St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Transformation of Zaccheus

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 21, 2007

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Zaccheus was a man bound by fear, an insecure man who tried to assuage his suffering through greed. It is an old story and a common theme of the Lord's teaching. We cannot live by bread alone, but just try and convince us when in the face of our own mortality we try and hold on to the things in this world we hope will keep death away.

For example, the culture of youth and fashion in our society is extreme. We are afraid of growing old so we go under the knife in a vain attempt to convince ourselves and those around us that we are not, in fact, growing old. And yet it is not hard to notice these fearful people, with their skin stretched so tight you wonder when the seams are going to give way. How about our approach to death? We dress up our corpses like they are headed off to a party. Joseph Hamwey, of blessed memory, used to tell me that when people would describe to him how good a certain person looked all made up and tucked away in their coffins he would say, “That looks good? Walking around looks good! Any day above ground is better than that!”

The Lord knows we are all afraid, that is why he came, so Zaccheus was a likely subject for the Lord's compassion. Zaccheus is “Everyman” sold out to a dark, narrow vision of life as nothing more than a struggle to survive at the expense of any and everyone. His vision had constricted and narrowed his heart, making him intolerant and greedy. Because intolerance and greed harden the heart, Zaccheus was not prolonging life, he was actually hastening its end. Why? Because the natural vocation of the heart is to open, not close. Anything that closes the heart is spiritually unhealthy and physically disastrous. His way of “life” was actually a way of death.

Think for a moment what anger does to us. Think of how unpleasant and painful it feels. Extrapolate a moment of anger to an entire life and you will get an idea of what I mean. That is why sin is so dangerous. The Lord teaches that sin is the “broad path”. And so it seems, for sin deceives us into thinking that the road is actually opening and expanding before us, when actually the opposite is true. The narrow path only appears to be narrow. When we take the narrow path of peace and righteousness we find that it opens into amazing, limitless places and is not narrow at all!

Greed and other forms of sin constrict, harden and darken the human heart. Orthodox Christianity teaches that we cannot be happy and at peace if the heart is not expanding and growing. And please note that a hardened heat cannot grow! Only a heart that is soft and tender can grow! If we are made in the image of God and called to become like him, then we need to practice our faith in a way that allows the heart to grow and expand embracing every human being and all creation. Don Juan the old Native American shaman gave this advice to Carlos Castenada, “Be sure your spiritual path has a heart. If it does not have a heart, it is useless.” We need to examine the path we are living. Be sure that the way you live has a heart. I know Christians who have turned the Faith into something dark, narrow, rigid and intolerant. What did Jesus say? When the light in you is actually darkness, how very dark it is! We are so easily deceived.

See if this illustration helps. In Kabbalic mysticism the word for ego actually means “cocoon”. We weave ourselves into an egoic “cocoon” in order to protect ourselves. But once we have entered the cocoon, it becomes almost impossible to get out. Everything outside becomes threatening. Irritating. Sights, sounds, people, differing opinions appear like arrows and swords. In our cocoons we actually become sitting targets! Are the things outside of us really threats? Of course not, but we come to believe they are and act as if they are. Zaccheus opened the door to transformation when he stepped outside his cocoon and climbed up into the sycamore tree.

Into this self-imposed darkness walked the Son of God, the Light of the World to set the tax collector on the path of freedom. Jesus could not have done this if there had not already been some awakening in Zaccheus, a softening of his heart. The wonderful thing is that no matter how depraved we become the light deep inside cannot go out. It was this glimmer of warmth that convinced Zaccheus to brave the insults of his neighbors and public humiliation to see Jesus. Climbing a sycamore tree is no easy matter, especially for a small person. The limbs are high on the trunk, the bark falls off the lower trunk making it slippery and hard to grasp. How did he do it? I don't know, but however he did it could only have been a ridiculous sight.

Zaccheus wanted nothing more than to be able to see Jesus from afar. He had no other expectations. It is good to have no expectation because without expectations there are no disappointments. What happened next was completely unexpected. Jesus noticed the opening in Zaccheus' heart and welcomed it as a invitation.

For a brief moment Zaccheus stops worrying about the future and begins to live in the present moment. He is presented with a simple dilemma that propels him out of his dark fantasies of survival into the living light of the present moment. How can I lift myself high enough to see Jesus over the crowd...now? That is the operative word, NOW. Living in the present helps to soften the heart and open the walls of our cocoons for one simple reason: there is no salvation in the past or the future. The past is a memory, the future is a fantasy. Salvation can only be found in the present moment. The Lord is present with us in reality. Zaccheus latches onto that necessary truth and discovers that the Kingdom of Heaven is truly at hand. The Kingdom of Heaven can only be found in the present because life is no where else but here and now.

“Hurry and come down, Zaccheus, for I will dine at your house TODAY.” This is the word we proclaim together at the Great Blessing of the Water. TODAY! “Christ is in our midst”, NOW. “Christ is Risen”, not was. TODAY is the word that begins the Fifteen Antiphon on Holy Thursday. “TODAY is hung upon the Tree.” TODAY! NOW! St. Paul writes that TODAY is the day of salvation. The Church wants us to live in the present so that we can see the Kingdom of Heaven which is in the present. The past is a memory, the future is a fantasy. Salvation is always NOW.

How wonderful! Salvation Himself goes to the house of a sinner to set him free.

This divine visitation is possible for every one of us as well right NOW if only we will step outside our cocoons and welcome Him.