone has climbed a tree as a young kid. Our adventuresome nature gave us, sometimes to our surprise a new perspective on life. We could now see the whole neighborhood and could see beyond to other neighborhoods too. Kids today don't need tall trees to climb because we have Google Earth and satellite imagery that's accessible to everyone. Nevertheless, it's exhilarating and even intoxicating to be that high up. Just the feat of being able to climb the tree is gratifying for a youngster — like climbing Mount Everest for the most extreme adventurer.
Then, right when we're enjoying our moment of exaltation, a voice rings out: "Get down from there right now. You're going to fall and break you neck." Mom or Dad or one of our grandparents has spotted us and issued a warning and a command. As we make our descent, getting down seems a lot more difficult than our climb up. Suddenly we become acutely aware of just how high we are and how far we can fall. It's a scary realization but it probably does not prevent us from climbing again until we reach middle-age. There we have it, the paradox of climbing trees. On one hand, we ascend to great heights with new perspectives on what is below us. On the other hand, we take significant risk for a great fall that could seriously injure or kill us.
Hopefully, this will help us understand the paradox of Zacchaeus in today's gospel reading, the 15th Sunday of Luke 19:1-10. Zacchaeus also climbed a tree. Why? Because he was short and wanted to see over the crowd who gathered as Jesus was passing through the town of Jericho. Zacchaeus' name literally means "the pure and innocent one" and he is commended by some commentators for his persistence in trying to see Jesus. His climbing feat is similar to the four men of Capernaum who climb the roof of a house in order to bypass the crowd gathered around Jesus and lower their paralytic friend to Him for healing (2nd Sun. Lent — Mark 2:1-12). St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Augustine both note that Zacchaeus (and of course we ourselves) must rise above earthly things, especially sin, in order to see Christ.
Life is a journey and so is the spiritual life. Yet, we must know our destination and how to get there. It's difficult to navigate through a thick forest without a path or a compass. Our life at times is so overgrown with worldly concerns that we lose the path that leads to Christ. This can happen even when we are actively involved in the life of the Church through prayer, worship, fasting and almsgiving. It's necessary to pause and climb up above the trees to see where we are and where we need to go. The story of Zacchaeus is a reminder for us to climb up and look ahead because each year, because only a week or two later will be the start of Triodion which tells us Great Lent will begin in three weeks time. Beyond that another three weeks will be the Veneration of the Cross Sunday and beyond that another three weeks will be Palm Sunday and then of course a week later is Pascha-the Resurrection of our Lord. Each one of these is a signpost letting us know where we need to go.
So far so good, right? Not so fast! While Zacchaeus' climbing is seen by some as positive, others see it differently. Fr. Paul Tarazi asserts that Zacchaeus represents someone who tries to see or apprehend God through his/her own effort. He notes that the word "sycamore" used in this passage appears no where else in the scriptures or ancient writings. Luke apparently invented the term himself, in which case it may have been a play on words created by combining 'syke' (fig tree) and 'moria' (foolishness, folly), thus 'sycamore' is the tree of foolishness. Lev Gillet says that Jesus words "Come down" show that we must leave behind all vanity and pride in order to be in the presence of the Lord. It's a preview of what Jesus says on the Sunday Triodion begin (two weeks from today) when summing up the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, "He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).
Another paradox about Zacchaeus is that he is a chief tax collector, and like Matthew, was seen by the Jews as a betrayer of his own people and therefore a sinner (v.7). It is noted also that he is rich (v.2) which in many biblical passages is not a favorable quality. Yet, on the other hand, we hear that Zacchaeus gives half of his goods to the poor (v.8). Can we imagine giving 50% of our wealth to the poor? Can we imagine giving one or two percent of our wealth to the poor? In addition to this, if anyone even accuses Zacchaeus of stealing their money, he pays back four times the amount, whether he is guilty or not (v.8). So, we are presented with a person who is rich in wealth but not enslaved by it; who has money but does not love it.
Regardless of how you look at Zacchaeus, Jesus looks up, sees him and calls out to him saying, "I must come to your house today" (v.5). Just like our mom and dad, our yiayia and papou we looking for us when we were up in the tree, Christ is constantly searching us out, looking for us and calling out to us, "I must come to your house today." He is not satisfied with just being an icon hanging on your wall. Jesus wants to come into our heart, mind and soul. Lev Gillet says that the story of Zacchaeus should remind us Christ speaking in Revelation 3:20 "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with Me." With words like, "make haste" and "today" (v.5), Jesus is emphasizing the urgency of the matter. We cannot put off till tomorrow, next week or next month what should be done today. That is to listen and hear the Lord gently knocking, sometimes pounding on the door of our life. While trying to get our attention, Christ will not force His way into our life. We must open the door and invite Him in. And what's the main way we invite Christ in, the way we allow the Kingdom of God to grow within us, the way we become a son of Abraham-a child of God? St. Cyprian of Carthage says this can happen only if we imitate Zacchaeus' almsgiving by sharing our riches and wealth with those in need. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.