14 February 2016

Sunday of Zacchaeus: Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, 13 February 2015

At the most telling points in the Divine Liturgy, the deacon calls out to the whole Church assembled, “Let us be attentive”. There it is, just before the reading from the psalms, the Prokeimenon, and the Epistle; and the priest says it, too, just before the Gospel. It is repeated before we say the Creed, and again before the Anaphora, the great Eucharistic Prayer, is offered. Once more it is heard before the Communion, when the priest elevates the Holy Lamb, the Bread of Heaven, as a symbol of Christ lifted up on His Cross, drawing all people to Himself. (John 12.32)

But this is not just a clerical exhortation. Like so many of the phrases in the Liturgy, it shows how our worship grew directly out of the life of the Church described in the Scriptures themselves. For it is the injunction of St Paul himself, encouraging his not long ordained helper and successor St Timothy, as we have heard in today’s Epistle. (I Timothy 4.9-16) “Until I arrive,” he says, “give attention to the reading, to exhorting, to teaching”.
It is just as well that St Paul advises us to be attentive, because the Epistle and the Gospel, at first glance, seem to be saying opposite things. In the Epistle, St Timothy’s example is to be one of love, faith and purity in what he says and how he lives his life. Yet in the Gospel, the example of salvation we are given is a man reviled for what he does. (Luke 19.1-10) Note carefully that nowhere in the Gospel does St Luke say that Zacchaeus actually was an extortionist and defrauder, just that his job had made him rich.  In the thinking of the time, a person’s wealth is seen as a sign of God’s blessing on their righteousness; we still madly re-invent God as the One Who will bestow success if we pray, or believe, or act right, and we still try to strike bargains with God for benefits in return for good conduct. But Zacchaeus is assumed to be corrupt and blamed for his wealth by his fellows Jews, because the office he holds and the business he conducts serve an occupying power that is pagan. He is called a sinner because he is the agent of sinful Roman pagans.

Zacchaeus, who St Luke tells us has come looking for God, will have seen his fortune, however, as a gift from God. In truth, Zacchaeus knows he is rich, but unfulfilled. It is his spiritual emptiness that turns his heart to the Lord. The people’s contempt for him as an enemy collaborator, however, has a veneer of self-righteousness because of the religious dimension. And so he stands before you accused of sin. But really, it is his neighbours who are jealous, envious of what he has.

They have no cause. For, because Zacchaeus desires to look upon the Lord, and because of an open-hearted that eagerly responds to the loving call of Jesus to receive Him, he gives half his possessions away. The bitter and righteous did not attract this out of him, and they have nothing positive to say. But salvation is seen shining in generosity out of a man who has been moved not by condemnation but inspired by the sight of Jesus - the Glory of God in a Man Alive, as St Irenaeus says, adding that the life of man is the vision of God. (Adversus  Haereses, IV, 20, 7).

In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky has Prince Myshkin admiring the portrait of Nastassya, whose reputation is tarnished. He is asked why he appreciates such beauty, and he replies that a face like that is beautiful because there is suffering in it. One of those nearby is having none of it. She says, “Beauty like that is bold. That kind of beauty could turn the world upside down.” In the end, Prince Myshkin’s instinct is to be merciful and to see that the visual beauty he first admired comes not from rectitude, or even from moral conversion, but out of suffering that has turned a person inside out so there is nothing left, a beauty to which the Christlike response can only be forgiveness and unconditional love. Thus the theme of Dostoyevsky’s tale - after all the erratic behaviour and betrayal, the suffering, testing and forbearance, the brokenness and yet the desire for wholeness and purity of love - is famous: “Beauty will save the world”.

Look at Zacchaeus as Christ did, like Prince Myshkin looked at Nastassya. Look not for the sinner, but the beauty of a soul whose suffering has changed its heart. Let us be attentive to the reading. In the Epistle, St Paul tells a St Timothy who is evidently struggling to command respect and teaching authority, “Let no one look down on your youth.” Now see the paradox of the Gospel: Jesus comes by the tree and looks up at Zacchaeus. The Son of Man is drawn to the man in the sycamore and desires to commune with him.

Where else have we noticed this? Think of Zacchaeus in the tree again. See what Jesus saw: “a man despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53.3) Think back to the words we so often sing at the Liturgy, the first words that Jesus taught for all to hear, words that Zacchaeus had come to hear for himself: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.3). Think of Dostoyevksy’s Christ-figure, the “Idiot” prince, looking up at the picture of that beautiful face, not despising its low reputation but seeing a suffering soul in a beautiful light as it desires nothing more than to cast off its burden, the “ancestral condemnation” of which we sang in today’s Troparion. (Resurrection Troparion, Tone 4)

Now look at the icon of this Sunday. We see Christ pointing at Zacchaeus up in a sycamore. But he is really indicating the Tree that He Himself will one day likewise climb, the Tree to which He will be fixed, as another “Man of Sorrows, despised and rejected, acquainted with grief”. It is an image of the mystery of the Crucifixion. Jesus is drawn to Zacchaeus on the sycamore by the beauty of the longing emptiness in the rich tax collector’s life. He indicates that He will likewise “draw all people” to Himself when He is lifted on the Cross, that the beauty of the image of God in man will be transfixed and disfigured, but only thus reveal the beauty that will save the world. Zacchaeus sees his own poverty of spirit and looks to see the Kingdom. The gaze of Jesus finds him and makes him into the very picture of salvation. He recognises the Tree that will claim His life, yet gives to Zacchaeus up in the sycamore not a pre-emptive revenge but the Resurrection itself. As we have considered Zacchaeus arising from the ground into the tree, from our own perspective in today’s Kontakion we have sung, “God has raised out of bondage the children of the earth.” (Resurrection Kontakion, Tone 4). So let us be attentive. The central figure of this Sunday’s gospel is not Zacchaeus, but the Tree, the Cross. The central event is not so much repentance but moving from a living death to Christ’s Resurrection.

Before we leave the scene that Christ has set, almost in passing, there is something more to dwell upon. In showing us the Tree of salvation as the sign of victory, Jesus has shown not only His future, but the state of our lives. The image He has planted is not of Himself on the Cross, but an inadequate, imperfect, struggling, anguished soul – Zacchaeus, you, me - who has turned to Him in exhaustion, emptied of all that earth has to offer. You will remember that, after St Peter and the apostles professed their faith that Jesus is the Lord’s Anointed, in the light of King Herod the Tetrarch’s menaces, Jesus had said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9.23). So Zacchaeus is shown professing his faith in the Christ, taking up Christ’s Cross by mounting the sycamore tree. Jesus saw his suffering, his broken spirit, his desire to see the Kingdom. This is where Christ will see it in us too.

The throngs of people who crowded round Jesus were really hiding themselves behind their show of righteousness. Jesus knew their faith was fickle, that it would let Him and them down when put to the test. We were thinking earlier that, when they turned on Zacchaeus, they were jealous. But really they were hypocrites. They condemned Zacchaeus for working for the Romans and doing well out of the proceeds. But they were no different. They traded with the pagans and prospered; the economy depended on it. Their priests and kings were happy to operate a system with the foreign “sinners”, as long as it gave them earthly power. Their influence even reached throughout the empire. But Zacchaeus alone had the courage to put himself upon the Tree and ask to see instead the Kingdom of God. He was despised not for being a sinner, or on account of the motive of jealousy. He was despised because he attracted the attention of mercy and the sheer beauty of the Lord. The people hiding in numbers in the crowd wanted to see Jesus; they were less keen for any light to shine on them, so that Jesus could see who and what they were. Their cover of hypocrisy was blown. “God has shattered the gates of Hades,” we sang. (Resurrection Kontakion, Tone 4).

When St Paul encourages Timothy, he says, “Do not neglect the gift in you.” He tells him to be attentive to the reading, and to put love, faith and purity into words, and those words into practice. Let us be attentive to this. For in our case it means putting ourselves on a Cross daily to seek a greater sight of God’s Kingdom, so that there the Lord will find us exposing how poor in spirit we are without Him, how nothing in the world brings us lasting fortune or happiness, and how whatever inner beauty we have has come from hurt and adversity, from unsatisfied longing to see the Lord as He passes along our way. From our place on the Tree, like our Lord before us – let us be attentive, as He is raised up -, daily we see Jesus in His transfigured, agonising, crucified glory seeing us in our suffering and our need to be completely free through turning to Him. And we find that it is on our Tree that what comes forth from us is the gift in us that is not to be neglected. Forth come, from us like Jesus, generosity, adoration, goodness, love, full self-offering, forgiveness without reserve, salvation and mercy that never end. This is what it is to be the one the Lord finds; this is how His beauty will save the world.