Today, the 4th Sunday before Advent is the closest Sunday to All Saints Day this year and All Saints Day is too important a feast to let pass without comment. The appointed Gospel for the day is not that appointed for All Saints Day but it does speak of one who can properly be called a Saint: Zacchaeus. (Luke 19:1-10)
You could be forgiven for wondering whether I am being a little generous to Zacchaeus – After all, up to his meeting with Jesus he has led, by his own admission, a corrupt life feeding his own greed at the expense of his fellow Jews and was an agent of the hated Roman Empire. Hardly a candidate for sainthood surely!
That would be the conventional wisdom and yet the Saints are a varied and diverse body and not all of them led totally virtuous lives.
To quote another unconventional and contemporary theologian:
“The saints are friends of God,” he said. But they “are not superheroes, nor were they born perfect. They are like us, each one of us.” “What makes them stand out, he said, is once they encountered Jesus, they always followed him.”
Those words were spoken on All Saints Day this year by Pope Francis who has shown himself as one not afraid to challenge the commonly held perceptions of what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
When we apply these words to Zacchaeus we find that they apply perfectly….certainly no superhero – he was a man of very short stature who had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus. He was not born perfect or certainly his early life was far from perfect unless one was to make a virtue of extortion and corruption. He was like us! We might not want to admit that but if we are honest with ourselves we have more in common with Zacchaeus than many of the traditional saints that we would prefer to be compared to. We are all of us flawed and imperfect and hopefully like Zacchaeus we have come or will come to an understanding and acceptance of that. He was a friend of God – Well by the end of today’s Gospel I think we can certainly say that about Zacchaeus – Jesus has shared table fellowship with him (a hugely significant gesture in that time and place) and following Zacchaeus’ repentance/conversion Jesus declares that ‘he too is a son of Abraham’. That is more than affirmation - it is acceptance and through it Jesus is welcoming Zacchaeus into the fellowship of God. So yes I think we can say that Zacchaeus was a Saint and indeed he was venerated as such from earliest times. Indeed it seems according to some early writings that he may in fact have become the first Bishop of Caesarea.
But there is more and it is the last line of the appointed Gospel reading that is particularly significant for furthering our understanding of why we might consider Zacchaeus as a Saint:
“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost”
Another contemporary theologian, also speaking on this recent All Saints Day said this:
‘The Church has throughout its history struggled with ‘failure and weakness’…‘The answer is found in Christ who loves a broken church and brings new healing to our weakness, and makes us holy.’
This holiness was ‘seen in radical identity with those whom Jesus loves. Those whom he loves are the ones the world puts to one side. . . It is the poor of the earth. . . It is the persecuted. It is the hated and those held in contempt.’
Those words were spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury as he addressed the current 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in South Korea.
Archbishop Justin, very much on the same page as Pope Francis, is pointing to how our brokenness and our imperfections can be the path to our redemption. It is when we come before God, like Zacchaeus, looking for mercy, and aware of our need of mercy that God can work in us most effectively and we can become agents of his Grace and Love in the world. It is when we are lost that we can be found!
But all of this still begs the question: Why does God not prefer perfection? – After all surely the perfect is a closer reflection of God? Why does God again and again come alongside the broken and despised, the flawed and the failed?
Because he can work with brokenness – Perfection is by its definition incapable of growth or improvement or change – Why would anyone want to improve on perfection? One can simply admire it and sit in its presence but there is no relationship. The perfect has nothing to gain from us and so has no need to engage with us. The only exception to that is God who out of pure Love and Grace reaches out to us and seeks to raise us to the potential that is in each one of us to become Saints of God.
Zacchaeus, an unlikely saint perhaps nonetheless maps out for us a path from brokenness to healing, from failure to redemption. He is a much more effective mentor or model than an image of purity and perfection that only leaves us feeling inadequate and hopeless. Zacchaeus on the other hand gives us hope that there is always a way back – there is always a way to God and that God as Jesus did in the story of Zacchaeus will come to meet us half way. That is something that we recall in the beautiful Post Communion Prayer in the BCP:
‘When we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home’
Zacchaeus shows us the way home in admitting that he is lost and in need of mercy. All of us are on a journey towards God; we come from God and in Jesus Christ we are invited to return to God. Life can be very difficult and challenging and all of us bear wounds from living in the world and sometimes like Zacchaeus from making the wrong decisions, but those same wounds are also opportunities for God’s healing to enter our lives.
As those wounds are healed they become scars which are not marks of failure but signs of God’s work in us and points on our journey home. One contemporary theologian, Nadia Bolz Weber has gone so far as to say ‘Preach from your scars not your wounds ’ – As human beings we can become so pre-occupied with our hurt and our pain that we cannot see the healing that God is working in us. If we look at the story of Zacchaeus and see only the bad he has done and the hurt he has inflicted then the story makes no sense but when we see God working in him through the encounter with Jesus we see how the wounds are transformed and become a way for God to enter and to transform his reality and that of those who he has hurt and wounded by his actions.
His scars which are many are now signposts to freedom, to a new life in Christ.
And so we give thanks for St. Zacchaeus, flawed and damaged as we are but like us bearing the image and likeness of God and able through God’s Grace to find forgiveness, hope and new life.