Today is the day that we begin to formally prepare for Great Lent. This parable of the publican and Pharisee reminds us of the importance of humble repentance. Indeed over the next 8 weeks or so we will hear a lot about repentance and humility, self-denial and taking up one’s cross, spiritual struggle and the labor of working out our salvation. Before we begin that arduous task however, let us take a brief respite to look at something a little different.
“The publican, standing afar off, wouldn’t lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell this man went down to his house justified…” Do you see it? Do you see the most beautiful and wonderful thing that is being shown to us? “This man (was) justified” that is he was forgiven. God’s unconditional forgiveness is the great promise that we can hold on to all during the rigors of the fast. God loves us and He eagerly awaits our repentance. He is there with His arms outstretched to us, ready to lift us up and bring us into the joy of His presence. If we confess our sins, He is ready and willing to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is a great blessing and a great promise.
When the Holy Apostle Peter came to Jesus walking on the water, he became overwhelmed by the violence of the wind and the sea around him and fear set in. Peter began to sink. He cried out at that moment, “Lord save me” and there was Jesus, at his side, lifting Peter out of the waves and setting him safely in the boat. See how simple it was – all Peter had to do was to cry out, confessing his weakness and his need of the help of the Lord Jesus Christ, and there He is with outstretched arms, taking Peter out of danger and placing him in safety.
There will be many times during the coming fast when we may well become overwhelmed by the violence of our sins and the whisperings of despair that the demons constantly suggest to us. We will be sinking in the sea of our own fears, our own passions and our own weakness. At that moment, cry out to our Lord Jesus Christ, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and there He will be, ready to lift you out of the mire of your sins and to set you firmly in the safety of the ark of salvation – His own Church.
The Pharisee of the parable came to God and instead of confessing his own sinfulness and entrusting himself to the care of God, he began to tell God just how righteous he was on his own. He did not see (of if he did he did not admit) his own sinfulness but instead bragged to God how he did not need God’s help because he was good enough (or even more than enough) on his own. This is the condition of many in this world – they do not see (or do not admit) their own sins. It is as if they are blind to their helpless condition. This inability to see one’s own sins comes about by a lack of repentance. We always need to cultivate a climate of repentance so we can maintain some sensitivity towards sin. When a specific sinful state is prolonged , the initial sensitivity towards this sin disappears. Very often, when a person sins, they immediately feel the shame and horror of their sin, even as they are still in the midst of the sinful act – but they cannot stop. But if repentance is put off, or completely avoided, then we begin to harden inside and after a time, our sinful actions no longer faze us. The truth is that we must be in a constant state of repentance. We must refresh our spirit of repentance day and night. In doing this we will maintain the necessary sensitivity and we will keep from falling into the abyss of corruption. The great danger, when we have lost our sensitivity to sin is that we begin to blame God for our sins. This shifting of blame starts very subtly as we first begin to blame others for our sin – someone else made me do this, it’s their fault not mine. They need to repent not me. When we notice these thoughts in our mind and heart that is a great danger sign. We have already begun the process of hardening our heart. As this shifting of blame continues we begin to find ways to blame God Himself for our sins, “God made me this way, it’s only natural that I do this.” and so on. Beware such thinking for these thoughts only lead us away from the path of salvation and begin to tie us down and we become enslaved to our sin.
What to do? How can I escape such a strong and subtle trap? The answer is the great mystery of the grace of God. God will come to help the sinner as long as the state of the soul is not irreversible. What makes it irreversible? Only the lack of repentance. All one needs to do is to humble himself and cry out with the publican “Lord have mercy on me a sinner!” and God’s grace is quick to act in us. Hearing our cry for help, Our Lord rushes to our side, reaches out His hand to us and lifts us from the waves which threaten to overwhelm us. Nothing can prevent Him from coming to us, nothing can hold Him back. The only thing that we have to do is to turn to Him, confess our own weakness and helplessness and throw ourselves completely on His mercy. At that moment that we turn to Him, He pours out His grace upon us, He heals the wounds that sin has inflicted upon us and He sets us again on the path of salvation.
Yes, the lessons of the dangers of pride and the blessed state of humility that are evident in the Gospel are important for us to learn today. This parable should be before the eyes of your heart and in your mind all week long. Read it every day this week in the morning and meditate upon in throughout the whole day. Absorb everything that you can from it. Especially note the firm promise of forgiveness and the immediate reaction of grace that is given to the publican and fix this promise in your heart so that it will be an anchor throughout the whole of Great Lent. God loves you and desires your salvation, He has promised that He will provide for you all that you need. All you need to do is to confess like the publican, your own helplessness and throw yourself into the loving and compassionate arms of our Lord Jesus Christ and He will forgive you, He will heal you, He will pour out His grace upon you and He will bring you into His presence to stand with the choir of the saints. This is the promise of our God to you – do not let go of it or forget it, but hold onto it as your anchor for the coming struggle of Great Lent.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, we are presented with the example of Zacchaeus. As our Lord was passing through Jericho, he was surrounded by a large crowd of people. Zacchaeus, like so many other people in the gospels, had a curiosity, and a desire to encounter Jesus. After all, Zacchaeus, for all his great wealth, did not command the attention that his man did. We are told that Zacchaeus was short of stature. And so he was unable to even see Jesus without climbing up into a sycamore tree. While he may have started with little more than curiosity, our Lord calls out to him and chooses to dine with Zacchaeus in his home. Through his curiosity, through his desire, and through his efforts Zacchaeus is given a great gift. He not only looks upon the face of the Almighty, but he also dines with Him. Salvation indeed comes to the house of Zacchaeus.
Many of us are consumed and enslaved by the enticements of this world and have no interest in leaving those things behind even if God were to call out to us from the heavens. Zacchaeus had great riches, and we know that our Lord had commanded another rich man to sell all that he had and to follow Him. He said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Would we be prepared to do such things? Zacchaeus could have walked away sorrowful like that other rich man, but instead he was changed by his encounter with Jesus. Zacchaeus willingly gave away half of what he had and restored fourfold anything which he had taken wrongly.
Any encounter with our Lord comes with the expectation of a response. If we are unwilling to repent of our sins and live according to our Lord’s commandments, why should we desire for Him to reveal Himself to us leaving us with no excuse for remaining unchanged on that dread day of judgment?
The story of Zacchaeus makes clear that those who do not have a desire to see God will not see Him. Zacchaeus found our Lord in the midst of a great crowd on that day. Even today, our Lord surrounds himself with the Church both in Heaven and on earth. The great crowd of those members of the body of Christ testifies to His greatness and calls us to desire to behold Him; but we must act on that desire, we must not trust in ourselves in our lowliness, but we must make efforts to rise up to meet Him.
There is another quality that we must possess if we are to come face to face with the Lord. We see this quality exemplified in the great feast of the Church that we will celebrate tomorrow Our Lord, in fulfillment of the Law, was brought as all firstborn sons into the temple of the Lord to be presented to God. He was placed in the arms of Saint Symeon the God-receiver. We are told in the gospel that he was a devout man, who was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and that he had been told that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. What we are not told in the gospel is how long he had been waiting to meet Christ.
Saint Symeon was not just devout and righteous, he was also a well-trained student of the Scriptures. He had been chosen as one of the translators of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek known today as the Septuagint which had been ordered by Ptolemy the Egyptian King. Saint Symeon, encountering the passage in Isaiah 7 which said “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son...” thought that it should be rendered “Behold, a woman shall conceive and bear a son.” As he attempted to make the correction, and angel stopped his hand and told him that he would see the fulfillment of this passage, and that he would see the Lord’s Christ born of a pure virgin. By the time that Saint Symeon saw these words fulfilled, he was well over 300 years old. He patiently and prayerfully waited centuries to meet His Lord, and with this meeting he was ready to depart this life having received the deepest desire of his heart.
We, too, must have patience if we are to meet the Lord. We may wonder why God does not come to meet us, to make His presence clearly known to us so that all doubt is taken away and so that we can labor with greater zeal. Elder Sophrony in his writings about Saint Silouan the Athonite tells us that there are basically three categories that people fall into in their Christian life. In the first category are those who are given a small measure of grace and put forth a moderate amount of effort in the spiritual life but they really only receive greater grace once this life brings them suffering. In the end they receive a greater measure of grace than they were given in the beginning.
The second category of people experiences a small amount of grace but struggles zealously with prayer and fasting against the passions, and they are given greater grace with which they are perfected to a greater degree.
Those in the third category, to which Saint Silouan belonged, receive a greater portion of grace than the others in the beginning of their spiritual lives. We might think that such people have the easiest path because they receive the most grace, but it is actually the most difficult path. For those who meet God in such a profound way, even the smallest departure from Him, even the most minor sin, even the slightest deprivation of grace feels like torture, it feels like they are completely abandoned. They are like Adam who lamented his sin outside the gates of paradise, weeping inconsolably.
If we truly desire to meet the Lord, we must prepare ourselves. We shouldn’t wait for a divine manifestation or voice from the heavens to call us to a new life. Such a revelation of God comes with more struggle than most of us would want. But we also should not wait for struggles to find us before we begin to truly seek God. We should take the opportunities that God gives us to seek Him zealously. Zacchaeus Sunday is the unofficial first step toward Great Lent. It reminds us that we are heading toward Pascha and that we must make an effort if we are to meet God. It reminds us that we must receive Christ into our lives, into our homes, and that we must be changed by His presence there. We must strive toward the Kingdom with desire and zeal for God, but we must also be patient. When prayer and fasting don’t “work,” when we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, when we keep falling into the same sins, or even when we seem to fall more than we ascend, we must remember that God is faithful with His promises. Though it may take us a lifetime, we must never cease to pick ourselves back up, to climb again and to seek to meet the Lord that we may be changed, not just into a better version of ourselves, but into the very likeness of the Lord Himself for which we were created.
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