St Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church
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/ Weekly Message / Weekly Message 02-10-08: Sunday Of Zacchaeus
Weekly Message 02-10-08: Sunday Of Zacchaeus


When you look at the calendar this month, what do you see?  I guess the answer is it depends on what you’re looking for.  Some people see Super Duper Tuesday was this past week, and did their civic duty by voting.  Some see Valentine’s Day is approaching this coming Thursday, a day to make Hallmark and Russell Stover very happy companies.  Others look at the calendar and see a long weekend next week with Presidents Day.  And I know that some people sitting in the pews today have birthdays this month.  Granted, all those things are important, but there is something else of note on the calendar that is only slightly newsworthy to the secular media and the pagans out in the world.  On the calendar the rest of Christianity began their Lenten journey this week, but we have another month to go before the Great Fast begins for us. 

I find it interesting that Western Christianity celebrates up until the very moment that Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, and then, suddenly, they’re into Lent full force…like going from zero to 100 mph in the blink of an eye.  Our blessed Orthodox Church prepares for the Great Fast in an entirely different manner, in that before the Fast itself begins, we have five Sundays to prepare for it, so we are eased into the Great Fast, rather than have it sneak up on us.  Take a look at the church calendar at home, or if you still don’t have one, take one home today, and look at the week of February 17.   You’ll notice that next Sunday starts an entire fast free week, then its back to the regular fast schedule.  Why is this so?  It’s our short time to celebrate before the preparation starts for the season of the Great Fast, in the same way we have a fast free week of celebration right after Pascha.  Look closer on the church calendar, and you’ll see we also catch a break from fasting the week after Pentecost, as well as after the Nativity of our Lord. 

Our Gospel reading today is on the threshold of the Preparatory season for the Great Fast; while next Sunday’s reading of the Publican and Pharisee starts our preparation, today’s reading of Zacchaeus is, in effect, the last Sunday before it all starts, and is a fixed reading on the cycle for the church year. 

And so we pick up today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke where Jesus is passing through Jericho where a man named Zacchaeus lived.  So you have some background, Jericho was a main trade route, and was an important customs center.  Our Lord often passed by the city of Jericho because it was an important city and was on the road between Jerusalem and Galilee, which, as we know, was the home country of our Lord and Saviour. While it was a small town, only ten acres in size (that’s about twice the size of our own parish grounds) and 1000 feet below sea level, it was a major crossroads on the way to Jerusalem.  Jericho was the town equivalent to a toll area on either the NJ Turnpike or the

Garden State Parkway
– you had to pay to get through the tiny town on the way to anywhere else.  Jericho was one of the wealthiest cities in Palestine, rich in gold and silver, as well as cattle.

By occupation, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In fact, he was the chief tax collector. He was on the top of the Amway tax collector pyramid scheme. Zacchaeus contracted with Rome to pay a set amount for the taxes of Jericho. He would then collect as much as he wanted under the authority of Rome, making him a very wealthy sheister and crook. He greatly overcharged the people so that he could make his wealth on the backs of his Jewish countrymen. As a result, tax collectors like Zacchaeus were hated by their fellow Jews. They were put in the same category as sinners, pagans, prostitutes as well as robbers, evil doers and adulterers.

Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming, and wanted to be able to see him, but, as we further read in today’s Gospel, he was small of stature.  That’s a euphemism for tiny.  Short.  Puny.  Vertically challenged.  In fact, by Middle Eastern standards, he was probably less than five feet tall, which would qualify him today as a dwarf.

So, to recap, this Zacchaeus is super-wealthy, super-crooked, and super-small.  Yet, despite all of this, he wanted to see Jesus.  Perhaps he heard of Jesus by his reputation; after all, he worked miracles in Jericho, and as a city 10 acres big, everyone in town knew everyone else’s business.  Perhaps Zacchaeus wanted to see what was so special about Jesus, since the road through town was lined like a parade route.  We don’t really know what motivated Zacchaeus to want to see Jesus; we can only speculate that his heart was prompted to do whatever it took to get a glimpse of the Savior.  And so he spotted a sycamore tree further down the road, and climbed into it in order to get a better view.   In Jesus' time there were a great number of sycamores in the Holy Land. Its wood was commonly used because it is harder than that of the fig tree. It was even the wood of preference for the burial of kings.  Today, it is a very rare tree in the Holy Land. 

Just think what it looked like to the people in town:  It must have been some sight; a short man under five feet tall, dressed in fine clothing, shimmying up a large tree and peering through its leaves for Jesus, hoping to just be able to see him.

Jesus stopped underneath the tree, looked up at him, and said, “Zacchaeus, c’mon down.  I’m staying at your house today.”  In today’s society, to invite yourself over to someone’s home would be a major breach of etiquette, but for Zacchaeus, he was beaming with pride at playing host for such an auspicious occasion.  How did Jesus know that he was in the tree?  Jesus was able to perceive Zacchaeus’ heart and instinctively knew, as God, that Zacchaeus had the ability to have a change of heart – Jesus understood that Zacchaeus had the ability to be redeemed, long before Zacchaeus himself knew it. 

Once Zacchaeus came down from the tree, he began to walk Jesus towards his home, causing the townspeople to murmur about why Jesus would risk impurement by going into the home of a sinner.  Remember what I said about Jericho – it was a small town, and the people there were busybodies.  It didn’t take much for them to talk amongst themselves and look down their noses at the whole situation.  They simply jumped to a conclusion as to what was taking place; they certainly didn’t understand the much larger picture of salvation that was playing out before their very eyes. 

Now comes the moment of truth.  Jesus is standing with Zacchaeus.  The people object to someone like Zacchaeus, the ultimate crooked politician, using Jesus as if he were a politician at a campaign stop meet and greet.  Zacchaeus pays no attention to the criticism of the townsfolk; he is honored for the opportunity to host Jesus for the day, and in the spirit of the presence of the Savior, Zacchaeus pledges openly and publicly, “Half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it four times over.”  Very interesting.  Jewish law requires someone who was deceived or defrauded be repaid in full, plus another 20% for pain and suffering.  Instead, Zacchaeus is willing to give back four times the amount he pinched everyone for.  Talk about going above and beyond!  Truly by divine inspiration, Zacchaeus made the leap of faith in getting right with God, to which Jesus replied, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham.”   

The early fathers of our blessed Orthodox church put this reading here at the beginning of the cycle of readings for the season of the Great Fast so we could understand the whole reason of Jesus’ coming among us:  Jesus calls to Zacchaeus to come down from the tree, symbolizing the divine call to humility, and Zacchaeus' subsequent repentance from a life of vice and sin to purity and righteousness is symbolic of man’s potential salvation if he is willing to undergo a metanoia, or change of heart.

My brothers and sisters, we see from this Gospel that there is no person, no matter how great his sin, who cannot find salvation.  God loves us so much that there is absolutely nothing we can do to keep God from loving us.  While the things we do, the actions we take hurt God, He waits patiently for us to realize what we have done and turn towards Him.  

We have the choice to turn to God for forgiveness, for assistance, for our salvation, or we can choose to ignore God.  Choosing to accept Jesus means, like Zacchaeus, there is hope for us.  In the coming Sundays before the Great Fast, we will read other Gospel lessons that further illustrate how God waits for us to change our heart for Him;  in the coming Sundays, we will hear of the Publican and Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment.  All of these readings have the same theme of forgiveness and the action taken by sinful people who want to be changed, who want to be righteous in the sight of God. 

It is interesting that the name Zacchaeus means one who is righteous.  He gave true meaning to his own name by turning his whole life around.  One turn and he saw Christ and from that moment on, he found eternal salvation.  My brothers and sisters, my prayer for all of us this day is that we all find the salvation that Zacchaeus found.  May we all be able one day to turn around to find our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and from that moment on, follow Him into life eternal.  Amen!

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