On the Sunday of Zaccheus


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, January 27, 2019

Zaccheus, we know his story well. A man of means due to cheating his neighbors and siding with the hated Romans. A short man, whose height was evidently a source of ridicule and humiliation. A pariah among the people, a traitor to the nation, and yet a man who wore his status like a badge of honor.

Until Jesus came to Jericho.

For whatever reason buried in the mystery of this man’s life, he put everything on the line and climbed a tree to see the Lord pass by. His pride, his notoriety, all those things that would have kept him bound to his unhappy life, Zaccheus put aside in order to get a glimpse of Jesus.

Of course, he didn’t know what Jesus was going to do. His motive was simple. To see. And this is what caught the attention of the Lord who called him down, invited himself over to the tax collector’s home, and had lunch. Of all the people in that crowd, Zacchaeus was the one who really wanted to see. He wanted to see enough to climb that tree and face the insults and taunts of the people who hated him,

The point of this sermon is simple. In order to grow, we have to take the risk of changing the way we think and the way we live. And change, as we all know is often painful and unwelcome, but growth demands it. Change is the heart of what the word repentance means.

I always preach about what I am experiencing and this week two quotes have bookended the changes that are happening in my life and, as usual, I have to thank for this change not only God, but people in my life, my wife, my family, my friends, and in particular many of the prisoners and ex-offenders who are now people in my life.

Here’s one of the two quotes from Jack Kornfield. “…often we give so much attention to our protective layers of fear, depression, confusion, and aggression that we forget who we really are.” Had Zaccheus not put those layers aside, he would never have had the transformative experience related for us in today’s Gospel.

The second is one you may have heard if you listen to my sermons from the wonderful teacher Richard Rohr. “Whenever we are led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we are used to. This is always painful at some level. But part of us has to die if we are ever to grow larger. If we’re not willing to let go and die to our small, false self, we won’t enter into any new or sacred space.”

The "small self" he refers to is our selfish and egocentric self, our fearful and defensive selves - the one that blinds us from seeing the damage we do to ourselves when we forget who we really are. This is precisely what we see Zaccheus shedding like a serpent does its skin.

When I went to Korea for a summer of mission-type work I got sick and lost over 30 pounds in two months. I literally did not see it. Even though my clothes did not fit and everyone else noticed, I couldn’t see what was happening to me. But my mother did! When she saw me after I returned, she screamed. I looked like a skeleton. We need other people to help us see and we need to listen to them because blindness can be so complete that we might not notice even if our clothes are falling off!

Those two quotes represent for me that crux of a truly Christian spiritual life. We must be willing to change our minds and our ways of living, to let go, to choose wisely, to grow, to allow the transformation to take place no matter how painful or gut-wrenching it may be. On the other side, of course, is happiness and then, always, more change, for, as we know, our vocation is to grow forever and ever into the very likeness of God and there is no end to the growth this implies.