The Meaning of a Name: Zacchaeus Sunday

Zacchaeus Sunday, 2016. Luke 19:1-10

There are preparatory Sundays before the beginning of Great Lent, and those begin next week with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The next preparatory Sunday will be the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Then comes the Sunday of Meatfare, which is also the Sunday of the Last Judgment. Lastly, there is Cheesefare, which is more appropriately called Forgiveness Sunday.

After these Sundays, we delve into the Great Fast which ends with our witnessing and participation in our Lord’s raising of Lazarus, His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, His betrayal, trial and crucifixion. We will stand by the Cross and witness the death of our Lord. We will sing at His grave on His holy Sabbath, and we will finally enter into the joy and reality of the destruction of death in His holy Resurrection. This is the good news. But before we enter into this, we must first learn just what salvation is. In these preparatory Sundays we are given multiple images and examples and details of what salvation actually is.

Today we study the story of Zacchaeus and his salvation, and to do this properly, we first need to examine something a little closer. For many of you who’ve been here a while, or know me, or have been on the receiving end of one of my myriad disjointed ramblings on the subjects of myth and storytelling, or if you’ve studied mythology or classical literature, you will be familiar with what I like to call the theology of names. Basically this means that names mean something. They express something important in the story or in society. With this mindset, let us examine the account set before us.

Zacchaeus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name זַכַּי (Zakkay) which means “pure” or “innocent.” This points us to something critical for us to remember when we are discussing salvation, and that is the human person is essentially good; essentially pure and innocent. In fact, the whole of creation is called good by God when He had finished his work. This is difficult for us to believe, and even perceive, when we look at the world around us and we see war, violence, and oppression. How many times have we been in conversations with people who struggle to believe in a good God when they look at the world? No doubt the people around Zacchaeus, the people from whom he was stealing and those he was oppressing, could not see the innocence or the purity in him. His actions and manner of life had hidden the reality of his name.

In the same way, we are all Zacchaeus; we deny our innocence and purity. He did not, and we do not, actualize the potential inherent in the image of God. We bear the image of the uncreated God: good, holy, innocent, and pure. The potential for holiness of life, for healing, for loving, for compassion, and forgiveness are not simply things that we put on from the outside. They are not understood simply as morals to live by. They are, in fact, intrinsic to our very nature. They are what it means to be human. Yet, every day we deny the image of God in us. We deny our name and nature not necessarily out of malice, but out of spiritual or emotional blindness and sickness.

We know something’s wrong in us. We feel off-kilter and look for all matter of things to remedy the struggle we feel going on within us. Zacchaeus is sick and blind. He is stunted in his physical growth, and his spiritual life. He is suffering. And here is the uncomfortable truth of the human condition, and the condition of people who cause suffering and violence: They are suffering. They are as frightened children, screaming in pain and fear for someone, anyone, to come save them, to hold them, to make all the pain go away.

Not knowing the source of our pain, we attempt all manner of vices and passions to soothe it. In our efforts to numb our pain we objectify others and the creation around us so that they become for us a narcotic that we use to dull the painful truth of our rejection of our own human nature. We use and abuse. Others become for us actors in a play where we are the main character. We create their predetermined dialogue and actions. We create their motivations. If these characters we’ve created ever deviate from what we’ve scripted for them in our own hearts then we reject them, or hurt them; steal from them, assault them, and even kill them.

Zacchaeus is such a man, but he is not left alone or desolate. He is not left to suffer, endlessly searching for a remedy to his broken heart. Salvation comes to his house. This is the Gospel that we are to preach and live to the nations. God Incarnate knows the suffering Zacchaeus and casts no aspersions on him. Christ does not condemn him and tell him what a bad person he is. Christ does not go on and on about his failings. The Lord does not call Zacchaeus stupid, or inept. He simply calls him by his name, “pure” and “innocent” and tells him that he will go to his home.

You see, the Gospel, the glad tidings of God, is not a command for us to be good. It is not a judgment, nor a condemnation. Forgive me, but it is not a ‘turn or burn’ ultimatum. It is that the God of all, the One whose image we bear, became one of us and heals us, from the inside out. God has come in the flesh to take on our blindness and remake our eyes. He has entered into the infirmity of our soul, our will, our body, our mind, our heart. He has taken on himself all of our passions born out of fear of sickness and death. He has taken on our alienation from God, our rejection of life, our objectification of others and our own selves. He has even filled the seemingly almighty grave and hell itself with his mercy, grace, and power.

The Gospel of Christ is that he heals us. He makes us whole. He makes us to remember our original nature. No matter where we are, how far we’ve fallen, or the passionate life we have led, God has made himself one of us to raise us up to where he is. When we voluntarily give up our humanity, or it is taken from us by force, God brings himself low and co-suffers with us. It is there we meet him. It is there we receive him. It is there that salvation comes to us.

And salvation is the restoration of the human person to his/her true birthright. We can rightly describe salvation as the process whereby which a broken human being becomes whole. God has done this, and continues this process throughout all eternity. It is a return. If our name is “innocent” and “pure,” and we have lost that through our lives, God himself remembers our name and restores us to it. There is no sickness or hurt that he cannot swallow up in his mercy and grace.

Rejoice and be glad, dear ones of God. God heals us and makes us whole. God saves us, and this salvation is our restoration to life in communion with Him. It is the restoration of the original image. It is the cleansing of sins, our sickness, blindness, and brokenness. It is the gift of life in the family of God.

To Him we give glory, honor, and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.