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.

Zacchaeus: A Sinner Transformed

The Lord had said to the Pharisees, “But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). So now, showing His approval of such actions and finding in them a defense against those who murmured against Him, He says, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as Zacchaeus also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9), as he has now become faithful, righteous, hospitable and a lover of the poor. “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

He was actually saying to the fault-finders, “I went in to be the guest of a sinner, but in order to transform and save him, showing him to be a lover of God instead of a lover of money, just instead of unjust, welcoming instead of inhospitable, and merciful instead of unsympathetic, such as you can see him becoming even now.” Do you see how Zacchaeus loved and sought, and was loved, summoned and made Christ’s own?

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 58).

The Sins I Cannot See

We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice.  But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.  In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk.  The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him.  But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.

They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place.   (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)

Praying, “Lord, have mercy!”

In Orthodox liturgical services, we constantly pray, “Lord, have mercy!”  In the Gospel, Jesus Himself never refuses to grant a request made to Him seeking mercy.  Paul N. Harrilchak comments on this foundational prayer of the Christian people:

Not a sentimental plea or cry for pity; rather, an acknowledgement of the Father’s lordship – his sovereignty, power and faithfulness – and of our own sinfulness. We ask the Father of mercies, 2 Cor. 1.3, to remember his covenant with us and deal with the needs of all, not in accordance with our sins but in accordance with his mercy, Heb. 8.8-12. (Something of the scriptural meaning of mercy – hesed in Hebrew – can be gleaned from the RSV rendering, steadfast love.)

The Liturgy: OCA Texts Revised, Annotated and Set to the Melodies, p. 31)

The Mightiest Enemies Against Us

“Without fear of God, beset by passions as we are, we cannot hope to accomplish God’s will and train ourselves to love Him and our neighbor. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death (Prov. 14:27)…

The three mightiest warriors in the enemy ranks are the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16); when, aided by our self-love, they gain a foothold in our mind and heart, the portcullis of our soul is soon opened to a host of other sins and vices which then beset us on all sides and at all times…”

(Macarius, Starets of Optino, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 60)

Replacing Vices with Virtues

 

“As the other passions come to birth, we must curb them and make our minds tranquil; we must banish anger, passion, grudges, enmity, malice, evil desires, all licentiousness, all the works of the flesh, which, according to St. Paul, are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, drunkenness and carousingings.

It is fitting, therefore, to force out of our souls all these vices and to be eager to acquire the fruit of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, modesty and continence. If we shall thus purify our minds by constantly chanting the lessons of piety, we shall henceforth be able, by preparing ourselves beforehand, to make ourselves worthy to receive His gift, great as it is, and to guard the good things which are given.

(St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, p. 36)

Christ, the Canaanite and Crossing Borders

To help us understand the Gospel lesson of the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28), it is good to consider the context in which the pericope appears, so we can look at some of the verses (Matthew 15:1-20) which lead up to the Gospel of the Canaanite woman:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’   . . . Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.   . . .  whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”

This Gospel chapter begins with Jesus finding His followers under verbal attack by the Jewish Pharisees and scribes for not keeping Jewish tradition regarding rituals before eating.  Jesus counter attacks by criticizing how the Pharisees have clever ways to get around even the most basic of God’s commandment to love your mother and father.   Jesus goes on to criticize their obsessing over external rituals and rules while ignoring the centrality of one’s heart to the spiritual life.   Jesus clearly tells them its from within the heart that evil comes it is this evil within which defiles a person – failing to keep Jewish ritual regarding hand washing cannot defile a person.  “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

So when the Canaanite mother approaches Him, Jesus recognizes her as a foreigner, and a hated foreigner at that, a Canaanite.  But He is also going to honor her as a mother as He had taught His disciples to do.  A mother who loves and cares about her daughter.  Jesus recognizes what is in her heart even though her ethnic identity and her religion are abhorrent to Jews.   Keep in mind, the Jews had the same reaction to Canaanites that some Americans today have to Mexican or Hispanic immigrants at our border.   The Jews would have loved to put up a border wall to keep the Canaanites out of their territory.

To give us a sense of the Jewish attitude toward Canaanites, look at Deuteronomy 20:16-18 –

But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them  …  the Canaanites  …  as the LORD your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.

The Jews were commanded to utterly destroy the Canaanites which they are not able to do obviously because in the Gospel they still exist, more than one thousand years after God commanded their decimation.   Worse than building a border wall, the Jews are supposed to annihilate the Canaanites, wipe them out, engage in ethnic cleansing.

But, in our Gospel lesson we see Jesus leaving the land of Israel immediately after debating with the Jews about how they are not in fact keeping Torah or interpreting it correctly (Matthew 15:1-20).  In Israel the Pharisees see the disciples as nothing but lawbreakers.  Outside of Israel’s borders, people are seeking Christ for what He can give them – freedom from demonic oppression.   And not only does Jesus not destroy the Canaanites, our Gospel lesson today opens with Jesus going to these foreign lands.  Jesus is breaking the boundaries which God had established.  It is in these foreign lands that the woman of Canaan approaches Jesus.  She is on home territory and Jesus is the foreigner here!

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.”  (Matthew 15:21-28)

Here they are walking through Canaanite territory and the disciples are telling Jesus to send the woman away.  Yet, she belongs here, they don’t!  They are the foreigners.  They have crossed the boundary set by God.  Jesus can hardly send her away since he is the one invading her land – He came to her and since we think Jesus did everything for our salvation, His presence with the Canaanite woman is also for salvation.

And I’m pretty sure that the disciples when they hear the woman say her daughter is possessed by a demon, they are thinking “all your children are possessed by the devil” for all the people of Canaan are possessed by the devil.  They wouldn’t think the woman is asking for something personal, but asking for the impossible – remove the demon from a Canaanite.

Not only this but when Jesus first called the 12 disciples he told them:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matthew 10:5-7)   Jesus told them not to go to the very lands to which He had now led them!

But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped (Greek:   prosekenei) Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs (Greek: kenariois).” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs (Greek: kenapria) 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.

Looking at Matthew 15:21-28, there is a homonym word play in the Greek text. This is something I mentioned several years ago (See my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks).   The homonym works in Latin as well and probably is more recognizable to us in the Latin variation:   Canaan and canine sound similar enough.  Not too hard to imagine that Jews were willing to hear canine when Canaanite was meant.  These people are dogs for the Jews.  This is humorous to the Jew and derogatory at the same time.

Additionally the woman prostrates (Gree: prosekunei – bows like a dog) herself before Jesus.   The etymology of the word prosekunei (which in English translations is often rendered as ‘worshiped’)  implies that she behaves like a dog crouching  at the feet of her master.   She physically shows she accepts from the mouth of Jesus the label of being a dog.  She is humbling herself, or even humiliating herself before Christ.  She as a mom will do what it takes to get mercy from the master for her daughter.  [In the Orthodox Church, we do  for a proskenesis, full prostration during the services of Great Lent – we bow completely getting down on our knees, elbows and touching our head to the ground.  This in the Greek implies we are imitating a dog.]

In the woman’s answer, that even the dogs (kunaria) eat the crumbs from their masters’ table, she understands the insult, but in accepting the homonym she wisely banters with Christ when she says, “even dogs aren’t stupid, they know a good thing when they see it. ”

And while Jesus had referred to the Canaanite woman as a dog, He said he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  I think if you ask those in the know to name one clear trait about sheep, it would be that they are just plain dumb, maybe one of the dumbest animals on earth with no common sense whatsoever.  They need to be protected because they are so stupid – they need a shepherd.  One dog on the other hand can help shepherd an entire flock of sheep.   So while the disciples may have enjoyed Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a dog, in the end, the joke is on them – they are the dumb sheep who need a shepherd to lead them, and this woman has just shepherded them into a new understanding of the world and of the Word of God.

In the 4th Century, St Ephrem the Syrian makes an interesting comment about this Gospel lesson:

You, too, daughter of Canaan, for righteousness
conquered the Unconquerable One by boldness.
The Just One set a boundary on the land of the Gentiles
that the gospel might not cross over.
Blessed are you who broke through the obstacle fearlessly,
The Lord of boundaries praised you for the strength
of your faith. From afar He healed your daughter in your house. (Hymnsp. 379)

St. Ephrem praises this woman for courageously breaking boundaries for the sake of the Gospel.  It is for this woman that Jesus breaks his own boundary and goes to the land of the Gentiles.  It is for the salvation of this woman’s daughter that Jesus extends His mercy to this unwanted and hated immigrant massed at the border of Israel.  Jesus saw her not as enemy but as a human in need of salvation.  Christ blesses her willingness to violate the border of Israel and even rewards her for being willing to violate the Law for the sake of the Gospel.

And so we encounter St. Paul’s words in today’s epistle from 1 Timothy 1:15-17 –

This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Jesus saw the woman of Canaan as a sinner who needs salvation.  That is how Jesus sees all Jews, all Canaanites, all Americans, all Christians, all immigrants massed at our border. None of these other people are any different than us in the eyes of Christ our God.  We are to see people with the eyes of Christ.  We all obtain mercy from God if we show mercy to others.

The Canaanite Woman: Breaking the Lord’s Boundaries

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 worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 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.   (Matthew 15:21-28)

St Ephrem the Syrian taking the Gospel lesson writes lyrically: 

You, too, daughter of Canaan, for righteousness

conquered the Unconquerable One by boldness.

The Just One set a boundary on the land of the Gentiles

that the gospel might not cross over.

Blessed are you who broke through the obstacle fearlessly,

The Lord of boundaries praised you for the strength

of your faith. From afar He healed your daughter in your house. (Hymns, p. 379)

St Romanos: Prayer for the Meeting of the Lord

St. Romanos the Melodist (6th Century) wrote countless hymns, poems and prayers, some of which are still in use in the liturgical services and feasts of the Orthodox Church to this day.  Here is a prayer he composed as part of a longer hymn for the feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple:

We implore you, O All-Holy, Long-Suffering, Life and Restoration, Source of goodness,

look down from heaven and visit all those who ever trust in you;

rescue our life, Lord, from all constraint and affliction,

and, in the faith of truth, guide us all,

at the prayers of the immaculate Mother or God and Virgin,

Save your world, and those in the world, and spare us all,

you who, for us, became man without change,

only Lover of mankind.

(On the Life of Christ, p. 34)