Zaccheus Sunday: The Narrow Way of Life
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 31, 2016
This morning, let’s hear first from St. Maximus the Confessor, “Created man cannot become a son of God and god by grace through deification, unless he is first through his own free choice begotten of the Spirit by means of the self-loving and independent power dwelling naturally within him.”
The approach of Jesus to Zaccheus and to all such persons in the New Testament gives birth to a distinctively Eastern Orthodox understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. Peter Berger, the eminent Lutheran theologian and sociologist, puts it beautifully as he reflects on comments by Paul Evdokimov.
“Evdokimov suggests that Western Christianity sees the relationship between God and man as taking place in a courtroom - God is the judge, man is guilty, sentence must be pronounced, Christ takes the sentence upon himself, which allows God to forgive man. The entire transaction is judicial and penitential. By contrast, Eastern Christianity sees the relationship as taking place in a hospital - man is sick, sin is just part of the sickness, Christ is the victor over every part of this sickness (including death, which is the culmination of the sickness). The transaction between God and man is not judicial but therapeutic. It seems to me that this is a much more compassionate view of the human condition and its redemption.”
I agree as do all Orthodox theologians. Jesus calls Zaccheus out of his tree as a compassionate care-giver, not as a judge. Jesus discerns that Zaccheus is open and in need of mercy and without hesitation, Jesus gives it in abundance.
We remember the compassionate teaching of St. Isaac of Syria: “A handful of sand thrown into the sea is what sinning is when compared to God’s providence and mercy…a handful of dust…the Creator’s mercy is not defeated by the sins of his creation.”
The disease of Zaccheus was the disease that afflicts all of us at times – the disease of self-will. It is a disease that makes us small. When the will is bloated the heart is squeezed until it has no room to beat, compassion is diminished until it nearly disappears, arrogance crushes humility and suffering is born. Self-will rises from the twins of discontent that torment us -- fear and desire -- the sources of both arrogance and ignorance and the fuel of the fire that would, if possible, destroy the soul which we call anger. When anger threatens to overwhelm us it is a call to repentance. We are, my friends, the cause of our own suffering.
When Zaccheus heard that Jesus was coming, the tiny flame in the depth of his heart that cannot be extinguished leapt for joy. And wonder of wonders! The Lord noticed and called him down from the sycamore tree and invited himself for lunch. The Way, the Truth and the Life sat down at his table and the little tax collector’s heart burst open. There was a way out of the mess he had made! It was the Way of Repentance. At his repentance Jesus rejoices saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Repentance does not take a moment, it takes a lifetime. Transformation needs not only a decision, but a change in thought that creates a lasting transformation of life. It takes time and practice. Jesus did not work magic on him, he inspired and enlightened him. Now it was the tax collector's job to embrace the new way of life Jesus revealed to him which is the practice of humility. What Jesus revealed had been lying latent in Zaccheus from the very beginning. It is a gift God has given everyone. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This kingdom, Jesus says, is within and repentance is the key.
Remember the quote from St. Maximus the Confessor, “The self-loving and independent power” is in you and in me and, if we choose, this power joined with selfless devotion to God can make of us “gods by grace.”
Zaccheus learned from Jesus what we are supposed to be learning: love is truth, love is joy, love is the doorway to wisdom, love is life, love is the food of immortality, love is the kingdom of heaven. Let’s listen to a little more of St. Isaac of Syria’s divine teaching.
“One who has found love feeds on Christ every day and at every hour and he becomes immortal thereby. For Jesus said, ‘Whoever eats this bread that I shall give him shall never see death' (cf. John 6.58). Blessed is he who eats the bread of love that is Jesus. For whoever feeds on love, feeds on Christ...as John bears witness saying, ‘God is love' (I John 4.8). Therefore one who lives in love receives from God the fruit of life. He breathes, even in this world, the air of resurrection...Love is the Kingdom...Such is the ‘wine to gladden the heart of man' (Psalm 104.15). Blessed is he who drinks of this wine...the sick have drunk of it and become wise.”
So let us drink and eat of this divine food.