Dear brothers and sisters in Christ… the first of the preparatory Sundays leading to Great Lent is already upon us. Today is known as ‘Zacchaeus Sunday’, for on this day we read the Gospel account of Zacchaeus the tax-collector and we also hear the Epistle of Apostle Paul to Timothy in which he advises Timothy and us to live exemplary Christian lives. Today’s Gospel and Epistle lessons work hand in hand together in calling us and instructing us toward preparing for the spiritual season of Great Lent.
In today’s Gospel account, we hear of Zacchaeus, a despised tax-collector who, being short of stature, ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree in order to see Christ passing by. When our Lord passed by the sycamore tree, He called out to Zacchaeus to “make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house”.
This vivid image of Zacchaeus - short of stature, unable to see Christ because his view was blocked by the throngs pressing upon him – isn’t this an accurate image of us? We are spiritually ‘short of stature’ and our view of Christ is often blocked by the various obstacles and distractions pressing upon us.
And what does Zacchaeus do? He takes action! Regardless of what people might think of him, he climbs up the sycamore tree in order to assure that he can have a clear view of Christ as He passes by. Here is our lesson as well… Christ is present and we must make the effort to elevate ourselves above those distractions and obstacles that block our vision. It takes a conscious effort – but if we love Christ and if we want to see Him, we must make that decisive step and pull ourselves up.
Today’s Epistle reflects and builds upon this theme as well. In Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy, he says: ‘for to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.’ The Apostle Paul is encouraging us to struggle and to endure our sufferings, to make that effort to raise our sights up toward God…. trusting in the love and promise of God. As he writes in his Epistle to the Romans, ‘we know that all things work together for good to those who love God’.
Trusting that this is so, and having elevated our sights above the distractions of this world, we must then answer the call of God - making haste to come down, and being ready and willing to labor and struggle for the sake of God and the kingdom of heaven. Nothing in this world comes easy… if we want to learn something, we must study; if we want to get in shape, we must exercise; if we want to achieve something, we must apply ourselves toward that goal. The spiritual life is no different. In order for us to take steps in coming closer to God, we need to discipline ourselves and make an effort.
We hear in today’s Epistle that we are to be an example ‘in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.’ Do we take this seriously? And if we do strive to live exemplary lives in word and in conduct, do we do so with the right attitude and from the right motivation?
It is easy to fall into the trap of looking upon ourselves – our words and our conduct – against the context of the world in which we live. Perhaps in comparison with the ways of modern society, we take pride that our words and our conduct might be a little better than many others. We go to church, we try not to use profanity, we try to behave fairly toward others, etc. That’s all good and commendable, but if this leads us to a pharisaical pride that we are living exemplary Christian lives, we are kidding ourselves! And if we dare to judge ourselves as being good and others as being evil based on such superficial observations, then we are in real spiritual trouble!
What should be the standard against which we judge ourselves? The Apostle Paul tells us to ‘give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all.’ This advice of the Apostle is especially important for us – who live in a modern world so often deprived of things which edify us and elevate our sights toward the heavenly kingdom.
We must make a conscious effort to counter the constant assault on our eyes, ears, and mind by feeding our soul with things that edify us, that draw our sights a little higher. We need to make room in our lives for God, for prayer, for silence. We need to take up the discipline and delight of spiritual reading. The Gospels, the Psalms, the lives and writings of saints, these must be our antidote against the worldliness so constantly bombarding us. And as we read the Gospel, as we immerse ourselves and acquaint ourselves with the lives and exploits of the saints of Christ’s Church – these are the standards against which we must judge ourselves. And these resources are readily available... The daily Gospel and Epistle readings can be found on any Orthodox calendar – either online or offline. The lives of the saints of the day can also be found readily on Orthodox calendar apps or in accessing the wonderful ‘Prolog of Ochrid’ which summarizes the lives of the saints each day and offers lessons based upon the daily readings.
If we are to compare ourselves to anyone, we should be comparing ourselves not with the low moral standards of modern society, but with the Gospel commandments, with the courage and determination and love of the saints and martyrs. In immersing ourselves in these sources, we not only draw our sights up above the distracting worldliness that surrounds us, but we gain familiarity with and inspiration from the spiritual standard to which we must aspire. As Apostle Paul says, we ‘must meditate on these things and give ourselves entirely to them, so that we may progress spiritually.’
May this first call of the Holy Church leading us toward Great Lent cause us to rise up above the distractions of our lives so that we may see Christ our Lord. And, when Christ calls us, we must then make haste to receive Christ joyfully into the house of our soul. May we do this by drawing from the sources of inspiration, meditating on them, and then putting them into humble practice. In doing so, may our lives be touched by godliness and grace, that we may be true Christians ‘in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, and in purity.’