Sunday, February 6, 2011

Eleventh Sunday before Pascha (Zacchaeus Sunday)

[In the Byzantine calendar, today is Zacchaeus Sunday, whose readings for the Divine Liturgy form the basis of my consideration below.]

1 Timothy 4:9-15 / Luke 19:1-10

 Our Gospel today begins as something of a comedy. Zacchaeus is, under one description, a big man. He is chief of the publicans, and as a result, he is very rich, a man worthy of deference and consideration, if not respect. On the other hand, Zacchaeus is a small man. Said simply, he is short, so short that he cannot see over the heads of his fellows, so short that he cannot even elbow his way through the crowd to see Jesus. Yet, this man, who might well be presumed to care about what others think and say about him, a man of wealth and power, but who doubtless had to fight off scorn even from his youth because of his stature and now endures the scorn from his less than savory occupation, does something remarkable. So desirous is he to see Jesus as he passed along the way that he threw all considerations of public dignity aside and, like a child on holiday or an unruly youth, he climbs a tree to get a better look. If ever he thought of preserving his public dignity, he has abandoned such a project now, this short, rich man in full view among the branches of the sycamore tree.

Yet, if we focus on what is comedic here, we risk passing over something deep and life-giving, a sign of the saving power of Christ at work even in anticipation of his saving work on the Cross and from the empty Tomb. We recall another moment of God's passing, this time not in the last of age of the world, but at the dawn of the human family, when God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day. We recall another man who had reason to consider his dignity, this time because he was the first man, Adam, the father of all men. Yet, while Zacchaeus the sinner dangled from the sycamore branch for all to see, Adam the sinner sought to hide himself. At the Lord's invitation, Zacchaeus made haste, came down, and received him joyfully, while at the Lord's questioning, Adam hid himself in shame for his nakedness. Even hearing the accusation of his fellows that he was a sinner, Zacchaeus responds to the Lord's presence with uncommon gratitude: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. When the Lord questions Adam about his transgression, the father of our race responds with an ingratitude all to common among his sons, accusing his wife and reminding the Lord of his responsibility in her making: The woman, whom you gave me to be my companion, gave me of the tree, and I did eat. Where Zacchaeus' repentance and gratitude are blessed — This day is salvation come to this house — Adam's tragic fall is the subject of his curse, and with him, all of us his sons — For dust you are, and unto dust you will return.

There is a rightful concern of our dignity before our fellows, especially when we have a role of authority and are expected to model good behavior to those in our care. This is, after all, part of Paul's admonition to Timothy: Be an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Yet, prior to this advice, Paul reminds Timothy not to concern himself about others' estimation of his dignity and worthiness, those who would despise his youth. Rather, his task is to proclaim the Gospel, to exhort, to preach, whatever others might say. Like Zacchaeus, in the light of the presence of the Word of God made flesh, Timothy is to be willing even to appear childish, so long as he does not neglect the gift of the grace in Jesus Christ. To draw back, to modify our temper our zeal of coming to see Jesus for the sake of earthly dignity, no matter how good such a thing may be in our lives as social creatures, is to forsake our rebirth into Christ and be tempted to put back on the old man, our father Adam.

God is calling each of us, as he called to Adam, and as he called to Zacchaeus. He is calling us to make haste, to come down from the pedestals of our own self-regards, so that he might dwell in the house of our souls. When he calls, let us not hide ourselves, but openly let us confess our sins, respond in generosity to those whom God calls us to love, and enter the banquet he has prepared.

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