22 - Zaccheus and the Sycamore Tree

I Timothy 4:9-15

Luke 19:1-10

Orthodox spirituality has as its goal, writes the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Staniloae, the deification of man and his union with a personal God, who is the supreme source of radiating love. God prizes man and wants to maintain and raise him to an eternal dialogue of love.

Staniloae’s summary is not a religious idea analogous in the religious sphere to the political sphere in which political parties such as the Republicans and Democrats are distinguished from each other by their own political ideas. Staniloae is summarizing the truth of human nature and destiny. In other words, that the goal of human nature is union with God in love is not a religious idea or theory. It is the fundamental truth of our being. It is the structure of reality, the principle of human being. Union with God in love is the principle of the cosmos; the invisible goal that impels the natural movement of the world.

We insist that the Orthodox Christian Faith is not a religion but Religion itself because its dogmas are not religious ideas but a proclamation that faithfully reveals the fundamental truth of our being: God is love. We are made in his image, and so we, by nature, are love. We exist in love and we were made for love. When you receive the Orthodox Christian Faith, you are receiving this proclamation of who we are and the meaning of our existence, so we believe, from the Creator himself. This proclamation of the Orthodox Church is not the religious interpretation of some human person or school of thought. You cannot trace the origins of Orthodox dogma to the thought of one person or to a particular school of thought – unless that one person is Jesus himself, and that school of thought is the “college” of the apostles. The preaching and teaching of the Orthodox Christian Faith proclaims the revelation of who we are and why we exist. When you receive the Orthodox Christian Faith, you are not stepping into a religious party, or into a particular “church” group. You are stepping beyond all religious, philosophical ideas onto that living path that leads to the God who stands underneath all religious and philosophical ideas spun from the wisdom of human opinion. You are climbing out of the wisdom of human opinion that divides and separates people into many different factions and you are being united to the whole of humanity because you are becoming one with the principle of all things: Christ, the love of God who stands underneath all things as the soil in which all things are rooted and grow.

In the imagery I’ve used, you can see how Zaccheus becomes for us this morning an icon of that ascetical process by which we climb above the world and the wisdom of human opinion in order to receive God and become one with the principle of our being in love. It says in the Gospel that Zaccheus sought to behold Jesus. Any person who wants to behold the Truth of our being, the principle of our nature, the meaning of our existence, wants to behold Jesus; for he is the principle of our nature. He is the Word of God by whom all things were made. Those who look on Jesus as only a man are not seeing him at all, even though they may be looking straight at him for he is not a mere man; he is the God-man, the Word of God in whom all things were made who became flesh and dwelt among us as fully man and fully God.

But it says that Zaccheus couldn’t see Jesus because he was short and the crowd was blocking his view. The crowd, let us say, can represent the many different human opinions about God, religion, human nature and destiny and the world that block our view from God, and which have the effect of fragmenting humanity into camps of all kinds of different opinions.

This morning’s Gospel of Zaccheus is reviewing again, as the Church does every year at this time, what we must do in order to rise above the madding crowd of human opinions in order to behold – that is to say, that we may come to know Jesus, the Wisdom of God and the principle of our being; and not only behold Him but even receive Him into our home, into our heart, into the personal center of our being. And, the Gospel is showing us how we can become so like him that we rise above the crowd and transcend our shortness of stature and attain to the fullness of the stature of Christ and become so one with the eternal God in love that we become eternal in Him, in love. We climb up the sycamore tree.

So, how are we to understand this sycamore tree? The sycamore tree is a species of fig tree; and it is was with fig leaves that Adam and Eve clothed themselves in the Garden, making one wonder if the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a fig tree. One can say, then, that the sycamore tree is the cross Christ commands us to take up if we want to follow him, or, in terms of this morning’s Gospel, if we want to see him. In other words, it represents the passions – the sins and transgressions – that have slain us, that we are now enabled in our union with Christ to confront and put to death that we might rise up to life eternal in union with God in love. The sycamore tree as the cross we are called to take up in order to follow Christ to his holy resurrection directs our attention away from the crowd of human opinions that is outside of us, and to the crowd that is inside of us. The crowd that is inside of us is made up of all the passions – the desires of lust, greed, conceit – that have sprung up within us from the seed of the serpent’s tree that we swallowed when we ate its fruit in disobedience of God’s command. Because of our disobedience, we were stripped of the garment of immortality with which God had clothed us. We became subject to death and we became weak with fear. And, in our fear, we have turned not to God but to the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life hoping to find relief from our fear of the darkness of nothingness that threatens to devour us in death.

When it says that Zaccheus was rich, we can take that to mean that he was rich in the passions or vices that grow like weeds from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. And, this is what we are rich in, each one of us, whether we are rich or poor. We are blind and deaf and dumb. We cannot see God, the principle of our being, except as a debatable idea; we are deaf to the cry of the heart for union with God in love. We hear only the noisome clatter of a perverse love for the flesh and the pride of life, perverse because it is a blind love for death; and we are dumb. We cannot speak the praises of God because we have forgotten God, we do not know God, and we have become indifferent to God.

When Christ God, the only Lover of mankind, comes in the flesh and sows the seed of his Gospel proclamation in the field of the world, wherever it lands on soft and fertile soil, it germinates in a desire to see Jesus like Zaccheus wanted to see him – not as an amazing wonderworker but as the Love of God in whom is the principle of our being. The Church, the very body of Christ, is sowing the seed of that proclamation in our hearts this morning. And she calls to that desire which her proclamation awakens in our hearts: as did Zaccheus, climb up the sycamore tree. Take up your cross, take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church and live the Christian life that you may behold Jesus; that you may come to know who you really are in the love of God.

The shape of the Christian life is given in Christ’s commandments. But Christ’s commandments are not separate from Christ himself; they are not mere duties imposed on us by God that in this life lead nowhere and which we follow blindly in the hope of some external reward to be given to us in the next life. The commandments of Christ are the shape of the spiritual life that he gives. They are the garment of light that he wears. Moreover, the sycamore tree, if it is the Cross, was nailed to the Lord when he voluntarily ascended the tree and gave himself up for the life of the world. It follows from these things that in the very moment when we take up the commandments of Christ and begin to climb the sycamore tree we unite ourselves to Christ. For, he is united to the sycamore tree as to his Cross, and he is buried in his commandments as he was laid in the tomb like the seed sown in the ground of our soul. We therefore do not climb the sycamore tree, we do not take up our cross to practice the commandments of Christ alone. God is with us for Christ is “in our midst.” He is the force of love that emanates from his commandments calling out to us to come! He is the spiritual strength that unites with our weakness and empowers us to confront our sins and to conquer our desire for them by revealing to us in the teaching of his Gospel a deeper beauty, a greater love, a higher life than the life of the flesh: it is the divine life of union with God in love.

The ascetic disciplines of Great Lent are our sycamore tree. The glimpse of Christ granted as soon as we begin to climb it is given in the spiritual beauty of the prayers and services of Great Lent. The strength of Christ is given to us in the love for the spiritual beauty of his divine life that is awakened in us and begins to grow in us in the very moment that we take up our cross to practice his life-giving, holy commandments. Open your inner ears and hear the Church’s call to you this morning: climb the sycamore tree. Take up your cross that you might behold Him today and make ready in love to receive him into the home of your heart on Pascha night. Amen.