18 - Zaccheus, Jan 25, 2015

I Timothy 4:9-15

Luke 19:1-10

With this morning’s Gospel of Zaccheus, we have come round the bend. The spires of Great Lent rise before us. This morning, the Savior enters and passes through Jericho because He is on His way to Jerusalem as He told His disciples, as He telling us: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem…The Son of Man will be given over to the nations and they will kill Him and on the third day he will arise.” (Lk 18:31-33) But this word, it says, was hidden from them. They didn’t know what was being said.” (v. 34).

On their way up to Jerusalem, as they were drawing near to Jericho, the LORD heals a blind man so that he is able to look up and see because of his faith. Glorifying God, it says, the blind man followed the LORD Jesus. That brings us to the Gospel we read this morning. As the LORD with His disciples comes into Jericho and passes through it, He looks up and sees Zaccheus who has climbed up a sycamore tree because he is striving to see Jesus. (Lk 19:1)

I’m struck by the progression from the disciples not seeing the meaning of the LORD’s word to them about His upcoming Passion, to the blind man made able to look up and see so that he follows the LORD, glorifying Him, to Zaccheus working hard to see Jesus, so that the LORD comes into his house and Zaccheus is saved – unlike the rich man of last Sunday’s Gospel! I am struck by this progression because it is all happening around Jericho.

The city of Jericho is where Israel “played the harlot” with the daughters of Moab. That is the biblical  way of saying that they worshipped the idols of Moab and ate their sacrifices and, as it says, consecrated themselves to the Baal of Peor (Num 25:1-2). Ba’al means LORD or husband. That means that Israel, who is wedded to the LORD God who created heaven and earth, opened her heart to another god, the god of Peor as a harlot gives herself to her many lovers.

It’s the sin of Adam and Eve when they gave themselves to the serpent and ate its fruit. It’s our sin; for, we have opened our hearts to the ba’als of the world – “the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life”. We have eaten their sacrifices by indulging ourselves in the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. We have ingested the seeds of the serpent – gluttony, lust, greed, anger, vanity – so that they have become the substance of our life, and we have been refashioned into the image of the serpent.

We have put our trust and taken our refuge in the idols who make visible the dark ba’als we have opened our hearts to; and we have fallen into a terrible irony. We have eyes but we do not see. I.e., we do not see into the heavens to see God; we see into the abyss. We have ears but we do not hear; i.e., we do not understand the word of God. (cf. Ps 113:13-16) In our souls, we have become like the idols we’ve put our trust in; we’ve become a spiritual corpse, and the word of the LORD is proved true: “On the very day you disobey my command and eat of that tree, you will surely die!”

So, Jericho, as the place where Israel turned away from God, I believe we can see as that point in our soul where we have turned away from God and “played the harlot”, where we have given our hearts to the spirit of disobedience who now rules the power of the air and is active in the children of disobedience.

And so I see significance in the fact that our Gospel this morning is taking place around the city of Jericho. It’s as though the Voice of God has come out into the “wilderness” of our soul, to precisely that point where we have turned in our heart away from God and given ourselves over to the “ba’al of Peor”. He is seeking those who are lost and to save those children of disobedience who want to become children of Abraham – i.e., children of faith, children of God; to gather them up and to lead them up to Jerusalem to crucify what is earthly in them, let’s say to crucify this earthly impulse to “play the harlot” that has perverted and corrupted our soul, and to be buried with Him in the tomb of their heart so that He can create in them a clean heart and renew in them a right spirit.

Our preparation for the Great Fast, then, begins in earnest this morning. Our Gospel sets before us, I believe, an image of our Lenten destination; it is our house, i.e., the tomb of our heart. And, I believe it is showing us why we would want to follow the LORD Jesus Christ and receive Him, as did Zaccheus, with joy into the tomb of our heart as into our house: it’s because He puts to death our “harlotry” and transforms the tomb of our heart into a bridal chamber where He creates in us a clean heart and puts in us a new and right spirit so that we are made to become a new creation in the mystery of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. Then we will see, then we will understand because the joy of the LORD in the mystery of His Holy Pascha will have become our very life. We will know it from our own experience and from the heavenly joy that begins to anoint our soul.

Beloved faithful, it says that Zaccheus sought to see Jesus. And so, he climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus. “Prayer,” says a priest of the Orthodox Church, “is the active expression of a man’s whole existence which, when inflamed with divine love, abandons everything to discover God.” (Fr George Mantzarides,Deification of Man.) Zaccheus climbing the sycamore tree is an image of the ascetic disciplines of the Cross given us by the Church. They are the “true activity” of bringing ourselves to that point in our soul where we have turned away from God, the “city of Jericho”, that we might see Jesus and unite ourselves to Him, follow Him, in the work of crucifying what is earthly in us.

I note that Zaccheus seemed to have no expectation that Jesus would even notice him. In this, I see the humility of the Prodigal Son who resolved to return to his father as a hired servant because of his sins. The inner activity of our prayer must be of the same mind if we are to “see Jesus”.

Zaccheus, it says, sought to see Jesus. Let’s reflect on this a bit.  Who is this Jesus Zaccheus seeks to see? He is the Son of God in whose Image we were made at that point where we burst into being – i.e., our heart that is the man! (Jer 17:5 LXX) Surely, the heart that is the man is so deep, as the prophet says, because in our heart we open onto God. And surely, our happiness in this world sooner or later becomes sadness, fear and loneliness, even despair, because, having turned away from the LORD Jesus Christ our creator, we see in our heart that we open not onto God but onto the abyss of darkness and emptiness (cf. Gn 1:2).

To transpose this story of Zaccheus into a higher key, if Zaccheus wanted to see Jesus it’s because he wanted, like the Prodigal Son in the pigpen, to “come to himself”, (Lk 15:17) to his real self. He wanted to see God face to face in the deep of his heart.

Dearly beloved, by our disobedience we have been expelled from Eden; a heavy stone has sealed our heart off from us and we live in the world outside our heart. We put on different masks, trying to find an identity. We live not “behind” but “in” the masks until we have become the masks. But the mask is not our heart; it is not who we are. Like Zaccheus climbing the sycamore tree to see Jesus, we take up the cross of the Great Fast to attain inner “stillness” to stand before God in our nakedness as ourselves, and hear the voice of God crying to us in the wilderness of our soul: “Zaccheus, come down! Lazarus, come forth!” Today I must abide in your house (as He would do with Cleopas and St Luke on the road to Emmaus – Lk 24:29). Today, you must ingest my Seed, the Holy Spirit, in the blessing of bread (Holy Eucharist) that I might become the substance of your life and create in you a clean heart and renew a right spirit within you and refashion you in My Image in the joy of My Holy Pascha. Brothers and sisters, shall we get ready to climb our sycamore tree that we might see Jesus and follow Him into the tomb of our heart? Amen!