Easter is late this year, so we have had a bit more of a breather between the Christmas/Theophany cycle and the preparatory period before Lent. But time continues its inexorable progress, and so we find ourselves once again beginning the series of five Sundays that the Church offers us to help us prepare to enter the great penitential season of Lent.
We begin with the Gospel account of Jesus’ encounter with the infamous tax-collector named Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10). You might wonder at first glance what this has to do with Lent. There are a couple points to notice here, but let’s begin with the most fundamental. In his book Great Lent, Fr Alexander Schmemann says that the theme of this Gospel, and how it helps introduce us to the mystery of Lent, is that of desire, for the whole drama of the Gospel begins with Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus. In a sense, the whole of our relationship with the Lord begins with desire. If we don’t want to meet Jesus personally, it is likely that we never will. If we don’t want to repent, it is quite certain that we will not. If we do not desire communion with God, with all that this implies, we will never persevere on the journey of faith and make use of all the means the Church offers to facilitate this divine communion.
So this is where we begin, and this is where Zacchaeus began. The Gospel does not tell us why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, and it would seem, from the nature of his ignoble occupation, that this would be the last thing he would want to do. Why would a rich man want to see Him who preaches poverty? Why would a dishonest man want to see Him who speaks only the truth? Why would a man who is comfortable in his sinful life want to see Him who preaches repentance? Perhaps this last question will give us a clue. Maybe Zacchaeus wasn’t comfortable or at peace with his sinful life. Maybe the fact that he—who had made himself an employee of the detested Romans—was cheating his own people for his personal gain made him uneasy in his conscience. So when he heard that the righteous preacher Jesus was passing by—who was known to have not only healed sick bodies but softened hardened hearts—perhaps Zacchaeus felt that this might be his only chance to set things right with God, to find some way to deal with the gnawing realization that all was not well in his life.
So he desired to see Jesus. But, being a shrewd businessman, Zacchaeus wasn’t about to put all his cards on the table at once. He would first observe Jesus from a vantage point at which he himself could remain unobserved (or so he thought), and then he would decide whether or not Jesus was the one who would be able to grant him some peace.
Jesus, of course, was privy to all Zacchaeus’ reasoning, and I’m sure He welcomed and blessed his desire to see Him. But He wasn’t about to let him remain hidden, for his conversion evidently depended upon his being put on the spot to make a decision for or against the truth, for or against righteousness, for or against Jesus Himself.
So when Jesus came to the tree in which Zacchaeus had hoped to conceal himself, “He looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’” This may have startled him, but he quickly recovered his composure and came down from the tree and received Jesus joyfully. Not only was his desire to see Jesus rewarded, but he was about to be given the opportunity to make right all that was wrong with his life, through both a public profession and then a follow-up in which he would put his promise into practice.
As often happens, once people have labeled another person in a certain way, they refuse to believe he could be any other way. So when Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus, they murmured, first of all judging Zacchaeus to be a sinner, and then criticizing Jesus for going to be the guest of a sinner in his house. But both Zacchaeus and Jesus repudiated them: Zacchaeus by declaring that he would make fourfold restitution to those he defrauded, and in addition would give half of his possessions to the poor. Jesus approved of this by saying: “Today salvation has come to this house,” and then, perhaps as a rebuke to the self-righteous critics: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
There are several things we ought to notice here, which can be applied to our own lives. We need to start, as Zacchaeus did, with a desire to see Jesus and to find in Him the answer to the deepest needs of our lives. We may have a sense that something is not quite right in our lives, that we don’t have the peace we hoped we would have, or that perhaps some sin or some compromise is leaving us uneasy, and we’d like to deal with it once and for all. So we hope to find help from Jesus, but maybe we would like to keep our distance, so to speak, and not allow ourselves to be exposed by his word, by the searching light of his truth, or by his putting us on the spot to make a clear profession for or against Him.
Jesus knows all this, and He won’t let us off easy. He will boldly invite Himself into our houses, our souls, our lives, and He will require us to come out of hiding in order to encounter Him personally. So it is up to us, then, first to receive Him joyfully, and then to get serious about changing what needs to be changed in our lives. Otherwise, the negative judgments of others will be proved to be true!
Jesus did not say that salvation came to Zacchaeus merely because he wanted to see Jesus and hid himself in a tree in order to do so. It was only when Zacchaeus actually made an unwavering decision to do something about his sinful life, to make restitution, reparation for his sins, that Jesus declared his salvation. So it is for us. A weak apology isn’t enough. Expressing a feeble sentiment about trying to do better in the future isn’t enough. But a determined pledge to actually change, in specific and concrete ways, with the help of God’s grace, is what repentance is all about, and that is what Jesus rewards. We can’t expect his approval if we offer some vague sort of wish that we will be less sinful. We have to say instead: I’m not going to do this anymore, and here’s how I’m going to make reparation for the wrong I have already done. Then Jesus will say to us with joy: “Today salvation has come to this house, to this soul!”
So I think it is becoming clear how this Gospel sets us on the right path to prepare for the work of repentance during Lent. We start with desire, we respond to Jesus’ invitation to engage personally with us, and then, seeing the inner obstacles to this intimate communion to which He calls us, we firmly set them aside and come up with a concrete plan for living faithfully henceforth.
There’s another element to this Gospel that we ought to notice: a sacramental, Eucharistic one. It begins with Jesus inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house to be his guest. In that culture, and I suppose in most cultures, to enter someone’s house as a guest means you will be offered the hospitality of a meal. When Jesus told us, in the Book of Revelation (3:20), that He is knocking at our door and hoping we will invite Him in, it is for the sake of sharing a meal with us. The centurion whose servant Jesus healed said that he was not worthy that Jesus should come under the roof of his house, and the Roman Mass has adopted that explicitly as a Eucharistic prayer right before receiving Holy Communion. So, when Jesus invites Himself to be a guest at our house, let us receive Him joyfully, and with true repentance and love in our hearts. Thus Jesus will be able to declare, after we have reverently received his precious Body and Blood, that salvation has come to our house, for we have received Him lovingly as our Guest, and we have pledged to live according to his righteousness henceforth.
We promise every day in one of the post-Communion prayers that we will no longer live for ourselves, but for Him who is our Lord. Perhaps this Lent we can reflect deeply upon that prayer, and ask Jesus to show us clearly in what ways we are in fact still living for ourselves, and what we have to do, concretely and practically, to be speaking the truth when we say we are going to live only for Him henceforth. We don’t want our prayer to be a collection of pious platitudes that we neither mean nor pay much attention to, but what we say in our prayer we ought to strive to put into practice in our daily lives.
Why should we strive to do this? St Paul tell us in the epistle (1Tim. 4:8-15): “it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come… for to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God…” It is because our hope is in God that we strive to please Him, and for the same reason we strive to cut out of our lives whatever displeases Him. The Apostle goes on to say that believers in Christ ought to live exemplary lives in what they say and in what they do, “in love, in faith, in purity.”
So, at this early stage of preparation for Lent, which is preparation for Holy Week and Easter, which is preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven, we already have a program offered to us which includes our inner longing for God as well as the elements of our moral, ascetical and sacramental life, which is all meant to bear fruit in a joyful encounter with Jesus, who meets our desire for Him with his infinitely greater desire to bring salvation to us. If we welcome Him into the house of our soul, He will in turn welcome us into his Father’s house, the heavenly Kingdom that is populated with repentant sinners, who all have one thing in common: they all desired to see Jesus, and when He called them, they received Him joyfully and renounced their sins for his sake. And they all gratefully testify with one voice that the Son of Man indeed came to seek and save the lost.