Saturday, January 20, 2007

Zacchaeus Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Whenever we hear the story of Zacchaeus read in church, we know that the start of Great Lent cannot be far away. This is one of the gospel stories that helps prepare us for the Lenten effort, because the story of Zacchaeus is a story of true repentance, born out of a deep desire to know Jesus Christ.

After believing in the Lord, Zacchaeus initiated remarkable changes in his life to show his repentance. He pledged to give away half of his wealth to the poor and, on top of that, to repay all those whom he had defrauded as a tax-collector, giving back four times as much as he had taken. Although it is not specifically stated here, it is safe to assume that Zacchaeus also amended his business practices from that day forward to no longer cheat people. Sometime later when the Church began, it is highly likely that Zacchaeus was among those who sold all their possessions to lay the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.

What was the purpose of these things, or their value in terms of his repentance? Obviously Zacchaeus had been a man who simply adored money, and had been willing to do whatever it might take to get it. This is an indication of a deep spiritual illness and of the presence of greed, one of the seven grievous sins and a very effective destroyer of souls. Although outwardly Zacchaeus appeared to be a man of great success, he was in fact a dying man who was daily being led deeper and deeper into the darkness of destruction by the unbridled lusts of his own soul.

On that day however, something changed in him. When Zacchaeus opened the door to invite the Lord Jesus into his home, he also opened to Him the door of his heart, inviting Jesus to enter into the habitation of his soul. While the house of Zacchaeus was no doubt lavishly furnished, the soul of Zacchaeus was all desolate and in ruin, and the Lord could not find a suitable place within to lay His head. Seeing this, Zacchaeus suddenly awoke from the slumber of sin and with great zeal immediately cast away practically all the wealth he had once been so careful to acquire, and promised with the help of God to better his way of life. He rebuked the demon of greed if you will, and drove him out of his soul. Because of this, Jesus could truly say, “This day is salvation come to this house,” for our Savior did not necessarily mean that house of wood and stone, but rather the inner house of the soul of Zacchaeus in which the Lord could now joyously dwell.

I think this story illustrates two very important things for us. First, if we desire the Lord to dwell within us, we must take heed to the condition of those very souls that we are inviting Him to enter. “Come, Lord Jesus; take rest on my couch of unforgiving anger and lay Your Sweet Head upon my filthy pillow of burning lust. All within me is covered with the dust of spiritual sloth, stained with the shame of my gluttonous appetites, and stinks of my thankless envy of others. But if you think I’m bad, wait ‘til I tell you about my sister! Why, just the other day she… Oh, are You leaving so soon?”

When the Lord first comes to us, He surely finds us in our sins, just as He did when He entered the house of Zacchaeus. But His presence in our lives is supposed to shine a light on all that filth and help us see what we need to do to allow the Lord to remain with us.

The second thing this story illustrates is that such change is up to us. It doesn’t come about unless we work hard to bring it.

What if Zacchaeus had sat down with the Lord in his house and simply said, “Thank You Jesus for accepting me just as I am. Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven!” It is likely that Jesus would have stood up and left the unrepentant sinner behind. But that isn’t what happened. Zacchaeus understood that to be in fellowship with Jesus, he would have to change his way of life. As we saw, Zacchaeus pledged so much of his wealth in alms and repayments that quite possibly he was left with only about 30% of his original holdings. Talk about repentance! But this is exactly what Zacchaeus took upon himself, and with eagerness.

The point is that repentance, in whatever form it takes, must be meaningful and life-changing. It begins with a sincere desire to have the Lord dwell within us, and is followed by a critical examination of ourselves to determine what needs to change to make that possible. This must be accompanied by the willingness to better ourselves and not just stay stuck in a rut.

We each have things within in our soul that really don’t belong there, that keep us from the kind of enlightenment and communion with God that we could otherwise enjoy. However, how often do we show the energy of Zacchaeus to spring into action over this, or his zeal to attack our sins at their very roots? Far too often we lay in the deep slumber of sin, and while we lament what we see in us, we seem too lethargic to do much about it.

Change is hard; there is no doubt about that. But I suspect that beneath our sloth and slowness to change there exists an even deeper sin, a sin so stealthy that even though each one of us knows we have it, we ourselves scarcely understand how much of an influence it has upon us. I am speaking of the chief of all sins, the sin of pride. The kind of pride I’m talking about here is not just the vanity of thinking that we are slightly better than we really are. I’m talking about the really ugly and dirty kind of pride that deluded the devil into an attempt to set his throne of rule above even that of God Himself. It is this pride that causes us, just like the devil, to struggle against God and resist His rule.

Let me run a thought by you. Whenever we are consistently sloppy about our rule of prayer or our times of fasting, whenever we routinely skip services that we really could make it to but just don’t want to bother, when we fail to financially support the parish if even a small amount given faithfully each month, when we casually disregard the counsel or penance given to us by the priest in confession or avoid the confessional entirely, aren’t these all signs of a rejection of the rule of God in our lives? Perhaps we never thought of it that way. Perhaps in our hearts we feel we have good reason for all our choices. Perhaps we have forgotten that our hearts are desperately sick and darkened and are not at all reliable guides in the spiritual life. Only obedience brings the light and life of God into our lives.

Perhaps then, our repentance should take the form of a stronger obedience to the Church. For some of us, this would represent a repentance as radical as that of Zacchaeus; for all of us this would bring an even deeper blessing. Repentance must be life changing; that’s literally what the word itself means. But there can be no change if we don’t first humble ourselves before the Almighty God and obey what He has already put in front of us in the Church. First that terrible pride must die; that pride of holding back and of telling God “I can’t” or I won’t” or “I want to do it my way”. Start identifying that pride and start putting it to death through obedience, and you will find yourself on your way to remarkable change in your life.

And so my brothers and sisters, let us take this example of Zacchaeus and realize that we too can change. You can have a soul made more pure in which the Lord can truly dwell and from which He can graciously rule your life, if only that is what you desire.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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