23 - Zaccheus Sunday, February 6, 2011

I Timothy4:9-15

Luke 19:1-10

Stepping into the Church this morning, we climbed our own sycamore tree; and, if you look down the better and changeless path of the Church, you will see, as Zaccheus saw Jesus coming down the road, the gates of Great Lent rising above the horizon. Why is Jesus coming to us in the royal purple of Great Lent?

Jesus tells us Himself in this morning’s Gospel: the Son of Man came to look for and to save the “lost” – apollumi – as in destroyed, facing imminent death, given over to eternal misery in hell. That’s the meaning conveyed by the word for “lost” in the Greek.

You may remember Jericho as the city in the OT that was the stronghold of the Canaanites. It was just beyond the Jordan, the first city defeated by Joshua after he led the people of Israel across the Jordan. Jericho is where Rahab lived. She was a harlot, but her life was spared by the Israelites when they took Jericho because she received into her home the spies sent by the first Joshua in order to protect them, to save them from the men of Jericho. It was before the battle of Jericho, also, that Balaam, called in by the king of Moab to curse Israel, instead was compelled by the Holy Spirit to bless Isarel and to prophesy the coming of Christ and his victory over him who held us in the power and the fear of death, the devil:

“I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be dispossessed, Se'ir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed, while Israel does valiantly!" (Num 24:17-18)

Jericho, then, is a type of the gates of hell that open onto Canaan, the Promised Land, enslaved by the gods of the nations, idols[1], false gods, even demons,[2] whom the Canaanites worshipped, and who enticed the Israelites away from the worship of their God, the Creator, and so enslaved them, as they had been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt, through the fear of death.[3]

And so, Jesus coming to Jericho in this Gospel story of Zaccheus “to look for and to save the lost,” those given over to death and the eternal misery of hell – proclaims Jesus as the Second Joshua, the Son of God seen from afar by Balaam who was coming to “crush the forehead of Moab, to break the sons of Seth and to dispossess Edom”; i.e., to destroy the gates of hell and him who held the power of death, the devil, and to deliver them who through the fear of death were all their lifelong subject to bondage” under the false gods, the idols, the demons, that in Christ the Second Joshua, they might go in and take the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Reading this story of Zaccheus against the backdrop of the OT may explain why Jesus knew to “look up” when he came near the tree where Zaccheus was – as though He had come to Jericho specifically to look for and to save Zaccheus, who was lost. Why was he lost? Because, as a corrupt tax collector he was greedy, in love with money, the root of all evil; and out of his greed, he used his position as a tax collector to take from the poor money that went beyond what they owed in taxes, so he could pad his own pocket. He was therefore a thief, not unlike the thieves between whom Jesus would be crucified on the cross. In his love for money, he therefore represents us in our greed. And in his thievery, he represents us in our thievery, when we take what belongs to God and use it for our own luxury.

But I am struck also by how the OT backdrop of this story of Zaccheus calls to our remembrance the story of Rahab, the harlot, whose life also was saved by the first Joshua because she received his men into her home, just as Zaccheus is saved by the Second Joshua when he receives Him into his home. Like Zaccheus, Rahab was rich. She made herself rich by playing the harlot, who lies in wait like a thief, says the Proverb, to increase the faithless among men;[4] and so, her profession made her house, according to the Proverb, a gate that opened onto hell to destroy – to make “lost”, apollumi – all those who entered it. “None who go to her come back nor do they regain the paths of life.”[5]

In Zaccheus and Rahab we have the two sins or passions, lust and greed, that are the chief expressions of human vanity and pride: the two principal gods, sex and money, that so easily entice us away from God to number us among the lost, those who face imminent death, who are given over to eternal misery in hell, in bondage to him holds us in the power and fear of death, the devil.

Now one begins to see how this Gospel helps us to begin our preparation for the ascetic effort of Great Lent. The imagery that comes out in this story of Zaccheus when we look at it in its biblical context is unsettling; for, in our secret heart, in what we give our eyes, our ears, our minds, hands and feet to when we think no one is looking, are we any different from Zaccheus or Rahab the harlot?

“Zaccheus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” I hear the Savior calling to me as He called to Zaccheus not with a little urgency: Make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Yes, while it is still called today, do not let your heart be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin,[6] of lust and greed, but come down today and receive the Savior who is coming in the royal purple of Great Lent to look for and to save us who are lost, who are perishing, who are given over to death and to eternal misery in hell.

I think that to those who have been granted to see by God’s grace the grave danger their souls are in because they have gone after the idols of greed and lust, to hear the Savior calling out, “Make haste and come down for I must stay at your house today,” is Good News. It certainly was to Zaccheus; for he did make haste and he came down, with exceedingly great joy (cairw). The sinner rejoices to hear the Savior calling out to him and marvels at the goodness of the Savior that He would condescend to empty Himself and to take on the form of a servant and to suffer death on the cross in order to come looking for me who am lost because I have willfully and intentionally played the thief and the harlot by forsaking God and His commandments in order to chase after the enticing gods of sex and money. Yet, the Savior comes to us at the foot of our sycamore tree, Great Lent. He looks up and in His lowliness and divine humility, He calls to us, “make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Now Zaccheus was in the boughs of the sycamore tree because he wanted to see Jesus. You are here in the Church this morning because you want to see Jesus. As lost as we may be in our pride, our lust and our greed, that we are here this morning is because there is at least the spark of a desire to see Jesus. The story of Zaccheus tells us that that spark draws Jesus’ attention to us and He comes straight up to us and looks up at us even in the boughs of our presumption and our self-righteous conceit and He calls out to us: make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.

Now, I want to draw your attention to one last detail that I uncovered in my study of this morning’s Gospel and its OT background. We learn from St Matthew[7] that Rahab the harlot, after she was saved by the first Joshua, married Salmon and gave birth to Boaz, who married Ruth, from whom Christ was descended. In other words, it turns out that Rahab the harlot was so thoroughly saved that she became one of the ancestors of God. From being the harlot who sends men to hell, she became an ancestor of the Christ who descended into hell to lead the prisoners there to heaven. And the name, Zaccheus, comes from the root, for “pure”. Zaccheus, of course, was not pure; but because he received Christ into his house, he became pure; and the pure in heart are those who will see God.

Reflect on what I have shared with you this morning from this story of Zaccheus, and see if there isn’t born in your hearts a desire to do as Jesus tells us: to make haste and come down, to begin preparing ourselves in hope and joy for the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent, so that we can follow Jesus today into our house and into the bridal chamber of our heart on Pascha night. Amen.

[1] Ps 96:5

[2] According to the LXX, 95:5

[3] Cf. Heb 2:14-15

[4] Prov 23:28

[5] Prov 2:18-19

[6] Heb 3:15

[7] Mt 1:5