|20 - CLIMBING A TREE TO SEEK JESUS, February 6, 2022|
1 Timothy 4.9-15
From the Gospels of the last two Sundays, the Church gets us ready for Great Lent by giving to us the examples of blind Bartimaeus and the Canaanite woman as images of what saving faith looks like and even feels like in our inner man. Saving faith begins to sprout in brokenness of heart and contrition of spirit. It opens the eyes of our soul so that we begin to see our darkness. And in the interior mourning that rises up in us, it begins to deliver us from the dark spirits that have been working in us, making us children of disobedience. In this saving faith, the Spirit of God begins to overshadow us and we begin to cry out from the depths of our soul: LORD Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me!
In this morning’s Gospel, the Church shows us, in the example of Zaccheus, what we do to make this saving faith incarnate in our outer man. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is passing through Jericho as He is making His way to Jerusalem and to His Cross and three day burial on Golgotha.
Now, when Joshua led Israel through the Jordan into the Promised Land, Jericho was the first city they conquered. This opened the whole of Canaan to them until David, destined to become King of Israel, took Jerusalem and secured it as a ‘holy city’ for the God of Israel.
So we see in today’s Gospel, Jesus, our Joshua, coming into Jericho as did the first Joshua of old, making His way to Jerusalem, to take possession of it as did His forefather, King David. To follow Jesus in His Body, the Church, is therefore to make our way with Him into the ‘Jericho’ of our soul in faith, all the way into His Tomb ‘beyond’ Jerusalem on Great and Holy Friday night, where He destroys our death by His death and bestows life on us who were dead in our sins and trespasses, and leads us out into the Garden of His Holy Resurrection on Pascha Night! (Eze 37.1-12)
It says that Zaccheus was seeking to see Jesus. Now, Zaccheus was a thief. He was rich because, as a tax collector for the Roman Empire, he had extorted money that wasn’t his and claimed it as his own.
But, dear faithful, are we not thieves? Is not everything we have—our talents and abilities, all that is good and beautiful about us, even our very being—are these not riches that have been given us by God? And yet, as for me, my inflated ego habitually claims all of these riches as its own. What are we taught by St Paul? You are not your own, you were bought with a price! Yet, whatever glory I receive from these riches, I greedily lap up as proof that I am just as I think I am: ‘as though I am a god.’
Even so, here we are this morning. Something must be moving in us, as it was moving in Zaccheus. For, it says he was seeking to see Jesus. Why are you here this morning if it isn’t because, to some degree, you are seeking to see Jesus? And the prophet, Isaiah, says: ‘Seek the LORD while He may be found!’ (Isa 55.6) And the LORD Jesus Himself, as Wisdom, says through Solomon: ‘Those that seek me early shall find me.’ [Pro 8:17]
So, how did this thief, Zaccheus, go about seeking Jesus? He ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree. How do we do that if we are seeking to see Jesus?
It says that Zaccheus was short in stature. What does that mean? Perhaps we find its spiritual meaning in, for example, the prayer of St Basil’s Liturgy: ‘We have done nothing good on the earth!’ That is, we are short in stature because of our vainglory in which we fall far short of the glory of God, becoming more like Lucifer than the Christ in whose Image we were made! The Psalmist says: ‘Man is like the grass that is here today and gone tomorrow!’ Or the funeral hymn of St John of Damascus: ‘What is this great mystery concerning us? Let us go forth and gaze into the tombs. Man is naked bones, food for the worms and stench!’ We are short because we are but dust, here today and gone tomorrow—and yet, we prance around throughout our short sojourn here as though we were immortal, as though we were gods!
And because he was short, so it says, Zaccheus could not see above the crowds to see Jesus. So, the first thing he did was to get away from the crowds. What might be the crowds that hide Jesus from us in our shortness of stature? How about certain attitudes and habits of thought, such as an attitude of entitlement or self-justification, or self-pity; how about an undisciplined mind that follows after whatever thought that enters our mind, an undisciplined soul that gives in to whatever feeling or desire that comes upon it—like a dog in the marketplace sniffing every kiosk (St John Climacus); or how about sloth or negligence in which we seek escape from the boredom and loneliness of our soul not by seeking refuge in God through the ascetical discipline of prayer and fasting, but by looking for comfort in diversions and distractions and escapes that take us out into the world and away from prayer in the closet of our heart.
So, here is the first thing we must do if we wish to see Jesus: we must resolve to get away from the crowd of worldly distractions and from inner attitudes and habits of thought and desire that hide Jesus from us. We must resolve to run ahead, to seek the LORD by orienting our mind firmly to the LORD passing this way, and cling to Him in prayer.
Then, it says, Zaccheus climbed a sycamore tree. What the meaning of the ‘sycamore’ tree might be, I don’t know; but Zaccheus climbing the tree looks to me like the two thieves crucified with the LORD on cross. In climbing the tree as though ascending his cross, Zaccheus, was putting himself in a position to see Jesus on His Cross beside him. We might say that Zaccheus climbing the tree is an image of crucifying what is earthly in us, so that we can see Jesus on the Cross—the Cross that is the ‘ladder’ that ascends to heaven, which St Isaac of Nineveh says is found in the closet of our heart through prayer (Hom 2)—the Cross on which the Savior put our death to death by His death, and poured out, in the blood and water that flowed from His side, the riches of His saving Grace and Compassion into the world, so that all who receive Him ‘into their house’ might become children of God, even partakers of the divine nature, made worthy to eat at His Table in His House!
My point is that Zaccheus’ outward actions—removing himself from the crowds and climbing the sycamore tree—led to the interior transformation of his soul. For, they put him in position to see Jesus in His great love for mankind on the Cross, and to receive Him into his house.
He removed himself from the crowds and climbed the sycamore tree. He changed his surroundings and his routine. We do this by removing from our outer surroundings, from our sight and hearing, everything that fills our mind with images and sounds that hide Jesus from us. And we remove from ourselves all words and deeds that also fill our mind with thoughts and feelings that hide Jesus from us. We climb a sycamore tree, we change our routine so that it is centered on prayer, so that its rhythm is aligned with the liturgical rhythm of the Church; we begin to read and meditate on Holy Scripture daily, we read the lives of the saints and the writings of the holy fathers and of holy elders, those who have seen God and who write not for vainglory but to tell us how to live in God not as they think but as God Himself has revealed to them. We change the routine of our thoughts, replacing thoughts of anger or doubt or complaining with thoughts of thanksgiving to God for the blessings He bestows on us.
So, what is the incentive for taking ourselves away from the crowds and climbing the sycamore tree in repentance and in the contrite acknowledgement of the wise thief: that we suffer in this life justly, as the due reward for our deeds (Lk 23.41)? It’s that we might see Jesus on the Tree, His Cross, with us, and hear Him say to us as He said to Zaccheus: ‘Make haste and come down! For today I must dwell in your house!’ And how is what the LORD says to Zaccheus any different in meaning from what He says to the thief who confessed Him? ‘Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise!’
Therefore, if we are serious in our desire to see Jesus and in our hope that He come and abide in us, we do what the Church is showing us today: like Zaccheus, we remove ourselves from the crowd that hides Jesus from us; we climb the sycamore tree, we change our surroundings and our routine so that our whole life, both outwardly and inwardly, is now oriented to seeking Jesus that we may see Him and receive Him into our house, and follow Him all the way into our heart and out into the Garden of His Holy Resurrection and into Paradise. Amen!