Becoming Zacchaeus

Great LentThe Gospel lesson of Luke 19:1-10 is about a very short man, Zacchaeus, who wanted to see Jesus.  In the current lectionary of the Russian Orthodox tradition, this is the last Sunday Gospel lesson before the pre-Lenten Sundays (and the Lenten triodion) begin their cycle of scripture pericopes.  (This is one point at which the Russian and Greek Orthodox lectionaries differ resulting in the fact that during the course of the year not all Orthodox read liturgically the same Scriptures every Sunday).  In current practice for those who read the Zacchaeus pericope it has become already associated with the beginning of Great Lent.  This was made certain due to the popular writings of the liturgical theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.  Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.  And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature.  So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.  And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. 

But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”  Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham;  for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

Archimandrite Zacharias in one of his books offers these thoughts on the Gospel lesson of Zacchaeus:

“According to Cyril of Alexandria, Zacchaeus was consumed with the desire to know God the Saviour in person and to see His kind. This is the seed of salvation and when this seed falls into the heart of man, he has a great longing to see Who the Lord is. Once he is possessed by this longing he will do certain things which will seem mad in the eyes of the world, but which will in fact prepare the way for his first meeting with the Saviour. Such was the case of Zacchaeus when he began to seek the Lord.

And this was the Lord’s desire, for the Son of God came to save sinners. It is hardly astonishing that He should want to save a chief publican: in every time and place, the Lord seeks out His own. Zacchaeus’ desire made him run ahead and climb a sycamore tree so that he could see the Lord, But what was happening in his heart was visible only to Him Who is both God and Man. The crowd could not see the transformation of his heart, nor could they understand the nature of his desire. But even before Zacchaeus had seen Him, the Lord had perceived the movement of Zacchaeus’ heart in a supernatural way, with the eyes of His divinity. He saw that the wild and greedy heart of the chief publican had now begun to soften and, melting with desire, had become transfigured so that he was ready to bear within himself the image of Christ.

Zacchaeus has ignored his reputation and esteem, which hinder man’s approach to God, and he now attracts public scorn. In his shame he becomes kin to the Lord Jesus Who, at this point in the Gospel, is on His way to be crucified on the Cross of shame in order to deliver the world from the shame of sin. In our desire to see the Lord we too will make fools of ourselves, bearing as much shame as possible in order to achieve our goal: to find our Lord and Saviour. We are indifferent to the opinion of men and any fear of becoming a laughing-stock fades away.

For we know that the Lord will grant us the honor of seeing His Face – which is far more beautiful that we can ever imagine – and our souls will be truly satisfied with His glory. On account on his burning desire, then, Zacchaeus despised all his worldly honors and was pleased to look ridiculous in the eyes of the people, if he could only gain a different kind of honor: that of finding favor with the Lord and being visited by Him.” (Remember Thy First Love, pp 70-72)

I Seek the One Seeking Me

You said, “Seek My face,”
My heart said to You, “Your face, LORD, I will seek.”
Do not hide Your face from me…  (Psalm 27:8-9)

Conversion of St. Paul

“My soul yearns after the Lord and I seek Him in tears. How could I do other than seek Thee, for Thou first didst seek and find me, and gavest me to delight in Thy Holy Spirit, and my soul fell to loving Thee. Thou seest, O Lord, my grief and my tears…Hadst Thou not drawn me with Thy love, I could not seek Thee as I seek Thee now; but Thy spirit gave me to know Thee, and my soul rejoices that Thou art my God and my Lord, and I yearn after Thee even to tears.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p 269)

“My heart speaks to You; My face seeks You;

Your face, O Lord, I will seek.

Do not turn Your face away from me.”

(Psalm 26:8-9, Orthodox Study Bible)

Mercy is Justice

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”   (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

“Since justice insists that all people get their due, and since mercy implies that at least some receive what is not their due, how can the two claims avoid contradiction?

Wisdom and Justice

The answer lies in the biblical understanding of our relation to God. He does not owe us our existence but grants it as sheer miraculous gift. There is nothing we could possibly do to compensate for this gift, to make it something deserved – not even to return it. We would be totally indebted even if we were unfallen. Sin hugely magnifies our obligation to the triune God. His deliverance of us from bondage through Israel and Christ and the church makes the debt absolute.

Elijah, Christ, Moses

In the deepest sense, therefore, God’s mercy precedes his justice and serves as its very basis.

His judgement is but the enforcement of his mercy: God insists that we live by the same merciful measure wherein we have been created and redeemed.  [Author JRR] Tolkien repeatedly demonstrates his understanding of this profound paradox that mercy is not contrary to justice but the true realization of it. Over and again we encounter characters who have done wrong and who deserve punishment, but who receive justice in the form of mercy – as their bad deeds often issue in surprisingly good things.” (Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, pp 96-97)

SS Peter & Paul
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

(James 2:13)

What We Should Remember to Fear the Lord

Blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.    (Psalm 1)

St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) reflects on what it takes to just keep the first of the Ten Commandments: fear the Lord.  Perhaps surprisingly, Peter doesn’t call to mind threats from God about punishment for sin.  Rather, he feels we need to call to mind all of the blessings which God bestows upon us, including God’s willlingness to suffer for us and for our salvation on the cross.  For Peter of Damascus what we should fear the most regarding God is sinning against the One who created us and who continually nurtures us and endeavors to save us.

“If, then, we wish to keep the first commandment – that is, to possess fear of the Lord – we should meditate deeply upon the contingencies of life already described and upon God’s measureless and unfathomable blessings. We should consider how much He has done and continues to do for our sake through things visible and invisible, through commandments and dogmas, threats and promises; how He guards, nourishes and provides for us, giving us life and saving us from enemies seen and unseen; how through the prayers and intercessions of His saints He cures the diseases caused by our own disarray; how He is always long-suffering over our sins, our irreverence, our delinquency-over all those things that we have done, are doing, and will do, from which His grace has saved us; how He is patient over our actions, words and thoughts that have provoked His anger, and how He not only suffers us, but even bestows greater blessings on us, acting directly, or through the angels, the Scriptures, through righteous men and prophets, apostles and martyrs, teachers and holy fathers.

Moreover, we should not only recall the sufferings and struggles of the saints and martyrs, but should also reflect with wonder on the self-abasement of our Lord Jesus Christ, the way He lived in the world, His pure Passion, the Cross, His death, burial, resurrection and ascension, the advent of the Holy Spirit, the indescribable miracles that are always occurring every day, paradise, the crowns of glory, the adoption to sonship that He has accorded us, and all the things contained in Holy Scripture and so much else.

If we bring all this to mind, we will be amazed at God’s compassion, and with trembling will marvel at His forbearance and patience. We will grieve because of what our nature has lost – angel-like dispassion, paradise and all the blessings which we have forfeited – and because of the evils into which we have fallen: demons, passions and sins. In this way our soul will be filled with contrition, thinking of all the ills that have been caused by our wickedness and the trickery of the demons.”

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 26185-206)

Methodius: The Deep Things of the Scriptures

In the world today, especially in American Christianity, there are divisive debates opposing biblical literalists with those who do not think every scriptural verse was or is meant to be read only literally.  Similar debates occurred from the beginnings of Christianity.

Early on it was Christians who claimed it was a Jewish demand to read the Scriptures literally that caused them to fail to see the Christ when He appeared on earth and to fail to believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  St. Methodius (martyred 311AD) was a prolific author, whose works (and also works attributed to him) come down to us.  In the two excerpts below, Methodius is engaged in some anti-Jewish polemics, but that is not what interests me.  What I think is relevant to the modern age is that he is quite convinced that if we only read the Scriptures literally (which he says is the Jewish reading of them), we miss the prophecies of God and the ways in which the Old Testament prefigures the events of the new.  Only by reading the Scriptures as oriented toward the future does one understand their true importance and meaning.  In one work attributed to Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, he writes:

“Wherefore let it shame the Jews that they do not perceive the deep things of the Scriptures, thinking that nothing else than outward things are contained in the law and the prophets; for they, intent upon things earthly, have in greater esteem the riches of the world than the wealth which is of the soul.”

10commadmentsThe “deep things of the Scriptures” for Methodius are particularly the way in which the Jewish Scriptures reveal Christ.  One need only look at examples of ancient Jewish commentary on the Scriptures to realize the Jews were often extraordinarily creative in their interpretation of biblical texts.  But there are examples (Midrashim and the halakhic sections of the Talmud) of Jewish scriptural interpretations which are very legalistic and which focus mostly on life on earth and how to live it.  These interpretations are not interested in a future heaven but see Scriptures as teaching us how to live in this world and they seem to be the Jewish interpretations which Methodius has in mind.

Methodius follows a Christian line of thinking which sees the Scriptures as being mainly eschatological – focusing on heaven and leading us to the life in the world to come.  This is exactly where he accuses Jewish teachers of failing to recognize “the deep things of the Scriptures” and of being literalistic and worldly.  So he offers an example:

“For since the Scriptures are in this way divided that some of them give the likeness of past events, some of them a type of the future, the miserable men, going back, deal with the figures of the future as if they were already things of the past. As in the instance of the immolation of the Lamb, the mystery of which they regard as solely in remembrance of the deliverance of their fathers from Egypt, when, although the first-born of Egypt were smitten, they themselves were preserved by marking the door-posts of their houses with blood. Nor do they understand that by it also the death of Christ is personified, by whose blood souls made safe and sealed shall be preserved from wrath in the burning of the world; whilst the first-born, the sons of Satan, shall be destroyed with an utter destruction by the avenging angels, who shall reverence the seal of the Blood impressed upon the former.”    (Methodius, Kindle Location 2302-2312)

So while the Jews see the Passover and Exodus as something which reminds them of the past, and which commemorate God’s saving activities in past history, Methodius points out their deep significance is that they both point out what Christ accomplishes by His death on the cross and they find their fulfillment and meaning in Christ’s saving work.  The importance for Methodius of the Passover and Exodus is not to teach us about ancient history, it is in fact to orient our lives to the future, to be prepared for what God is planning to do.  If we keep looking to the past (which for him is what a literal reading of the Scriptures does to us), we fail to be looking ahead to what God is now doing and where God is now leading us.  As Christians, we are still participating in the Exodus and Passover  in and through Jesus Christ, but not as ancient historical events.  In Holy Week and Pascha each year, we participate in the Passover and Exodus as part of our experience of salvation in Jesus Christ.    We don’t have to look to the past to understand the spiritual importance of these events, for Christ makes them real and accessible to us, and makes them part of our salvation.  We need to experience these events as present realities which we participate in, in Christ, rather than think of them as past events.

When one reads the liturgical texts of Holy Week and Pascha and experiences that week, one realizes indeed we move from death to life and from earth to heaven.  We experience liturgically and in the present the Passover and Exodus, which is what Methodius is writing about.

“And let these things be said for the sake of example, showing that the Jews have wonderfully fallen from the hope of future good, because they consider things present to be only signs of things already accomplished; whilst they do not perceive that the figures represent images, and images are the representatives of truth.

Methodius teaches the correct reading of Scripture is not to see it as a history book to teach about the past, but all of it is written to direct our lives toward the future, toward the eschaton, toward the Kingdom of God which is to come.  The Old Testament is thus mostly a prefiguring of the Christ.  It is meant to be read figuratively as it really is a collection of figures and images that help us recognize the Truth – who is Jesus Christ. Read in this way even the Gospels are not mostly about the history or biography of Christ.  Rather they too gear us toward life in the world to come.

The celebration of Pascha each year is also not gearing us toward a past event, but gears us to the future.  Thus we sing:

Christ IS risen from the dead…

His resurrection is both a current reality which we experience in Pascha, baptism and the Eucharist, but also orients us toward the Kingdom which is still to come.  We do not sing, Christ WAS risen from the dead.  We are not celebrating a past event, but a current and future reality.

For the law is indeed the figure and the shadow of an image, that is, of the Gospel; but the image, namely, the Gospel, is the representative of truth itself. For the men of olden time and the law foretold to us the characteristics of the Church, and the Church represents those of the new dispensation which is to come.

Though the Church exists now and we live in the Church, yet the Church is “the new dispensation which is to come.”  We have a very similar expression in the prayer of the Divine Liturgy in the anaphora in which we give thanks for all the things which have come to pass including “the kingdom which is to come.”   Here we encounter this spiritual sense of time in which already we experience the future which is not yet fully realized!  We thank God for that future Kingdom which is to come as something God has already given us.

Whence we, having received Christ, saying, “I am the truth,” know that shadows and figures have ceased; and we hasten on to the truth, proclaiming its glorious images.   For now we know “in part,” and as it were “through a glass,” since that which is perfect has not yet come to us; namely, the kingdom of heaven and the resurrection, when “that which is in part shall be done away.”

For Methodius, Christians live in this experience of the Kingdom of God which is already available to us and yet not fulfilled.   The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament were models and blueprints of what was to happen.  Christ is the reality of which these promises and prophecies foretold, and yet still there is more to come which we cannot yet fully experience in this life.

Methodius uses this same concept of the now and not yet as his basis for understanding our own lives and our bodies.   In John 2:19-22 we read:

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

Methodius uses this Gospel dialogue as the basis for claiming every human body is a tabernacle.

For then will all our tabernacles be firmly set up, when again the body shall rise, with bones again joined and compacted with flesh. Then shall we celebrate truly to the Lord a glad festal-day, when we shall receive eternal tabernacles, no more to perish or be dissolved into the dust of the tomb. Now, our tabernacle was at first fixed in an immoveable state, but was moved by transgression and bent to the earth, God putting an end to sin by means of death, lest man immortal, living a sinner, and sin living in him, should be liable to eternal curse. Wherefore he died, although he had not been created liable to death or corruption, and the soul was separated from the flesh, that sin might perish by death, not being able to live longer in one dead. Whence sin being dead and destroyed, again I shall rise immortal; and I praise God who by means of death frees His sons from death, and I celebrate lawfully to His honor a festal-day, adorning my tabernacle, that is my flesh, with good works, as there did the five virgins with the five-lighted lamps.”   (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Kindle Location 2326-2343)

For Methodius the resurrection of Christ the Savior is not an event gearing us toward the past and leading us to commemorate old events or reenact them.  Rather, the sacramental and liturgical life are geared to the future which we begin to live and celebrate now in this world in our daily lives as Christians.  Our human bodies have a present, past and future in salvation.

If we read the Scriptures, including the New Testament, as mostly historical records of past events, we miss their very importance.  For all Scripture in Methodius’ interpretation gears us to the Kingdom of God.  The Old Testament was meant to guide and direct God’s people toward the coming Messiah.  But, not only that.  For the Old Testament when properly read orients us toward the coming Kingdom of God which is present on earth in Christ and His Church, but which is yet to be fully realized and is still to come.  The Old Testament and the New are both point us toward that Kingdom, the eschaton, which is to come.   Thus all Scripture is geared toward the future, to the fulfillment of the Kingdom.  Rather than anchoring us to the past Scriptures propel us to the future eschaton and life in the world to come.  This is the same purpose that Tradition serves in the Church.  Unfortunately, just as Methodius accuses the Jews of misunderstanding Scripture by failing to understand them as directing us to the future, so too some Orthodox misunderstand Tradition and see it as anchoring us to the past rather than as propelling us toward the eschaton and life in the world to come.   The misreading of Tradition can misdirect us in life.

As St. Paul who is the Apostle to us says:

“Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:13-14)

Sinners and Sickness

“Desert spirituality understood that the inner journey was one of warfare. Any weapon might be used against the seeker.

Amma Syncletica was known for her profound gifts of the discernment of spirits. She had a keen perception of what was going on in someone’s inner struggles. Any situation can be used by the evil one to distract and confuse us, discourage us, and try to move us toward despair or apathy. Any situation can be an opportunity for learning and growth. For Amma Syncletica, a ‘sinner’ is one who allows circumstances to disrupt prayerful pursuit of God or who gives up the inner journey altogether. Detachment allows us the reflective space and inner freedom to recognize these attacks and learn from them. Keeping the eye of our soul upon our ultimate goal helps us to not get hooked by the turbulence of daily life.

The evil one attacks our sense of self-worth and feeds our internalized self-hatred. Discouragement and depression can move us toward despair and a loss of hope in God. When we live out of our wounded sense of self-worth, we tend not to trust the inner wisdom and intuition given each of us by God. She also said, ‘If illness weighs us down, let us not be sorrowful as though, because of the illness and the prostration of our bodies, we could not sing, for all these things are for our good, for the purification of our desires. Truly fasting and sleeping on the ground are set before us because of our sensuality. If illness then weakens this sensuality, the reason for these practices are superfluous. For this is the great asceticism: to control oneself in illness and to sing hymns of thanksgiving to God.’”  (Laura Swam, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, pp 48-49)

Love is Action, Not Reaction

St. Isaac of Ninevah (6th Century) makes a very astute theological observation about God.  St. Isaac’s basic premise is that God is love, and everything God does is an extension of the Divine love.  God’s actions toward human beings and God’s activities in creation cannot be inconsistent with God’s very nature.

God by definition of God’s nature is not altered by time or change, so God is forever acting toward creation, not reacting to it.  Human behavior, including sin or rebellion against the will of God, does not change God.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit continue to love their creation because that is their very nature.  The mystery of course is that we exist in time and God does interact with us.  God is not an impersonal force, but in a manner beyond our comprehension, takes into account what we do with the free will God has bestowed on us.  God has created the universe with quantum uncertainty.  These are factors God deals with in God’s eternal being – they all are part of creation as God intended it and as God loves it.  And the mystery deepens for God in Christ enters into creation in the incarnation, subjecting Himself to time and space.  None of this changes God’s nature or the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

St. Isaac ponders:

“But we know that everyone is agreed on this, that there is no change, or any earlier and later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser (place) in His love, no before or after in His knowledge. For if it is believed by everyone that the creation came into existence as a result of the Creator’s goodness and love, (then) we know that this (original) cause does not ever diminish or change in the Creator’s nature as a result of the disordered course of creation.”

(Isaac of Ninevah, The Second Part: Chapters IV-XLI, p 161)

Adam naming the animals

Because we exist in space and time and are temporal, mortal beings we experience God’s love within our human experience and interpret it as love or justice or anger or grace or judgment.   Our experience of the Divine is real, yet tempered by our created, mortal natures.  We may gain glimpses into the Divine Life, but our understanding of it is shaped and limited by our own limits, and by the limits language imposes on our ability to conceive and explain.

God’s love is not diminished by God’s interaction with us nor by God’s ability to condescend to our limited understanding.  We experience God within our capabilities of understanding and articulation.  This does not change the love of God or the God who is love.

The Canaanite Woman is My Sister

The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.

It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel.  (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)

But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

The Children’s Bread

The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter.  Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.

In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson.  Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for.  The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them.  The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites.  Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.

 “Abba Poeman said:

‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”

(Poeman in Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 260)

Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us.   But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color.  We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away.  But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers.  And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.

Nature as Scripture

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19-20)

“There came to St. Anthony in the desert one of the wise men of that time and said: ‘Father, how can you endure to live here, deprived as you are of all consolation from books?’

Anthony answered: ‘My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and whenever I wish I can read in it the works of God.’”

(Evagrius of Pontus in The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware, p 54)