Today, with only four Sundays remaining until Great and Holy Lent, we have a “before” story; a “beginning” story. This morning we talk about Zacchaeus, how he was before, at the beginning of his salvation. And that’s appropriate because for all of us Great Lent should be this; an effort to draw closer to God. It’s a genuine struggle, but nothing of value comes easily.
Salvation comes to us by degrees, because salvation is us being changed. Nobody changes all at once. You might make a decision at a critical moment as Zacchaeus did, but you don’t change all at once. Change means work. What happened to Zacchaeus was one of those moments that happen rarely in a man’s life when he saw himself and when he felt deeply in his soul the desire for God.
To understand Scriptures we must consider the content, the circumstances in which events unfold, instructions given and all the rest. All this is very important. But like Zacchaeus, there must be some emotional impact in your soul. He made a decision and spent the rest of his life living it.
Three things hindered Zacchaeus from finding Christ: He was a Publican, there was a big crowd, and he was short. As a Publican he had done many sinful things.
He was ashamed because he defrauded and hurt people. And we are no better. Are we at all embarrassed when we fall short? Our lack of shame can keep us distant from God. Also, the majority of our entertainments and diversions are so frivolous. We cannot hear God when we’re not quiet.
Zacchaeus was a very bad man. He was the chief tax collector. He had done a lot of terrible things, and that troubled his conscience. But he had heard of Christ. Zacchaeus was still a Jew, even if he was a bad one. He wanted to see Jesus because there was a stirring in his heart. He wanted to change but he didn’t know how.
Do we ever feel like that? I do every day. Now, I know in principle how to change: Through the Body and Blood of Christ, through God’s mercy, and through my struggle. But how to get from A to B in exact detail, I need my Father Confessor for that because my sins are too big for me. I’d bet anything they’re too big for you, too.
So Zacchaeus wants to see Christ but the crowd is in his way. We have our own obstacles. Tedious things; distracted by concerns we really shouldn’t be very concerned about. Most of what presses around us is us; most of the crowd in our way is our own lifestyle which prevents us from being good.
Zacchaeus was short and could not see. So what did he do? He went up in a tree. Imagine the scene: a publican hated by everyone, making a spectacle of himself in a tree. Accustomed to people flattering him in public, at such a sight there had to be snickering and laughter.
And then Christ came and He saw Zacchaeus and Zacchaeus was changed because Christ’s love transforms. “Make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” This was quite the scandal; a holy man going to the house of a sinner. What an amazing thing!
When we read this story we are filled with possibilities. God can change us if we are willing, but we have to be able to overcome the inertia of sin. All those chains that are holding onto us or that we hold onto ourselves. And we have to do something. We have to press past the crowd, and get up in the tree, and look expectantly for Christ.
And the thing is, every single time our Lord comes to the tree, He looks up and tell us to make haste and come down because He will abide with us. Every time! We really don’t completely believe it, because it’s hard for us to conceive that we can really be changed.
When you read a story like this it’s important to hold onto that hope of being accepted as Zacchaeus was. Nothing in our life is mundane. There is nothing in our life that cannot be changed.
So we need to renew this fervor; reignite our longing for salvation. It is difficult when you feel down, when you’re tired, when you’re lazy, when you have bad thoughts or whatever else may be going on. It’s really hard.
What did Zacchaeus do? He made promises to the Lord. He was full of joy, and he made promises that he hadn’t thought of before. And then he fulfilled them. Just getting out of that tree didn’t make him good. Getting out of that tree gave him the ability to become good, gave him hope to become good.
Did you know Zacchaeus went on to become an apostle? After the Ascension of our Lord, Saint Zacchaeus accompanied Saint Peter on his travels. He went on to become the Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine where he was beloved and died in peace.
And that’s why we hear this gospel lesson as we prepare for Great Lent, because repentance is a long road. Great Lent should be hard. It cannot be otherwise; to learn something of yourself and struggle to do more than you usually do.
We have more services during Great Lent. We fast more strictly during Great Lent. And, to be perfectly frank with you, if you don’t do these things improvement probably won’t happen. But if you do those things you will come to a point that progress is being made and that you’re getting better. No longer will you be the same person you were two weeks ago, two years ago, twenty years ago.
Do you remember when Jairus’ daughter died after a severe illness and his servant came up to him and said, “Do not trouble the Master; your daughter is dead.”? We can feel that way. There are very few people who do not struggle with moments of hopelessness.
The way you get through those moments is with struggle and effort and holding close to your breast things from the Scriptures and the services. It’s not so much that we must have particular items memorized, although that’s a very good thing to do; I recommend it highly. But the feeling you get from reading the Scriptures, the curiosity that Zacchaeus had. It lets you come to that decision, “I want to be better and now I have a way to be better.”
That’s the good news and that’s what we must hold on to. There are going to be times when it’s hard, but if you hold on to that, then there will be a heavenly joy that eclipses earthly sadness.
Try it. During this Lent, fast more strictly than you did before. Go to more services. Pray. Read the Scripture more, or start reading the Scripture. Give alms and do good works.
And you’ll find that you get tired and will want to quit. There will be those voices in you saying, “You’re not really going to get much better. What are you doing all this for?” Don’t listen to those voices.
Listen to that voice which says, “Make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” It’s not just a nursery tale. This is the truth. This is absolutely what happens to the Christian soul. God visits you and fills you with hope. You can’t do anything without hope; nothing. Hope is very precious. Hope must be kindled. It must be nurtured. Take care of your hope.
With God’s grace and your struggle you will be received just as Jesus received Zacchaeus. And our Lord will abide in your house, and you will be saved.