Homily 447 – 36th Sunday After Pentecost
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
February 14, 2021
Epistle: (285-ctr) 1 Timothy 4:9-15
Gospel: (94) Luke 19:1-10
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.
Zacchaeus, in the children’s song that some of us learned in Sunday School, was a – quote – “wee little man” – unquote who desired to see Jesus. So, he climbed up in a sycamore tree to see the Lord.
This was in Jericho, and the sycamore tree is still there, by the way. It may not be the same exact tree – but the tree has been determined to be in the correct location, and that it is over 2,000 years old, so there is certainly a consistency there.
But Zacchaeus was also rich – he was a tax collector after all – and perhaps even knew of Matthew the apostle, so did he really need to climb up a tree to see Christ?
Could he have maybe used his authority to make up for his stature and claim a place in the crowd where he could see the Lord?
Climbing a tree would be pretty undignified for a Jewish man working as a Roman official. Climbing a tree would also be pretty undignified for a rich man.
Zacchaeus obviously wanted to investigate this man Jesus. But we may be able to make the case that he wanted to investigate this man, see the Lord, without being detected. Without being seen.
In other words, he wanted to see Christ – but only on his terms. If it meant being discovered or using his prominence or authority, then he was unwilling to risk it.
We can also assume that the crowd wouldn’t really have allowed Zacchaeus in the front anyway – he was, after all, disliked.
In reading the account though, jumping ahead a bit, when Christ does point him out and indicate that He would stay with Zacchaeus, it wasn’t the crowd of the common people who objected, but the Pharisees and the scribes and what might be called the “elite” of Jewish life.
So perhaps while Zacchaeus was reviled in society, it was only within a certain portion of society. There is a universal truth among the wealthy – you can’t get rich from the poor. Particularly in an area limited in geography.
Today, the rich can become rich at the expense of the poor, because they are able to make a small amount off of each poor person – but the geography has become unlimited.
What makes Wal-Mart and McDonald’s work is that they have extremely low margins, but have an enormous volume.
Jericho was more limited. If you were to become wealthy through exploitation or extortion or fraud, you needed very wealthy people.
While Zacchaeus can in no way be called a champion of the poor, he certainly would be wealthy at the expense of the wealthy. And the wealthy and powerful hated it. Just like they do today. The wealthy hate those who ask them, or worse compel them, to use their wealth to benefit others that they cannot control.
But, all of that is only to serve to support the point that Zacchaeus wanted to encounter Christ but wanted that encounter to be on Zacchaeus’s terms, not Christ’s terms. Zacchaeus wasn’t willing to take a risk – didn’t really want to be discovered – but only to observe from a distance.
How many of us are that way? We want to encounter Christ, but not in a way that risks anything. I know when I was a kid I would think about being a missionary because missionaries were cool.
But I recall telling God that I would be a missionary but please not to Africa or Asia. I didn’t like the food and didn’t like the culture.
Those were my terms.
So, how many of us are unwilling to give up our position, or our power, or our belongings, or our (dare I say) privilege, to follow Christ? We look for a no-risk Christianity, where we don’t need to give anything up to follow Christ.
Avoiding risk isn’t following Christ, however. Christ gave up everything – all of heaven – to become incarnate as one of us. Such a risk! Such self-denial! He had to deny His very divinity.
He didn’t lose it – He didn’t become somehow less divine – but he denied it. He voluntarily turned His back on that divinity in the incarnation.
In the case of Zacchaeus – the man who didn’t want to risk anything to encounter Christ – Christ blew that out of the water by turning it around. Zacchaeus was discovered, pointed out, called.
And in that calling, Zacchaeus found salvation. He found the one thing worth more than all he had. The one thing that was and is worth everything.
He released his grip on wealth, and restored not just the defrauded and exploited, but became a champion for the poor. In giving half to the poor, and restoring what he defrauded four times over, Zacchaeus gave everything. Everything.
The Church has a couple of possibilities as to what happened to Zacchaeus. St. Clement of Rome writes that Zacchaeus became Matthias, and replaced Judas as an Apostle.
Most of the accounts say that Zacchaeus followed with Christ and remained with St. Peter after the resurrection, and St. Peter made Zacchaeus a bishop in Palestine.
The challenge of Zacchaeus is for us to consider on what terms we are willing to accept Christ. Do we have terms? Most of us do – I know I do – and I struggle to offer them to Christ.
I ask Him and urge you to ask Him, as we enter into the preparatory season before Great Lent, I ask Him to take my terms, but to ignore them. It is my own garden of Gethsemane version of “nevertheless, not my will but Your will be done.” And I promise, along with Zacchaeus, my obedience.
On His terms. Not mine.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!