It’s that time of year again. We’re beginning the series of preparatory Sundays before Lent. Every year after Lent is over, I think: I’ll never be able to do that again! Yet it always comes around and we just do it. For some, “Lent” may be a “four-letter word,” denoting a long period of rigorous fasting and self-denial, and heavily penitential liturgical texts and services, but essentially it is something we all really need. These five preceding Sundays are kind of an overture of Lent, giving us an idea of its inner meaning and what we need to live it fruitfully, so we don’t wander aimlessly through the 40 days, waiting till the last moment to get serious about our spiritual efforts.
I think there are three main themes to this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 19:1-10): desire, repentance, and, on the negative side, the pride that manifests in criticism and contemptuous indignation.
First, desire. Fr Alexander Schmemann offers this as the main theme of Zacchaeus Sunday in his book, Great Lent. We’ll never make any progress during Lent if we don’t want to, if we don’t have a real desire to change our lives, to grow spiritually, to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s 40-day struggle in the desert as well as his passion and resurrection. The first stage of this spiritual exercise is shown to us by Zacchaeus: the Gospel says he “sought to see Jesus.” His desire was not a vain or superficial curiosity, for when he met an obstacle, he went to great lengths to overcome it, making up for his natural deficiency by climbing a tree to obtain a better perspective. So, despite his sins—and the people would readily testify that they were many—something within him drew him to Christ. This is the beginning of his salvation, for as Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” So, if Zacchaeus was drawn to encounter Jesus, it was the grace of the Father at work in his soul.
Jesus rewarded this God-given desire of Zacchaeus. Perhaps Zacchaeus initially wanted to remain hidden and anonymous. For one thing, since he was a tax-collector, the most despised occupation in the eyes of the people whose money he was stealing, he would prefer not to have to face all those angry citizens. For another thing, he might have wished to let this first glance at Jesus pass by in silence, and then he could decide later if he wished to become his disciple. But if the Father was drawing him to the Son, then it had to be done the Father’s way. So Jesus stopped at Zacchaeus’ tree, looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” This was not only a calling out of a tree, but a call to repentance, to discipleship and salvation. Come down, Zacchaeus! Begin a new life; embrace the salvation that is being offered you this very moment! Whatever plans Zacchaeus might have had he instantly discarded and joyfully hurried down. He may have perceived this as a great honor for himself, but it is clear that the grace of God was already working in him, for his desire to see Jesus immediately bore fruit in repentance.
When the crowd voiced their disapproval of Jesus’ choice of dinner company, Zacchaeus proved the sincerity of his repentance. He didn’t engage in the externals of repentance, saying “Woe is me!” or making some other pious show of remorse. He immediately promised to change his life, and that’s what real repentance is. And he changed in a big way. He had made a lot of money by overcharging people at the tax booth, but suddenly he’s giving half of all he owns to the poor. And he doesn’t stop there. Half a fortune would still have left him wealthy. But he then said: “If I have defrauded anyone of anything [and he most certainly did!], I restore it fourfold.” There goes the rest of his fortune, and he has suddenly become one of the anawim of the Lord. The Lord knew he was sincere and therefore pronounced a great blessing: “Today salvation has come to this house!” Wouldn’t we all love to hear that from the mouth of the Lord! There was rejoicing among the angels at that moment, for the Son of Man, who came to seek and save the lost, had won another soul for the
One would think that everybody would be rejoicing by this time. But it seems that only Jesus and Zacchaeus were the happy ones, for pride and bitter criticism were poisoning the spirits of the rest of the people. In this case it was not only Pharisees, but it says that all the people murmured: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” There are many components of this poison—contempt, indignation, envy, anger, and haughtiness—but they all flow from pride. They did not want the one they despised to be blessed by Christ, for after all, they were more righteous than he was. Why didn’t the Master come to their houses instead?
Archimandrite Sophrony, in his book, We Shall See Him As He Is, has written an incisive description of the evil of pride. He says: “Nothing that is…proud can draw near [to God]. Pride is abomination, the opposite of Divine goodness. Pride is the principle of evil, the root of all tragedy, the sower of enmity, the destroyer of peace, the adversary of divinely-established order. In pride lies the essence of hell. Pride is the ‘outer darkness’ where man loses contact with the God of love… Repentance alone can deliver us from this hell… He who has experienced divine love finds himself revolted by the poisonous fumes emanating from the passion of pride… Pride separates man from God and shuts him up in himself… The manifestations of pride are innumerable, but they all distort the divine image in man.” That’s why Christ didn’t go into their houses as a guest!
So what shall we learn from all this as we turn our eyes toward the coming of Lent? First, let us desire to see Jesus, to encounter Him personally in the Gospels, in prayer and the sacraments, and in all the events of our daily lives. Let us be willing to overcome all obstacles to getting a new perspective from which to see Him more clearly, and know and love him more deeply. When He sees the sincerity of our desire, He will call us: to repentance and salvation, so let us hasten joyfully to Him and to welcome Him into our hearts more than ever before. And let our repentance be genuine, not just in words, but in practical action, changing for the better, as Zacchaeus did.
Finally, let us avoid pride and all the rotten fruits of it: judging and criticizing others, not allowing them the same chance for repentance that we expect for ourselves, being envious, contemptuous, counting ourselves more righteous than others. For these, all that remains is the outer darkness, cut off from the life and love of God, who receives humble and repentant sinners as his prodigal children. So let us begin our Lenten pre-preparations by making ready our interior homes, our souls, because the Lord wishes to dwell within us, to stay with us. Then we will rejoice to hear those words that all those who hope for eternal life long to hear: “Today salvation has come to this house!”