Repentance in Response to Great Mercy: Homily for the Sunday of the Three Great Hierarchs and the Fifteenth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 19:1-10

          The Church draws our attention today to how some very different people responded to the mercy of Jesus Christ.  On the one hand, we commemorate the Three Holy Hierarchs, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.  These exemplary bishops, teachers, and ascetics are shining examples of faithfulness to the Lord.  They influenced the Church’s doctrine, spirituality, worship, and mission to the world in profound ways from which we all benefit to this very day.  There was actually a controversy around the year 1100 over which of them was the greatest.  The three saints appeared together to Bishop John Mavropous and told him that they are equal in their participation in the glory of God and that he should compose a service commemorating them all together. So as we chant today, “Let us all who love their divinely-wise words come together, honoring them with hymns; for ceaselessly they offer entreaty for us to the Trinity.”

Even as we recall the Three Hierarchs’ shining example of holiness, we remember today also someone whose life changed dramatically when he turned away from corruption in order to follow Christ.  Luke’s gospel portrays the story of Zacchaeus in memorable and distinctive ways.  As a Jew who had become rich collecting taxes for the Romans from his own people, Zacchaeus was both a traitor and a thief, for he collected more than was required so that he could live in luxury from the oppression of his neighbors. The Jews expected a Messiah who would bless the righteous, condemn the wicked, and destroy the Romans and their collaborators.  Their religious leaders would have had nothing at all to do with someone like Zacchaeus, for he was the complete opposite of a righteous man.

Luke does not tell us why Zacchaeus wanted to see the Savior as He passed by.  He was a short little fellow who could not see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better view.  That must have looked very strange:  a hated tax-collector up in a tree so that he could see a passing rabbi.  Even more surprising was the Lord’s response when He saw him: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  That was a completely different comment from what anyone would have expected from a conventional Messiah.  Instead of condemning him, the Savior took the initiative in inviting Himself to Zacchaeus’ home, where the tax-collector received Him joyfully.

This outrageous scene shocked people, for no Jew with any integrity would be a guest in the home of such a traitor and thief.  He would become unclean by going into his house and eating with him.  He would identify Himself publicly with Zacchaeus’ wicked ways.  But before the Savior said anything to the critics, Zacchaeus did something even less expected, for he actually repented.  He openly confessed the truth about himself as a criminal exploiter of his neighbors.  He pledged to give half of his possessions to the poor and to restore four-fold what he had stolen from others.  He pledged to do more than any standard of justice or law required in making right the wrongs he had committed.   In that astounding moment, this notorious sinner did what was necessary to reorient His life toward God and away from slavery to the love of money.  As a sign of His great mercy, Jesus Christ accepted Zacchaeus’ sincere repentance, proclaiming that salvation has come even to this son of Abraham, for He came to seek and to save the lost.

The overwhelming grace of God shines through this memorable story.  Notice that we do not read of Zacchaeus asking explicitly for the forgiveness and mercy of the Lord.  He climbed up a tree out of curiosity about Christ, but that was somehow enough to begin to open himself to the healing divine energies of the Savior. Zacchaeus apparently already knew how corrupt he was.  The Lord did not denounce him, but instead took the initiative to establish a healing relationship with someone who was surely considered a lost cause by conventional religious standards. When people complained that Christ had associated Himself with such a sinner, the Lord did not argue with them, but instead let Zacchaeus use that uncomfortable moment to bear witness to His gracious healing, which extends even to the most miserable wretches who receive Him in humble repentance.

Zacchaeus was so transformed by the mercy of Christ that he became an epiphany, a living icon of the restoration of the human person in God’s image and likeness.  This formerly corrupt and money-hungry man resolved to show his neighbors a measure of the grace that he had received, for he gave half of what he owned to the poor and restored all that he had stolen four-fold.  No, he did not hire a lawyer and try to figure out how little he could pay in making things right with those he had abused.  In response to the gracious blessing he had received from Christ, he blessed others extravagantly in a way that revealed the healing of his soul.  He was so profoundly transformed by the mercy of the Lord that he went on to become a companion of the apostles and the first bishop of Caesarea in Palestine.

We remember Zacchaeus simply as a wonderful example of repentance because he spontaneously and freely united himself to Christ as he took practical steps to bless others beyond any rational measure of what they deserved from him.  He shines brightly with the merciful generosity of the Lord, like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.  His amazing transformation had nothing at all to do with what he deserved.  We should be thankful for that, for our healing comes from the boundless mercy and grace of the Lord Who conquered death itself in order to make us participants in His eternal life.  Zacchaeus’s example reminds us that the more clearly we see the gravity of our sins and the sickness of our souls, the better position we are in to be transformed by our Lord’s abundant mercy and to convey that same mercy to others.

Even as we give thanks for the sublime teaching and example of the Three Hierarchs today, let us also be challenged to the depths of our souls by the way of humble repentance manifested by Zacchaeus.  Those who respond to Christ as he did will find salvation not as a reward they have earned, but as an extension of mercy to be received with the joy of a corrupt tax-collector visited unexpectedly by the Messiah.  Let us cultivate that same joy as we receive His Body and Blood, being transformed in ways so profound that we go beyond what justice requires in setting right what has gone wrong in our own lives.  As those who receive such extravagant grace, let us extend His mercy to our neighbors, refusing to be limited by minimal standards of justice or accounts of who is worthy of what.  Because none of us shares in the life of Christ on the basis of our worthiness, we must follow Zacchaeus in taking practical, tangible steps that convey to our neighbors the same mercy that we have received from the Lord.  In doing so, we provide signs of hope for healing from even the worst self-inflicted wounds of sin.

Looking to the memorable example of that corrupt little tax-collector, let us welcome Christ as we commune with Him today and become living icons of His divine mercy, which knows no bounds, in our daily lives.  Let us receive the Savior with the spontaneous, transformative joy of those who have received the unfathomable gift of God and must live accordingly.

 

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