On the Sunday of Zaccheus
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 26, 2014
The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (19:1-10)
Now about Zaccheus Sunday. It is a story of transformation in history and metaphor.
St. John of Alexandria was asked how he presents the faith and he replied, "I present it as compassion unlimited." God become man assuming and deifying all of humanity in the process. That is compassion unlimited. He reawakened humanity to the truth that God is always near and the kingdom is and always has been at hand, right before our very eyes, closed or not. That is outrageous compassion! That is why the Gospel is called the "Good News." It doesn’t get better than this.
The story of Zaccheus demonstrates this outrageous and unlimited love. A terrible, despised sinner is singled out for a face-to-face encounter with the Living God and his neighbors are scandalized. Sometimes that is a good indication of how right on target the action is. Who is scandalized and why and how many. The crowd was large and full, I am sure, of the self-righteous and pious. But Zaccheus is chosen. Why? Because he knows he is a sinner. The crowd knows he is a sinner. Jesus knows he is a sinner! That is why he is chosen. Christ came to save sinners not the righteous and by choosing him God is glorified and Zaccheus is glorified and the crowd is glorified (although they do not know it) and all of us who are crazy sinful are glorified as well.
The tree is an interesting symbol. It appears in various ways in all the world religions from the Sumerians to Christianity. It is a symbol of life, of strength, of shelter, of sustenance and many other things. Think of the Tree of life in the Garden, of the World Tree of the Hindus, Yggdrasil of the Norsemen, Christmas trees, the Ents of Tolkien, the tree of the mustard seed and the tree of the Cross. It is a significant metaphor for new life and for stability.
There is a beautiful icon of Christ in the center of a large tree with branches and leaves that cover the entire icon and in this tree there are birds and animals of all kinds perched in the branches. Here Jesus is seen as the Tree of Life that encompasses everything. Absolutely everything. There is not this or that, no good or bad, no you or me, no us or them. This is a icon of the Tree of Life, the World tree, and its name is Jesus.
Zaccheus climbs this tree, this Yggdrasil, this humble sycamore tree. From his ascent up the tree he sees the Lord and the Lord notices him. And then he is called down from the tree for in the spiritual life there is always an ascent and a descent, just as the three apostles at Tabor were called to leave mountain and return to the plain. Just as Jesus ascends the cross and descends to the grave. There is always an ascent in the spiritual life (an ascent to gain a new vantage, some new undiscovered hope). And then there is always a descent to go back into the world with new eyes. Zaccheus is called down from the tree to return to his life with a new perspective, a new vision of what a better life would be. He repents of the old and embraces the new. In this up and down we discover that something dies and something is reborn, something changes. We are not always sure exactly what, but something important.
Another thing that came to mind reading this passage is that this is an unmediated encounter. Nothing stands between Zaccheus and Jesus. No temple, no scripture, no liturgy, no angels, nothing at all. There is only Christ and Zaccheus. Nothing between them and that is what God means to facilitate for all of us. It was as if Zaccheus had gotten into a boat (the tree) to reach the far shore (he meets Jesus) and when he got there, face to face with the Living God, the boat-tree became unnecessary. This is the great longing of the human soul and all creation. I daresay it is the destiny of all: to become one with Him, not just to see, but to be one with him.
Great Lent, just around the corner, is meant to facilitate not only a preparation for Great and Holy Pascha, but also an unmediated, direct communion, a face to face encounter with the living, incarnate God that changes life beyond Pascha for all eternity.
In short, Zaccheus sees God from the branches of the tree, he sees him as he descends to the village street and he sees him as they walk to his home and eat together. And he sees him in one more place. In his neighbors who he repays. In other words, everywhere.
The truth is: "He who does not see God everywhere, truly does not see him at all."