By Fr John Parker
Originally published in the Post and Courier, Charleston, SC on Sunday, February 15, 2009
Zacchaeus was like an IRS agent, only worse. He came to your door. If that wasn't bad enough, he was a native, but had accepted a job as a tax-man by the occupying forces, which meant he worked for the enemy.
One day, his life changed radically. He had heard all sorts of rumors and stories about a notorious fellow who would be coming through town, and for some reason, his soul was stirred. As the time drew near for this mysterious fellow to pass through the village, our IRS agent was frustrated by the large crowds who had also come to get a glimpse of this famed sojourner. To make matters worse, our agent was a short man.
No matter, he thought, and climbed his way up a large tree to see.
Jesus Christ saw short Zacchaeus in that sycamore tree and ordered him to come down immediately, for he wanted to have a meal with him. Zacchaeus followed the command without hesitation. He was stirred to the core of his being that day — this one who made his living by exacting taxes (plus whatever he could score for himself) from his fellow citizens. His response to being in the presence of Jesus? "Half of my possessions I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it four-fold." Half he gave away. And there was no question about whether he had defrauded anyone: This was his vocation! But he didn't just say "I'm sorry" to those whom he had swindled. Nor did he simply return what he took. He restored it "four-fold."
It is with this reading from the Gospels that the Orthodox Christian Churches see the first signs of the coming of Great Lent — the 40 days of prayer, fasting and alms-giving that precede Holy Pascha (Easter as it is commonly known in the Western Church).
Great Lent is almost always viewed as some sort of endurance test. How long can I go without — fill in the blank. Or else it is seen as some way to pay God back for my sins and misdeeds by going 40 days without chocolate or ice cream or beer. Sadly, these common misconceptions gravely miss the point of the Great Fast, which at its core is precisely an encounter with Jesus Christ like the one Zacchaeus had. It is the annual season during which we can come to our senses, realizing that something is off-kilter in our lives. To find out what it is, one must climb a tree to see, an act that leads to an invitation, and to company with a severe but unquestionably good presence. Off-kilteredness is exposed, and one is moved to repent and to repair.
There is another aspect to Great Lent, subtle and easily missed: that we must fast in order to know what a feast is. For Orthodox Christians, 40 days without meat, dairy, wine and olive oil sets a stage for the Pascha, with its rich foods such as roasted lamb, exotic cheeses and sweets from around the world. Without fasting, Pascha would be just another day. To show it to be what it is — the Feast of Feasts — it is preceded by the Fast of Fasts. It is how we know one from another, and it is good for our soul. It is the road to salvation.
Our nation has come to such a time, it seems. We've gone so long without fasting, without self-denial, without care for our neighbor (near or far); we are used to gluttony, and so the times in which we now find ourselves are a jolt. Will we wield our self-will and say, "No one can force me to fast"? Or will we, like Zacchaeus, realize that our lives are off-kilter? Will we see this season as one of gloom to endure, as punishment? Or will we see it as a National Great Lent, a time to come face-to-face with God in order to be healed?
The troubled times of our present economic crisis, however complicated, are not so unlike that which brought Zacchaeus to the foot of the sycamore tree (which stands to this day) in Jericho. May our inner strength be summoned to cast off concern for what others might think about the spectacle of grown men and women climbing a tree to see ourselves clearly.
Great Lent offers us the 40-day invitation to take a fearless moral, spiritual, emotional inventory of our lives as well as the opportunity to give half of our possessions to the poor, and to restore four-fold to anyone we may have defrauded — all this in order to experience the joy of the Resurrection. And it is just around the corner.
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.