Today, as we stand at the threshold of Great Lent, the Holy Church gives to us in the Gospel story of Zaccheus an icon of the Lenten journey which lies ahead. It is precisely an icon, because everything happens as it were in a flash, in one single image passing before our eyes. We hear nothing of Zaccheus’ past, and after these few short verses he never again appears on the pages of the New Testament. In fact, it is only in St. Luke’s Gospel that we hear of him at all. Yet for all its brevity, this Gospel passage contains within itself the entire narrative of salvation.
Zaccheus was the chief among the publicans. The publicans, the tax collectors of the Roman Empire, were considered to be the lowest of the low by the Jewish people. This was not only because they had betrayed their own people, becoming officials of the hated Roman occupation. It was not only because they enriched themselves by preying upon the poor, the weak, and the defenseless, openly committing thievery and extortion among their own neighbors and kinsmen. No, they were considered to be abominations above all because in order to become officials of the Roman Empire, they were required to voluntarily make pagan vows and to offer pagan sacrifice. In exchange for the fleeting riches of this life, they had willingly betrayed their God, their people, and their own souls.
Here is vividly shown the ineffable compassion of our Savior. Even before Zaccheus showed any sign of repentance, the Lord not only did not disdain him, but was even willing to voluntarily take upon Himself the greatest of shames before the people of Israel by eating and lodging in Zaccheus’ house. Truly, the Lord gives up nobody as lost, not even those who have deliberately and knowingly betrayed Him and cut themselves off from their divine inheritance as “the seed of Abraham, and heirs according to the promise.” Such is the hope and the power of repentance, which the Church places before our eyes on this last Sunday before the Lenten Triodion is opened and the “Season of Repentance” begins.
And truly, all of us – especially those of us robed in the garments of monasticism – have betrayed and continue to betray our ineffable and divine calling, choosing to turn away towards the riches of this present life, whatever the form they may take in each of our sinful hearts. As Abba Dorotheos warns us monastics: “We think that having left the world and come to a monastery, we have left everything worldly; but here also, for the sake of meaningless things, we are filled with worldly attachments.” We have crucified ourselves to the world, and yet we have not crucified the world to ourselves. We monastics, far more than those living in the world, are without excuse in our love for the fleeting things of this life, yet all of us alike fall many, many times each day.
This is tragic, and yet we will never pass out of the reach of our own failings so long as we are on this earth. In the words of the Apostle James, all of us stumble in many things. Each of these stumblings has idolatry at its heart; in every fall, we sacrifice to one of our idols a bit of our souls which rightly belongs to God. And yet, though He sees more clearly than we do our deep impurity and ingratitude, the Lord does not reject us as we have rejected Him. He still comes to us, and even now He is coming to us in the Holy Gifts about to be consecrated, coming to lodge with us in the unworthy and neglected house of our soul, coming “to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Seeing this, we must all like Zaccheus hasten to come down and prepare a place for the Lord. As the Holy Fathers teach us, to “come down” is to humble ourselves, which is the absolutely necessary prerequisite to any work of virtue. Had Zaccheus not come down and humbled himself, then doubtless he would have been filled with vainglory and smug self-satisfaction at such a great deed as giving away all his goods to the poor and to those he had wronged – and he would have thereby lost Christ, who “resisteth the proud but giveth grace to the humble.”
These works of virtue, however, are still quite necessary, especially – as Zaccheus practiced – those virtues which oppose the passions that run strongest in ourselves. It is a spiritual law that if we are not progressing in virtue, then we are falling back into sin – and consequently falling away from the presence of the Lord. Yet at the beginning of this Lenten journey, it is essential to firmly remind ourselves that all virtue, all asceticism, and all piety will serve only for our condemnation if they are not founded on sincere striving for humility.
Yet even more than all of this, there is one aspect of today’s Gospel story which we must learn without fail in order to properly begin our Lenten struggle. What happened to Zaccheus which wrought such a great change in his soul? What was it which not only brought about sincere repentance for his former deeds, which not only filled his heart with longing for a better way of life than that of treachery and ill-gotten gain, but which also inspired him to imagine that such a great change was even possible for such a one as he?
The answer is quite simple: he caught a glimpse of Christ. We do not know what was happening in his heart up until that time, but we do know that when he saw Christ, everything changed. His life was instantly and forever transformed. Though he was not touched by the healing hands of the Savior, though he was still separated from the Lord by the crowd of his own sins and passions, yet one glimpse which he caught from the top of a sycamore tree was enough to renew and recreate his heart.
And though all of us standing here have betrayed our God like Zaccheus, yet all of us have also, at least once in our lives — perhaps only for a brief and fleeting instant – caught a glimpse of Christ. Some of us may be given the grace to perceive His presence often. Others may experience such moments of grace only rarely. But whatever we have been given, it is enough. It is enough, as long as all the rest of our life is a striving (even if through constant failure) to be faithful to Him Whom we meet in these saving encounters, and to purify – as far as we are able – the house of our heart, in the knowledge that He is coming again at the end of the ages to abide there forever. This was the real meaning of Zaccheus’ asceticism, of his total renunciation of all his former life. It was this that led him to his death as a holy martyr. And so it must be also for us, during this Lenten season and during all the season of our life on this earth. All the righteousness and all the asceticism in the world will avail us nothing if at its heart there is anything other than the living and salvific presence of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom be honor and dominion, together with His Father Who is without beginning and His all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.