15th Sunday of Luke
“The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which hath been lost”.
Today’s Gospel shows us how the love of God is absolute and unlimited, how no one is outside God’s plan of salvation.
In the reading we just heard, we see how Christ wanted to make known his love and compassion in the person of a tax-collector, Zacchaeus. At the time of Christ, no one was lower and more despised in the eyes of the society than the tax-collector, which is why we see them mentioned so frequently in the Gospels. The tax-collector was not just a thief, who used his authority to extort far more money from the poor than was required, so as to line his own pockets, but he received this authority from the Romans, the enemy occupiers. So Zacchaeus was not just a thief but also a traitor, and yet Christ, as soon as he saw him, wanted to honour him with a visit to his house.
What was it Zacchaeus did in order for the Lord to notice him, in order for him to say “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down!”? Zacchaeus had displayed a degree of self-awareness, he had understood something about himself: namely, that he was of short stature. Had he stood in the crowd, thinking that he had need of nothing, Christ wouldn’t have seen him, and their beautiful encounter would never have occurred.
The same is true of us. In order to ascend, in order to encounter the Lord, we first of all have to acknowledge our tiny spiritual stature. If we think all is well, that we are spiritually healthy, then, when the time comes for Christ to pass by in front of us, he will pass by without turning, without noticing us, without calling us to him. We will have lost the opportunity. In order to attract the attention of the Lord, then, we have to humble ourselves: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
And what was it that exalted Zacchaeus, what did he climb up on? On the tree, on wood. (Whenever we hear talk of ‘wood’ or ‘trees’ in Scripture, we must take these as references to the wood of the Cross). In other words, it is through crucifixion that we ascend. Crucifixion is the prerequisite for our encounter with the Lord. “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
Elsewhere, the Lord says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20). When we crucify our pride, we open the doors to the heart, and we allow Christ to say that which he wanted to tell us all along: “Today it is needful for me to stay in thy house”.
After this we see the beautiful conclusion to the story, when Zacchaeus says, “Half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I extorted anything…I give it back fourfold”. The thief and the traitor became generous and loyal. But we should also notice the order in which these things took place. The Lord did not wait for Zacchaeus to promise that he would give money to the poor before approaching him. What Christ did depended only on Zacchaeus’ act of humility, that opening of his heart, nothing more. Zacchaeus’ promise of charity and restoration was not a prerequisite for Christ’s love, but a consequence of it.
In the Old Testament law, a thief was required to pay back twice the amount he had stolen. So, when Zacchaeus says that he will pay back fourfold, it’s like saying, “I will pay back double the double amount”. He goes beyond what is required, and this is an expression of love. Not of his own love, but of the love of Christ, which he has now become a partaker of. As the Lord says, ‘Whoever has been forgiven much, loves much’ (cf. Luke 7:47).
Let us try, then, to open our hearts through humility, so that the Lord will enter and make it his dwelling, saying “Today, to this house, salvation came to pass”.
Fr Kristian Akselberg