On the Sunday of Zaccheus

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 29, 2006

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

When I was a youngster my mother taught me a little song about Zaccheus. It began, “Zaccheus was a wee little man”. Do parents still teach that song to their children?

Why was Zaccheus a “wee little man”? Certainly, we are told by St. Luke that he was short, so short he had to climb a tree to see Jesus as he was passing by. But I think there is more to this than a mere physical description. Zaccheus was short in character, small in moral stature. He was a tax collector, a much-despised member of society then and now (I might add). Tax collectors routinely fleeced their constituents in order to line their own pockets, perhaps not all of them were unscrupulous, but such a reputation, merited or not, was given to them collectively. But Zaccheus, evidently, lived up to the title because it appears that he was very unpopular and because of what happens at the end of the story.

Zaccheus is the perfect image of the person who is centered on himself and whose life is lived in competition against others. He uses his official title, with the benefits derived from it, to make himself comfortable at least, at the expense of others. The world became for him the plaything of his own desires and appetites. People became pawns, objects of abuse, invaluable as persons, but important as means to his selfish ends. Because he was denigrated by society because of his physical appearance and his unethical behavior, he sought to define himself, to make himself valid, to justify his existence by imposing his will, his appetites and desires on others. In so doing he isolated himself, cutting himself off, accentuating his distinctiveness, advertising the contrast between himself and his neighbors, seeking to solidify his identity in separation rather than in union.

Do we not often do the same? Do we not often make a habit of selfishness and pride? Are not entire lives, entire social and political structures, even theological systems built on such ideas? This is the path of delusion, it is the broad road we are instructed to avoid.

There is another point that spoke to me in this latest reading of the familiar Gospel lesson. It is that Jesus demonstrates the opposite of Zaccheus’ delusion. He chooses to accentuate his oneness with the tax collector, to show love to this despised man. Jesus chooses to visit Zaccheus, perhaps the most unethical, most immoral creature he could find in that crowd. Had he wanted to win the favor of the elite, he would have condemned Zaccheus. Had he wanted to earn the favor of the religious authorities, he would have judged Zaccheus. Had he wanted to curry favor with the political zealots who fought against the hegemony of Rome, he would have publicly exposed Zaccheus. Instead, in a turn which should, though it no longer does, surprise us, casting aside all temptation for self-aggrandizement, Jesus invites himself to “be the guest of a sinner”. He identifies with Zaccheus, he honors Zaccheus, he bestows divine love upon Zaccheus, shows his essential unity with Zaccheus. Jesus demonstrates that there is in this “wee little” unethical, despised man something infinitely valuable, loveable and true. This little spark ignites a fire. The question comes to mind, “If Jesus were here in the flesh as he was 2,000 years ago, would he hang with the popes or with the homies?” Jesus shows us in his choice the straight and narrow way.

The difference, perhaps, between the Zaccheuses and the self-righteous, is in the formers’ ability to admit delusion when it is revealed and to see themselves as they are. The self-righteous are so blinded that a 2 x 4 could not awaken them. Self-righteousness makes one incorrigibly stubborn and defensive, closed to any suggestion to the contrary, to anything truly godly because anything based on pride is not just deluded, it is hopeless. The self-righteous are the most terrible idolaters, for they feel the warmth of self-satisfaction and call it God.

That day, long ago, salvation came to the house of Zaccheus. It was a grand beginning, but only a beginning. Salvation is not instantaneous, it is a process. Undoing his injustices to others was the first step in Zaccheus’ discovery, making restitution by giving back “four-fold” was the next. His and our true identity “must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea, rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid”…saved from “the abyss of confusion and absurdity” which we identify with “ourselves” (Merton, NSOC, p. 40)

The call, as always, is to all of us, sisters and brothers of Zaccheus, who share his “littleness”.