15 February 2019

Meeting Zacchaeus: Homily at the Ukrainian Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, Zaccheus Sunday, 9/10th February 2019

I have met this man, Zacchaeus.

He is always presented as corrupt, cheating the taxpayers and the Roman empire of their money. This is not what St Luke says (Luke 19.1-10). Yes, he took a proportion of the monies that he levied, but that was legally earned income. It may have been lucrative for him; and people will have resented paying taxes to their rulers. They may not have trusted or liked the taxman; or agreed with what the taxes were spent on, including the wages and perks of public servants – but little has changed from that day to this. No, Zacchaeus may have been avaricious. He may have taken the Emperor’s shilling and been hated for it; but he is not corrupt. Look at the story: he is humble, self-effacing, looking for Jesus; he has a change of heart, and becomes holy.

Jesus says two things about this man. First that it is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the Kingdom that is ruled by God (Luke 18.25). Secondly, He looks at the coins that people use to pay their taxes to the Emperor and listens to the shifty questions of His own Father’s Law trying to catch Him out. Showing them the head of the Emperor, He says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. But he goes on to say, “Render to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20.25). He poses the Big Question that most of us - who live through a whole life in the world as we hope to live in the Kingdom - never fully answer: “What do we have in our hands that actually belongs to God and that we should give back?”

Yet Zacchaeus, a rich man, works it out, and enters the Kingdom. As the English Christmas carol by Christina Rossetti, puts it,

What shall I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

It was observed by Holy Mother Theresa that, when Our Lord says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, if you only take a quick look at Europe and the West, He is also referring to the rich: with all the affluence, the flow of money, the insulation of commodities and possessions, inside their spirits are empty, or turned rock hard. What will soften them, or what will deepen them as stores of the Kingdom’s treasures from above? Zacchaeus saw it.

I met him once in a well-to-do retired banker in my parish in north London back in the 1990s. He cherished his classic car and enjoyed the fruit of his labours for many years in the City of London. But he was devout and holy at the Altar, a beautiful soul who was kind and generous, especially when no one saw. Again: humble, self-effacing, looking for Jesus, with a heart that was always turning to God, and seeking His holiness. He was completely honest and told me that the reason the economy and society were in trouble was because no one lived by the rule on which the City’s banks and brokers had always depended in the past: “Verbum meum factum” – My word is my bond. Because he lived by his own word, he understood the promises of Christ, too. He loved the Word of God, our God made flesh; and at his funeral we sang the hymn:

O Jesus, I have promised, to serve Thee to the end.
O give me grace to follow, my Master and my Friend.

I have also met a Zacchaeus driving an Uber car. He had come to this country from the East as a student, a clever young man seeking the best future for his war-ravaged country by being trained in international development. One night his fellow-student got into a fight and he intervened to calm things down. But when the police arrived he was arrested too, and sentenced to months in prison. The court at least accepted his plea not to be sentenced to six months, as that would have meant his deportation. But with a judgment of three months serving six weeks, his entire life was utterly disrupted; he lost his place on his course, and he realised with a criminal record he must abandon his hopes of an international professional career. He could not return to his home country; and fortunately his application for citizenship here had already made progress, and someone in authority took notice of him - like Jesus looking up at Zacchaeus trying to see but not to be seen in his tree - and enabled him to stay and build a new life. When he came out of six counter-productive weeks inside, his record meant there was little choice or opportunity for work and rebuilding his life. But he was not downcast or bitter. He remembered that when he was a boy, before his country was ruined, he would visit his friend’s house and spend hours with the family weaving carpets, repairing the threads, dying to the right colours, mending the holes, judging the right threads, be they wool or silk. This man is now one of a tiny number of master craftsmen who can make and repair Persian carpets in this country. I asked him why he needed to drive an Uber, if he was one of the most highly skilled experts in Britain. He explained that there was no end of demand for his work, but it was back-breaking labour, and he could only do it a few days a week, yet still needed to earn, so that he could send funds back to his family in his homeland, as well as look after his new family in England. Again: humble, self-effacing, looking to trust in God, a man whose heart and life had been changed for the worse and then for the better, a man who, even though not a Christian, had found a path of peace and virtue.

I have also met this man Zacchaeus in the same place you have met him. I have seen him in the mirror. I know, as you do, that the heart within is threadbare, empty, hardened like stone. I have seen the eyes of Zacchaeus trying to see Jesus, and I have seen what Jesus has seen in them – dismay at myself; the shame of not standing out in front of people, because I know that people will revile me for being the compromise with the world that I am; the hoping to be able to see Jesus, but never daring to come up to Him and meet Him. But seeing Him seeing me, for what I am – look at the icon of Christ looking at you now – I will hear Him say that, without my repentance, just on the strength of my glance at Him, He is coming to me today. And I break. I hurry to Him as He overcomes my sins. I pour out my pent up spirit, and by giving out what is poor in it, I become rich from Him. “Do not neglect the gift that is in you,“ says St Paul (I Timothy 4.14). He should know, for He was a Zacchaeus too. Salvation came to him, when, on the road to Damascus - just as on the road beneath that tree, and just as in our mirror, and now before this icon - “the Son of Man came to seek out and save what was lost.”

When in the Old Testament, Joshua came to Jericho, with his name meaning, “The Lord is salvation”, he overwhelmed it with the power of the living God. In the well-known story (Joshua 6.1-27), Jericho’s resistance to God crumbled with its walls at the sound of the trumpets and the hosts of the Lord encircling it seven times. In the Gospel, the second Joshua - Yeshua, Iesous, Jesus - overwhelms Jericho with the vision of Divine Glory, in the face of two humans as they encounter one another: one as the man who is poor in spirit and one as The Lord God who brings salvation. And in this Jericho here, with the same sight of one another, the Son of Man comes to seek out and save us, the ones who have been lost along our way. Therefore we may sing:

O Jesus, I have promised, To serve Thee to the end;
O give me grace to follow, My Master and my Friend.
O guide me, call me, draw me, Uphold me to the end;
And then in heaven receive me, My Saviour, and my Friend. (John Bode, 1816-1874)