The entirety of the spiritual life is based upon our desire to change our lives. Maybe this comes after a tragic event in our lives or a realization that we cannot continue to go in the same direction. Perhaps we just decide that we want to be more tuned in with our spiritual life. Whatever the reason, the desire to change is the first step.
This past Sunday in my parish we began the five preparation weeks prior to the start of Great Lent. It is hard to believe that Great Lent is only five weeks away – after all, we have just finished with the Christmas season – but here it comes. The Orthodox Church gives us these five weeks to prepare us for the preparation. I like to say that in Orthodoxy we prepare to prepare and then we prepare, well, I think that is true in life as well, especially the spiritual life.
On this first of the five weeks we read the story of a man named Zacchaios (or Zacchaeus) from the Gospel of St. Luke. Not much is known about this man other than that he is rich. He hears that Jesus is coming to his town and he wants to go out and see him. The Gospel tells us that he climbs a tree because he is “small in stature” – in this way he can see Jesus. Jesus comes by, sees Zacchaios in the tree, calls him down, and goes and has a meal with him in his house. This event changes his life.
There are many symbolic meanings in Scripture and this passage is no different – in fact it is filled with symbolic meaning. The fact that Zacchaios is small in stature is brought to light as way to show that he was a man that was short on faith and virtue. As his story unfolds the reader learns that he has cheated many people and he wishes to make amends for that by giving back what he owes to those he has cheated. I will add here that no one else in Scripture is described this way, so this is an important symbol.
Because he is short he needs to climb a nearby tree in order to see Jesus as He passes by. In Orthodoxy we have practical meanings and theological meanings to things like this tree. Practically Zacchaios needed to climb the tree to see but symbolically this was to show that it is we who are attached to or anchored down by earthly matters and concerns, and thus we will not be able to see Jesus. One of the prayers of the Orthodox Liturgy calls us to lay aside all the earthly cares of life that we may receive the King of all. We cannot climb the tree of faith if we have an anchor around us holding us down to the ground.
Much emphasis is placed on the fact that Jesus is going to “pass that way.” Zacchaios knows ahead of time the route that Jesus is going to take so he intentionally gets himself to that place. He goes out to see Jesus – he does not wait for Jesus to come to him – he goes to meet Jesus. While in that tree Jesus approaches him and bids him to come down. The intentional act of climbing the tree shows that Zacchaios is willing to repent for his past sins and believe. Jesus recognizes this, as He does in all of us, and bids us to follow Him.
When they come to the house of Zacchaios for the meal, he makes the pledge to give half of what he owns to the poor and to make restitution to those he has cheated. He is fulfilling the law by helping those in need but he takes it a step further by seeking out those he has harmed. Saying that we are sorry is not always enough and it needs to be followed by action. Our faith is not a static faith; it is a faith that requires us to do something. Zacchaios needed to give back to those he cheated as a mark of penance for the wrongs he had committed. Understanding that this is not always wise or possible, we need to approach this one with extreme care.
In the end Jesus says that “salvation has come to this house” and that Zacchaios is a son of Abraham for his righteousness came by his faith, he was generous to the poor, and he was united to the people of God through reconciliation. This is our goal – to be called sons and daughters of Abraham, and it all starts with the desire to change. Climb that tree, for Jesus is passing by!