Symeon and Zaccaeus - A Tale of Two Men


Sermon preached by Dimitri Newman on Sunday, February 4, 2024

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God, Amen.

Christ is in our Midst 

This past week, on February 2nd, the Orthodox Church celebrated the feast of the Meeting of Christ. According to Jewish practice, a new mother would bring her child to the tabernacle or temple forty days after giving birth. This was a part of the Law given to Moses that set aside the first-born for God. In fact, this is where our practice of churching a mother and child, traditionally forty days after birth comes from. Central to this feast is the figure of Symeon. Now who exactly Symeon was is not entirely made clear in the Gospel itself. Some people suggest he was a priest, or some kind of religious functionary, some, like St. Photios suggest he is something even higher than a priest.

My favorite suggestion is that in the 3rd Century B.C. Symeon “was one of the seventy translators of the Old Testament” from Hebrew into Greek, which we call the Septuigent and is the Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church. According to ancient tradition, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Greek Pharaoh of Egypt, requested Jewish scholars from the High Priest to translate the Torah into Greek. Now these men, including Symeon, must have been well respected and devout to be chosen for such an undertaking. According to Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, Symeon and the seventy were guided by the Holy Spirit and were divinely inspired to all produce the same exact translation. As Philo, a first century BC Hellenistic Jewish Philosopher said “Who is there who does not know that every language, and the Greek language above all others, is rich in a variety of words, and that it is possible to vary a sentence and to paraphrase the same idea, so as to set it forth in a great variety of manners…. But this, they say, did not happen at all in the case of this translation of the law, but that, in every case, exactly corresponding Greek words were employed to translate literally the appropriate Chaldaic [that is Hebrew] word.”

We see that Symeon, who would receive Christ in the temple, was already primed by the Holy Spirit for meeting Christ. The Gospels even tell us that Symeon was “righteous and devout”  and that “he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ” Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos relates this story of Symeon: he “was unbelieving when he translated the Prophet Isaiah’s prophecy “behold, the virgin shall conceive….” and just at that time he was informed that he would live until he received Christ in his arms.” (83). By the way, this would make Symeon over 300 years old by the time Christ is born. When Symeon beholds the Lord Jesus Christ as a baby, he recognizes his savior and says these words which the Church still uses as a dismissal prayer in Vespers: Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.

Now I would like to turn our attention to today’s gospel. We heard the story of the short man Zacchaeus, who climbs a sycamore tree in order to see the Lord Jesus Christ. Now Zaccaeus was a tax collector and most people in the 1st century did not have a fondness for them, as I am sure those of us who have ever had to deal with the IRS can attest. Being a tax collector was a very lucrative business; if the Empire asked for 100 denarii, the tax collector would raise 150 and line their own pockets with the extra. So Zaccaeus, a son of Abraham or in other words an Israelite, became rich by extorting his own people. We know that Zaccaeus, prior to his encounter with Jesus was a bad man and “a man who is a sinner” as Jesus’ critics call him in the Gospel. But at the end of the Gospel we hear Jesus tell him that "Today salvation has come to this house”

We see here the story of two very different men. Symeon was a good and righteous man, guided by the Holy Spirit. Zaccaeus was a bad man, who stole from his people and became rich by doing so. Yet, in the end both see salvation in Jesus Christ. But why do they both get to see this salvation? First of all they both seek out Christ: Symeon, urged by the Holy Spirit went to the temple that long awaited day and Zaccaeus climbs up into a try to see the Lord. We see often,  in scripture, such as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, that God is always there, all we have to do is to seek him out. On seeking God St. Nicholas of Serbia put it this way: “If you seek truth with love and for the sake of love, she will reveal the light of His face to you inasmuch as you are able to bear it without being burned.” For some of us it will be easier, and we will be moved by the Holy Spirit like Symeon; for some of us, because we are spiritually short like Zacchaeus, will have to put in more of an effort to begin our search, but it must begin with us searching for God. We can understand how this might happen to a righteous man, but now we come to the problem of Zacchaeus’ past. Why does a man like that get to have salvation come upon his house? We find the answer in the gospel itself, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." Here, Zaccaeus repents in the truest meaning of the word. Repentance is not just feeling bad about the things we have done; it would be so much easier if it were! Rather it is an entire realignment of one’s life. The Greek word to sin, ἁμαρτάνω, was originally an archery term meaning to miss the mark. Zaccaeus not only acknowledges where he has missed the mark in his previous life, but changes his entire life toward Christ and his fellow man. In fact, Zacchaeus so honed his spiritual archery skills that the Orthodox Church celebrates him as an Apostle of the Lord. If we, in our lives, are trying to not “miss the mark,” then we must first seek the Lord and reorient our lives so that we aim directly at the bull's eye, which is Jesus Christ, then we can like Symeon, in his arms, or like Zacchaeus, in his home receive our Lord and God and Savior. 

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