On the Sunday of Zaccheus

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 22, 2012

Luke 19:1-10 (15th Sunday of Luke)

The story of Zaccheus greets us every year right before we begin preparation for Great Lent.  It is a story of repentance. Not a parable, but a story of repentance.

Three things are necessary for real repentance to take place:  curiosity, openness, and acceptance.  Curiosity: the desire to see.  Openness: the willingness to embrace what you find. Acceptance: the decision to allow what you discover to become your way of life.

Zaccheus was curious about Jesus and, it appears, Jesus was just as curious about him. Up the sycamore tree he climbed and what happened next he could not possibly have imagined. Curiosity became an open door.

Jesus saw him.  Out of that crowd, the Lord took note of this little tax collector clinging to a tree like a piece of fruit. Perhaps it is that the Lord is always looking out for the curious.  “Seek and ye shall find.” Imagine the shock and surprise Zaccheus must have felt!  Then, the unthinkable! 

“Zaccheus, come down for I must visit your house today.”

Now step two: openness. I am not sure what real option he had.  Could Zaccheus have said no, or climbed down and run? I suppose.  But he was so curious.  What could all this mean? He had to find out and the only way to do so was to go with it. Zaccheus’ curiosity led to lunch with God. And, believe me, inviting God to lunch is bound to have its consequences!  Curiosity led to openness and openness to something even greater.

You cannot expect Jesus to come into your home and leave things as they are.  He who sees and knows the secrets of the heart, and he who loves beyond all understanding, will provoke in us some kind of response. It is so here.  What did he say to move Zaccheus towards acceptance?  No clue.  Perhaps he didn’t have to say anything.  Maybe his presence was enough. The table was already set.

Zaccheus was ready. Jesus knew it and that is why he chose him.  “Many are called, but few are chosen.”  Everyone in the crowd that day was called. The whole crowd was curious. But one was uniquely ready to answer the call on a deeper level.  Mirror neurons were firing between the Lord and the tax collector.  They recognized each other in that singular way people do when they see themselves in the other.  Zaccheus was not only curious, he was open. They made a connection.

This encounter led to the final step: acceptance.  The Lord calls it “salvation”.  “Today salvation has come to this house.”  Holiness calls for a response.  Openness makes a positive response possible. To meet Jesus with openness is to invite the most significant kinds of change.  That is, repentance.  That is acceptance.

Zaccheus’ act of acceptance was the beginning of his repentance (paying back many times over those he had cheated and giving half of his goods to the poor) is, spiritually defined, the “leaving behind of lower desires” for new and holy desires: that of loving God more than his own selfish desires.  As it is said, “When a man enters Reality, he leaves his desires behind him.”  Seeing Christ, the Ultimate Reality, was the beginning of his change of mind from lower to higher things.  His action was the result.  Again, “faith without works is dead.”

Zaccheus shifted his lower desire to a higher one. That is the goal; Shifting continuously from lower to higher things, from the things of this earth to heavenly things, until we come to Union with God. When we actively pursue that goal our desires become integrated and purified.  The job after that is to nurture the path of the purification of desires and see that we do not return to our habit of stirring up the lesser ones again.

On a deeper level what we see is a shift in Zaccheus, an awakening of his inner self.  He recognizes his attachment to himself, to his wealth to greed, to avarice and begins the process of detaching from them.  It is the beginning of enlightenment, the intermediate stage, the awakening of consciousness.  Repentance is the first stage – purification, renunciation – where the obvious sins are acknowledged.  The second is detachment where the roots of the sin, the causes, the attachments, are recognized and actions taken to detach from them.  The goal is to see, to know, to understand the truth of our internal state, to become aware, awake, alert, conscious.