Monday, January 18, 2010

The Repentance of Zacchaeus

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

This morning, with the reading of the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), we begin our period of pre-lenten preparation which this year will run for four weeks until the start of Great Lent on February 15th. As always during this time, the Sunday gospel lessons will present us with selected themes pertaining to the major action of Great Lent, which is the action of repentance.

Many people misunderstand repentance. Some describe it as a feeling of regret for wrongs committed, others as the effort to put an end to those wrongs. Still others see it as an attempt to gain the forgiveness of God through religious means. None of these explanations offers an adequate description of the fuller meaning of repentance. They are like trying to describe the experience of flying in a luxury private jet as “not walking”. That may be partly true, but it hardly gives us the full understanding we might be after.

Repentance is better described as a turning away from death to embark upon the path leading to the fullness of life in the kingdom of God. It is primarily a positive action, and a lifelong one. Another way to describe repentance is to simply call it “the Christian life”. The Christian life certainly involves the steady and continuous putting to death of the deeds of the flesh, but also includes our active sharing in the life of God in Christ, a sharing which brings about our gradual transformation from glory to glory by the effects of His divine and spiritual life within us. Repentance must not be thought of only as a negative action, or an occasional one. It must be seen as a continuous, positive movement toward God, leading us toward the glorification of our humanity.

With that description in mind, we can see that calling Great Lent a special time of repentance is a bit of a concession to our weakness. For the Christian, all of life should involve this positive action of repentance, this steady progression toward God. But as we all know so well, we often slip comfortably back into our old ways of doing things, and do not focus as sharply as we should on the pursuit of God. Lent is therefore presented to us each year as the opportunity to renew our zeal, redouble our efforts, and enter more fervently into the Christian life. Our pre-lenten gospels lessons help us to prepare for this effort by presenting us with great stories of repentance from the holy scriptures. Today it’s the story of Zacchaeus, the little man who quite literally “rose above the crowd” in his great desire to see the Lord Jesus.

The streets of Jericho that day were filled with many curious onlookers who had turned out to catch a glimpse of this famous Jesus of Nazareth as He passed by. And pass them by He did, for the Lord has little interest in satisfying the needs of the merely curious. Those who had come out for nothing more than a moment’s entertainment however soon found it in the person of Zacchaeus, a wealthy and much-despised tax collector for the Roman government, who bolted ahead in all his fine and expensive apparel and scrambled up into the limbs of a sycamore tree because he was too short to see over the heads of the crowd.

No doubt those who witnessed this event were put somewhere between laughter and derision at the sight. But if Zacchaeus felt any shame over his loss of dignity, he neither showed it, nor did he allow it to keep him from what he sought. With a sudden and deep desire that perhaps he himself did not anticipate, Zacchaeus wanted with all his heart to see the Lord, and would let nothing stand in his way. Because Zacchaeus’ desire was genuine, the Lord took special notice of him, and soon entered into his household, bringing salvation to all who dwelt there.

The first lesson we can take from this story is the importance of desire in the heart of any who would draw near to Jesus. This is especially important as we anticipate the holy and saving season of Great Lent. People often characterize lent as a time of “giving things up” and of course our flesh resists that practice greatly. With all the extra services of prayer, together with the fasting and almsgiving that lent demands, we are indeed asked to give up more of our time, certain foods and drink we love, and more of our money as well. But like repentance itself, we must begin to think of Great Lent as a positive action, and look to all the wonderful things we stand to gain from it.

Lent offers us the opportunity to quiet our flesh a bit, together with that unreasoning desire for the things of this fallen world that our flesh can’t seem to shake. It offers us a much closer communion with God and a greater awareness of His presence in our lives. It helps weaken our addiction to this world a bit more, as begin to see ourselves truly as members of the kingdom of heaven. Fueled by our desire for the good things of God and our expectation that He will supply them, Great Lent can be a time of bringing the grace and healing of God into our lives and households in order that we might remember how life can be lived more consistently if we so desire and choose.

Besides the need for this true desire for God in the Christian’s heart, the story of Zacchaeus also shows us what proper repentance looks like and how important this is. As the Lord sat at table in the tax-collector’s house, the crowd outside complained that Jesus had gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner. Perhaps aware of this, and painfully aware of the truth of it, Zacchaeus exclaimed, “Behold Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold!” Please notice that it was only after Zacchaeus made this pledge of repentance that Jesus declared to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man also is a son of Abraham”.

There is no need to enter into the whole “faith vs. good works” debate that has so occupied Protestant/Catholic debate over the last 500 years. It is sufficient to demonstrate here that in the gospel Jesus preached, both faith and works were necessary to establish one as a child of Abraham and an inheritor of the promise of salvation. What if Zacchaeus had not made his pledge of repentance? What if he had merely enjoyed the Lord’s brief presence only to continue on with his life as before? Do we imagine that Jesus would have made the same joyous proclamation of salvation to such an unrepentant man?

Great Lent focuses our attention on repentance as a reminder that in the Christian life, faith without works is dead. It is also useful to observe that repentance seldom looks exactly the same for any two Christians. For one it was surrendering half his goods to the poor; for another it was “sell all that you possess and give to the poor”. Our needed repentance depends on whatever exists in our lives that we love more than God, and whatever it is that keeps us from following Christ with a good faith and a pure heart. Whatever our individual needs may be, Great Lent helps us find them and put them first in our lives once again. It can be a time of tremendous spiritual renewal and growth for us. May God help us to pursue it this year with all our hearts.

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


At 1/25/2010 11:58 PM , Blogger Joshua said...

I don't remember if I mentioned it, Father, but this was a sermon I needed to hear that Sunday. Glory to God.

At 1/28/2010 12:04 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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