What to Do with Enemies and Evil People

Think about the word prayer. Prayer is the giant step of taking into your heart, the center of your life, your appeal to God for the well-being and healing of another person’s life. It is not a sentimental action but an act of will and an obedience to God, knowing that God seeks the well-being and salvation of each person. After all, each person, no matter how misguided or damaged, is nonetheless a bearer of the image of God. If it pains you to imagine the intentional destruction of an icon, how much more distress should we feel when an human being is harmed or killed?

I’m talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer heroism to sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of the Gospel According to Hollywood is that the evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their death.

Confronted by such pure evil, what else can one do? But the teaching of Christ is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity.  It’s like the transformation of water into wine that Christ performed at the wedding feast in Cana. We are commanded to convert our enmity into love, and it starts with prayer.”

(Jim Forest, “The Healing of Enmity,In Communion Fall 2006, p. 13)

Seeing, Nay Seeking, Christ in Others

Two poems related to themes found in Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).  The first poem, untitled, is by St Maria Sobtskova.

I searched for singers and for prophets

who wait by the ladder to heaven,

see signs of the mysterious end,

sing songs beyond our comprehension.

And I found people who were restless, orphaned, poor,

drunk, despairing, useless,

lost whichever way they went,

homeless, naked, lacking bread.

There are no prophecies. Only life

continuously acts as a prophet.

The end approaches, days grow shorter.

You took a servant’s form. Hosanna.

(Pearl of Great Price, p. 51-52)

For St. Maria, if we seek Christ or the holy ones who follow Him, we might be surprised whom we find or in whom we find Him, the Lord God who makes Himself a servant and washes the feet of the least of His brothers and sisters.

In the second poem, “DE Way T’ings Come”, American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar writing poetically in an English dialect he sometimes used puzzles over how unlike the Good Samaritan we can be – working to feed those who are well fed  and avoiding those in need.

De way t’ings happen, huhuh, chile,

Dis worl’ ‘s done puzzled me one w’ile;

I ‘s mighty skeered I ‘ll fall in doubt,

I des’ won’t try to reason out

De reason why folks strive an’ plan

A dinnah fu’ a full-fed man,

An’ shet de do’ an’ cross de street

F’om one dat raaly needs to eat.

(The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar,  Kindle Location 5587-5591)

(For the poetically and dialectically challenged, the poem’s last lines are:  I just won’t try to reason out the reason why folks strive and plan a dinner for a full-fed man, and shut the door and cross the street from one that really needs to eat.)

 

The Parable of the Last Judgment (2019)

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Our life as Christians is and is supposed to be a journey.  Our life as Christians is a spiritual sojourn, which as Americans we tend to think is our personal journey, a very private one which doesn’t involve others much.  It’s just between me and God.   Yet all of the imagery and prayers of the Church portray the spiritual life as a community journeying together, like Israel did on its escape from Egypt and as it wandered the desert for 40 years.  We read the spiritual journey of that community in the book of Exodus and through most of the Torah.   Never was that a private journey for those involved, but they experienced all the events and they experienced God as a community.

You and I are part of that same community journey, we are traveling on a grand journey to the ultimate destination, the Kingdom of Heaven.  Like all journeys it can have moments that are arduous or difficult, at other times it might seem long and boring, and at times intense or exciting.  But it is meant to be experienced together as members of the Body of Christ.  From the moment we are baptized we are part of the Body of Christ – we are baptized into Christ, into His Body.   So at no time are we ever a Christian individual.  In the early Church they taught, “One Christian is no Christian.”    We only can practice the love that Jesus taught if there are others around us for us to love and serve.  Holy Communion carries the notion of community in it.  We pray “Our Father…”   We assemble together to show we are part of the community and to remind ourselves that we share a common life with all those who are in the Body of Christ.

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We are as a community approaching Great Lent, this is part of our journey together in which we especially think about our Lord’s words “to take up our cross daily, to deny ourselves and to follow Him.”

But this journey follows an unusual path, for on this sojourn we are asked to travel deep inside ourselves, to examine our own hearts and to let the light of Christ shine into our hearts, so that every part of our self can become light.  We are endeavoring to submit every aspect of our lives and every single thought of our minds, and each feeling in our hearts to the judgment and Lordship of Jesus Christ our God.  This is the journey we are about to embark on.  So this great journey to the Kingdom of Heaven which we take with all our fellow believers is also a journey into our hearts.  We each are to examine our hearts and then we open our hearts to another in confession to share what we find there, so that we can make room for Christ and to rid ourselves of all those things which separate us from God and from one another.

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We enter Great Lent together – next week on Forgiveness Sunday.  Forgiveness too shows us the journey is not individualistic for we need to forgive others and ask their forgiveness.  Being a Christian always involves other Christians.    Great Lent is not meant to be just a private journey, a free solo climb of a mountain, but rather it is a communal experience – we attend the same services, eat the same foods, say the same prayers, deny ourselves the same pleasures so that we have a common mind, the mind of Christ.

We fast to make our thoughts, our feelings, our cravings, our desires, our hearts, our minds and our bodies obedient to Christ.  Fasting is a tool to help us carry the cross of Christ and to be aware that we are in fact choosing to carry the cross of Christ.  As St Paul said in today’s epistle, “Certainly food will not bring us into God’s presence; if we do not eat we are none the worse, and if we do eat, we are none the better.”  (1 Cor 8:8)

We are learning how to sojourn together as Christian family.  We worship together, stand together, sit together, make the sign of the cross together, commune together to help us experience Christ which we can do only as the Body of Christ.

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And if we pay attention to the Gospel Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), we see it is nations which are assembled before God, not individuals.  We are judged in and part of a community, so we have a responsibility to make our community the right community for Christ for we share in the judgment that the entire community faces.

As you contemplate the Judgment as described in Matthew 25, consider these thoughts:

1]   We are going to be judged by whether we treated the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters with mercy, compassion, generosity, love.  We show love to Christ by showing love to the least of His brothers and sister.  Am I doing for others what I would do for Christ Himself?

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2]   St Basil the Great on blessings received:  “If you hoard them, you won’t have them, if you scatter them, you won’t lose them.”    Generosity is seed planting and we will benefit from the harvest.  Besides, by giving to the poor we make God indebted to us, at least so said many of the early saints.

3]  Offer hospitality and charity to the stranger in need, so that at the judgment you will not be counted by Christ as a stranger to Him, but rather He will speak to you as a cherished friend:  Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’  (Matt 25:34-36)

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A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”   (John 13:34-35)

 

Bible Reading: Gateway to the Spiritual Life

“Constant pondering on the holy scriptures will always fill the soul with incomprehensible wonder and joy in God.

We should consider the labor of reading the Scriptures to be something extremely elevated, whose importance cannot be exaggerated. For it serves as the gate by which the intellect enters into the divine mysteries, and takes on strength for attaining to luminosity in prayer.

The reading of Scripture is manifestly the fountainhead which gives birth to prayer.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p.. 8, 36, 38)

God be Merciful to Me

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.”  (Luke 6:27-30)

St John Chrysostom, once asked about what kind of people would ask God to do something that goes against God’s own commandments.  He was thinking it is you and I!

“Those that make requests it is fitting for God to grant, not beseeching him for what is opposed to his laws.  And who is so bold, you ask, as to make God grant what is opposed to his laws?  Those who intercede with him against their enemies; this, of course, is at variance with the law decreed by him.  He says, remember, ‘forgive your debtors.’ (Matthew 6:12).   But do you call on him against your enemies when he has bidden you pardon them?  What could be worse than this absurdity?  In prayer you should have the appearance, attitude and approach of a suppliant; so why do you adopt another guise, that of accusation?  I mean, how would you succeed in gaining pardon of your own faults when you expect God to be the punisher of other’s crimes?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, p 52)

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  (Colossians 3:12-13)

How Do I Confess My Sins?

Confess your sins one to another,” bids us the disciple and brother of the Lord, “and pray one for another, that we may be healed;” and, “if we confess our sins,” the beloved disciple pledges himself also, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” How shall I confess?  By imitating the prodigal in falling down and crying out to the Lord with contrite heart and humbleness of spirit, “I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight; receive me, Father, in my repentance.

How shall I confess? By departing from error and by abominating sin. For it thou shalt turn, and humble thyself before the Lord, and remove unrighteousness far from thy habitation, the Almighty shall be thy helper. And, “Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you,” saith the Lord Almighty. How shall I confess? By turning with all my heart, and by humbling myself with fasting and lamentation and rending of the heart. “For now,” saith the Lord our God, “turn ye to me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with lamentation; and rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God, for He is merciful and compassionate, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy.” How shall I confess? By pitying the poor and the beggar, and by forgiving my neighbor’s faults.

For it says, “The merciful shall obtain mercy,” and, “forgive and it shall be forgiven you,” and “a man’s mercy is to Him as a signet,” and it is a good gift to them that do it before the most High. Thus is sin wiped out, thus are we cleansed of faults.

(St. Photius, The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, pp. 45-46)

The Sunday of the Loving Father

A connoisseur of fine wine pays attention to the details of the texture and flavor of the wine.  Because Jesus teaches us using parables, we have to become connoisseurs of the stories, noting the various hints and contours of what Christ has created for us in order for us to fully savor what He is revealing to us.  His parables are not meant to be guzzled or gulped down but rather are to be slowly imbibed in order to experience and enjoy the complex and deep lessons.

Though the Gospel text Luke 15:11-32 is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it probably is better termed the Parable of the Loving Father.  Note how Christ starts the parable:  “A certain man had two sons..” – the “man” of the parable, the father of the two sons, really is the central character in the story.  Christ doesn’t begin by saying  there were two brothers or that there was a man who had a father and an older brother.  Christ is telling a parable about the man, the father, the character who holds the whole parable together.  The story is like an icon triptych with the two brothers being the side panels, but the father being the central panel and the main focus of the triptych.

There are many details in the parable we could focus on to understand either of the two brothers, and in Orthodoxy the most frequent reference point is the younger brother coming to his senses and deciding to return to his father – an image of repentance in these pre-Lenten days.

One thing we might explore is how what the younger son asks from his father compares with the Lord’s prayer – both are addressed to the Father.  The younger son says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”  Contrast this with the Lord’s prayer in which we say:   “Our Father … thy will be done … give us this day our daily bread.”  In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for enough bread for the day not for everything our Father might give us in a lifetime in one day!   The Prodigal is not interested in his father’s will and certainly he is not concerned about having his needs met for the day, he just wants to self-indulge right now.

When the younger son returns to his father, he says:    ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy (Greek: axios) to be called your son.’  The Prodigal Son acknowledges his own unworthiness to be called a son.  He uses the word “Axios” which is used of the candidate at an ordination service in the Orthodox Church.    We also see in this the son defining in his mind the nature of “sonship” – it is about worthiness, about earning the position (this actually is also going to be the same attitude as the older brother – both brothers misunderstand their father and his love and the nature of sonship!  They don’t see the father giving them his love, they see themselves as earning their way and thus deserving  his  gifts – they really both are hired servants).   The Prodigal realizes as a result of his own behavior,  he is not a very worthy child, certainly not worthy of his father’s favor.  He thinks that at least maybe he can be a hired employee of his father.  But he has a very distorted view of what it is to be child of his father.  He sees his father as the big daddy with the big bucks – the man who has all the power and he is trying to wrest some of that power to his own advantage.  This by the way is what many ancient people thought was how to approach the many gods who infested their world – manipulate them to get things from them.  They didn’t love their gods, they used them to get what they wanted from them, and so too the gods used the people for their own purposes and needs.  No love in that religion.

But note that the younger son does not ask for forgiveness from his father nor does he do anything to seek reconciliation with his father.  In his mind there is no way he can earn sonship back so he skips seeking reconciliation and looks to get hired on which is how he basically sees his father; besides he has already taken all the property and wealth that he could claim.   He fails to understand what it means to be a child.  What he still doesn’t understand is his father’s love is given freely, it is not earned, it is not deserved.  In the whole parable, the father has not run out of love for his son.  The son may have taken away half his father’s property and all the wealth he, the son, is entitled to, but he has not taken away all the father’s love nor could he ever squander all the love his father has.  The father is still full of love which he eagerly gives to the son.  That should be obvious in the parable. The father continues to treat the son as son and shows that for the father sonship is a relationship of love that can’t be lost or taken away.  If being a child is defined in terms of inheritable property this young man is in trouble, but this father has little concern for the property value which has been lost.  That is nothing compared to the relationship he has with his child.

Quite literally: The father has nothing but love for his child.  He has nothing but love to give to his child.

When the father talks to the slaves (Greek: doulos), he commands them as slaves (doulos) to dress the son and adorn him and prepare a feast for the son.  The father has plenty of slaves who have to obey him, but he is not interested in another obedient slave.  He wants a son, a child not another hired servant.  The father loves his son and the father clearly treats his slaves like slaves.  But the father wants this child to be his child, not just a hired servant.

The older brother also has trouble understanding what it is to be a child of his father.   First, I would note that the slaves in the parable do understand there is a difference between themselves and the brothers.   The slaves say, “your brother has returned”.  Your father is celebrating the return of your brother.  The servants know they are servants, but this missing child of the father, the prodigal, he still is his father’s son.  The slaves know there is a difference between themselves as servants and a child of the master, but the father’s own children don’t understand this distinction.  They act as if they are nothing more than hirelings themselves.

When the elder brother hears the party for his brother in full swing,he refuses to go into the father to talk to him but  rather, makes the father come out to him (In effect, he treats his father like his servant!  Come here, I want to talk to you!) (Note the father also went out to greet the prodigal on his return – the father is willing to leave his home, to leave everything behind, in order to maintain or restore the relationship with his children).  The elder brother says “these many years I have served (douleuo) you, I have never transgressed one of your commandments.”  The elder brother sees his years of living with his father as nothing more than servitude.  The elder brother whines that for all these years I have been your slave and totally obeyed you, though I resent it.   He has not been a son acting in love but a slave.  And it bears repeating, the father doesn’t want another obedient slave, he has plenty of those.   He wants a son, a child, one who shares his life, his love and all his earthly goods.   [St Symeon the New Theologian, in one of his poems has God saying this: “… ‹to learn› precisely that I am God creator of all things, (Sir 24.8) to know and understand that the person sitting in the deepest pit has been reconciled to Me, (Ps 87.7) and converses with Me without mediation like a friend to a friend, (Ex 33.11) having passed beyond the rank of hired servant and the fear of slavery, serving Me tirelessly, attending Me with love, associating with Me by obedience to the commandments. I do not mean those who serve Me as employees, nor again those who come to Me as slaves, but I speak of those who are my friends, familiars, and my sons by their actions.”   (Divine Eros, Kindle Location 9096-9108)   A very similar theme to what we see of the loving Father in the ‘Prodigal’ parable.]

The Elder brother harshly accuses the younger brother of consorting with prostitutes (15:30) yet early on (15:13) all the text says is that the younger son lived as a prodigal (wasteful, extravagant, excessive, self-indulgent) life.  The text doesn’t list any sins of the intemperate younger brother.  The older brother is sure that his younger brother is not merely foolish but a sinner and evil.

The father accepts his lost son back, but the elder son sounds just like the Pharisees at the beginning of this chapter in  Luke 15:1-6  –

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’

The elder brother is a Pharisee – he accuses his father of receiving sinners and eating with them.  The father is the good shepherd who goes out to seek and find the lost and celebrate being reconciled with them, no matter why they left to begin with.

The father says to his elder son:  Child (teknon, child, but this time doesn’t call him  my son!), you are always with me and own everything  (note in vs 12 the father divided the proper and gave it to them (autois in the plural, not just to the younger son but to both sons!).  The father is saying,  you are my son, not my slave!   Be merry and rejoice!   I don’t want your obedience I want your love and joy.  I want to be with you.  The father says, by law all that I have is yours – but what he wants his son to have is love and joy which no law could make him accept or do!  The father wants a relationship with his child that is based in love not law.  The father is quite willing to do whatever the law requires, but his heart is in loving his children.

There are many lessons for us to learn from this parable and we can like wine connoisseurs savor the many lessons offered to us.   We might also think about applying the lessons to ourselves.  Which of three people in Christ’s parable are you?

The prodigal child – initially wasteful and foolish, who repents and begs mercy but who doesn’t believe he could ever be a child of the father because he is unworthy.  The father loves him anyway and embraces him despite his faults and despite the fact that he can’t buy or earn the father’s favor.

The elder son – diligent and hardworking, faithful, but lacking in mercy, love and forgiveness, but who also thinks the father’s love must be earned.  He too doesn’t s believe the father freely gives his love.  Thus he is angry that the father shows himself to be loving, merciful, forgiving and generous to both his undeserving brother and to himself.  He doesn’t believe in the father’s grace or love.  He won’t forgive his brother or his father or himself.  Really he rejects his father freely giving him or his brother good things.  The elder brother is saying, “I earned your favor, you aren’t giving me anything, I worked for it.”

The father –  full of hope, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness who is ever striving to bring about reconciliation and unity and to uphold what he values so dearly for his family?  He gives freely and generously to those who are his children, and he holds no grudges, and he forgives all debts.

Jesus tells us to love one another as He has loved us.  He has loved us like the father in the parable loves his children.  Are we willing to do the same?

The Sinner and Humility

“Today we heard the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Lk. 18.10-14). It speaks of humility. I won’t repeat the story to you now, because you all know it perfectly well. But within the larger meaning of the parable, there’s something I’d like you to take careful note of. The Pharisee thought he knew God. He believed that he and God were friends. He was, however, mistaken in this belief, and it was rather the other man, the Publican, who was God’s friend.

The Pharisee thought he knew God, but he didn’t. It’s not that easy to know God. But because he faithfully observed the outward rules of religion, he was under the false impression that God was somehow in his debt, that God owed him something. God for him was a kind of accountant, keeping a set of books showing what people owed him and what He owed them. But it’s not like that.

The moment the Pharisee said, I’m not like those other people (cf. Lk. 18.11), he cut himself off from God. Why? Because God is humble, and since the Pharisee felt no need for humility, it follows that he felt no need for God. He knew the law, and the traditions of his faith, but he did not know God.

The Publican, on the other hand, had no illusions about himself. He was sunk up to his neck in the swamp of his sins. And yet, even though he was awash in the slime of his transgressions, what did he say to God? Be merciful to me a sinner (Lk. 18.13). And at the moment, in his sinful, suffering, disconsolate heart, he felt certain that he was justified (Lk. 18.14), which means that God recognized and received him. As a sinner he had been living in darkness, but his humility brought him into the light of paradise and granted him communion with God.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 296-297)

The Good Will Factor

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.   (Matthew 7:12)

“There is nothing we can offer to God more precious than good will. But what good is will? To have good will is to experience concern for someone else’s adversities as if they were our own; to give thanks for our neighbor’s prosperity as for our own; to believe that another person’s loss is our own, and also that another’s gain is ours;

to love a friend in God, and bear with an enemy out of love; to do to no one what we do not want to suffer ourselves, and to refuse to no one what we rightly want for ourselves; to choose to help a neighbor who is in need not only to the whole extent of our ability, but even beyond our means. What offering is richer, what offering is more substantial than this one? What we are offering to God on the altar of our hearts is the sacrifice of ourselves!”

(St Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p. 65)

Zacchaeus (2019)

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.”   (Luke 19:1-10)

The Gospel lesson of the tax collector Zacchaeus, at least in the Slavic Orthodox tradition, is always the last Sunday Gospel lesson of the Lucan Gospel cycle of readings (basically autumn into winter).  As such, in the Slavic Orthodox tradition it also foretells the coming of Great Lent for with this Gospel we bring the old year to a close and will now move into the Pre-Lenten Sunday Gospel cycles – known in Orthodoxy as the beginning of the Triodion.   [Non-Slavic Orthodox tradition proclaims the Gospel of the Canaanite woman before the Lenten Triodion begins.  In Orthodoxy variation in practice is quite normal on so many levels.  Orthodoxy is not a monolith with all Orthodox always doing all the same things.  This has for many centuries been the accepted practice and received Tradition of the Church.  What is being done in one Orthodox parish or tradition differs from what is being done in another parish or tradition.    This is not seen as dividing the Church or breaking the unity of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”]

In past years in my sermons I often joined the chorus of those who trampled on Zacchaeus as a sinner who has a miraculous conversion in his encounter with Christ.  It is how the story is often interpreted and because in Slavic Orthodox tradition it is the precursor to Great Lent, a theme of a sinner who repents is often read into the story.  But there is another possible interpretation of this Gospel lesson.  If one pays close attention to the text, one sees that the Jewish crowd certainly reacts to Zacchaeus as if he is a terrible sinner.  They smell the stench of sin on him and are repulsed by the fact that Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house.   But note what Zacchaeus says to Jesus when Jesus is in his home:

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.”

Usually this is interpreted that Zacchaeus has a change of heart, a conversion, and the text is saying “from this moment I wlll give and I will restore.”

But in the Greek text Zacchaeus speaks in the present tense – not I will begin doing this, but he states what he is doing.  Zacchaeus says he gives half his income to the poor.  The crowd has wrongfully presumes Zacchaeus is filthy rich, greedy and dishonest because he is a tax collector.  They have judged him harshly without knowing the facts.  The crowd is guilty of judgmentalism and presumption.  Christ shows the crowd, “you are guilty of misjudging this man.”  You are guilty of sin, not him.

The Gospel lesson is thus not so much about repentance but about reconciliation. Zacchaeus was doing the right thing all along, but in secret.   The people misjudged him because they saw him as rich and a tax collector, so presumed he was dishonest.  But what Christ shows the people is that Zacchaeus is a good man, a true son of Abraham.  Christ offers reconciliation between Zacchaeus and the Jewish crowd.    Zacchaeus was lost because the people had wrongly rejected him, not because he was a sinner.  Christ is thus not converting him from sinner to saint, but revealing the diamond that was hidden beneath the dirt the people had dumped on him.  Christ shows the people, he really is more righteous than you who judge and reject him.

It reminds me of a story I read long ago about a hardworking blacksmith in a town whom the people loved because he was known to be so generous in giving charity despite just being a working class person.  There also was a rich man who lived on a well-manicured property on a hill above the blacksmith’s shop.  This rich man was hated by the townspeople because they thought him miserly – he didn’t associate with people and was not known to ever give in charity.  The rich man died and no one attended the funeral just to spite him.  The blacksmith simultaneously stopped giving generously in charity.  People confronted him about why his behavior changed.   He replied, “Did you really think for all these years that I was giving my money in charity?  I’m not rich, I never had that kind of money to give.  The rich man gave me the money and asked me to distribute it but to never tell anyone its source.  I did as he asked for all these years.  When he died I no longer had any money to give, for I’m poor like you.”  Everyone in the town was amazed by this revelation and shamed by how they had treated the rich man as they realized how badly they had misjudged their benefactor.

For his part, Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus because he wants to see a rabbi who is teaching what he (Zacchaues) is doing all along.  Zacchaeus understands Jesus’ message is different from what is often being taught by other rabbis.  Zacchaeus wants to get a glimpse of someone who teaches the way of humility.  Zacchaeus is practicing what Jesus teaches:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  (Matthew 6:1-4 – this is the Gospel we will read on Meatfare Saturday, right before Great Lent begins)

Zacchaeus is living the life that Jesus taught, and Jesus reveals this to the crowd.  He reveals to the crowd how their sinful presumptuousness has caused them to misjudge Zacchaeus.  It is the crowd which has caused Zacchaeus to become separated from the people of God and to become lost, not Zacchaeus’ own behavior.  Jesus offers reconciliation to all if they will have it, if they will lay aside their presumptions.  (As we say in Psalm 19:13: “Above all, free your servant from presumption; do not let it sway me!  Then shall I be blameless free of grave sin.”)

Please note also in the prayer from the blessing of a home, we mention Zacchaeus:

O God our Savior, the True Light Who was baptized in the Jordan by the Prophet John, and Who was willing to enter the house of Zacchaeus, bringing salvation to him and his household, do You, the same Lord, keep safe from harm those of us who dwell herein; grant us Your blessing, purification and bodily health, and all of our petitions which are for salvation and life everlasting; for You are blessed, together with Your Father, Who is from everlasting, and Your All-holy and Good, and Life-creating Spirit. Amen.

In blessing the home, we bring Christ who is our Salvation into our homes, just like Christ came into the home of Zacchaeus and reconciled him and his family to the people of God.  The prayer for the blessing of a home does not mention people repenting as a result of the house blessing, but rather acknowledges the blessing of having Christ present in the home.  The prayer assumes that the people in the home being blessed want Christ to be there, just as Zacchaeus wanted Christ to come into his home.  And hopefully for the same reason – because those in the home are already practicing righteousness just like Zacchaeus!

Two final thoughts about Zacchaeus who is recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church:

First, Zacchaeus had a strong desire to see Christ, and though he had a very public position, he was willing to risk embarrassment and humiliation just to see Christ (he had no knowledge that Christ would speak to him or want to come to his house).  We who are Christ’s own disciples and family are on the other hand sometimes embarrassed to tell others we are Christian, or even to make the sign of the cross or say a prayer before a meal.  We are embarrassed to speak against abortion or racism or against pornography or dirty jokes.  We can learn St Zacchaeus’ boldness and courage to live for godly values and to stand against evil in the world.  We can pray, fast and given in charity in secret as Jesus taught.  But we can also quietly without making a show or trying to draw attention to ourselves, do the good and right things even with our friends watching us.

Second, Zacchaeus publicly admitted he was a sinner.  When Christ was in his house, he didn’t proclaim himself as sinless and perfect, rather he acknowledged that if he defrauded anyone, he then tried to make it right to them.  He publicly repented of his sins – not mistakes but the wrong things he chose to do.  Just think about our public officials today when – even when proof is offered of their misdeeds, they tend to deny, obfuscate, cover up, go on the attack.   They lack honesty, integrity, humility and courage – all traits which Zacchaeus demonstrated.  We should think about Zacchaeus as we prepare for our own confessions.  When we stand in the presence of Christ we can admit to our sins.  Christ wants to be in our presence, in our homes, in our lives and Christ does not stay away from us because He knows we are sinners.  Rather, as He himself said, He came to seek and save the sinner.  He came to seek and save all of those who have become separated from the people of God.   In confession, we invite Christ to come under the roof of our heart and to live with us.