Seeking the Margins
The Sunday of Zacchaeus occupies an interesting place in the Orthodox liturgical calendar. While not a part of the services leading up to and including Great Lent and Holy Week (known as the Lenten Triodion), the Slavic tradition prescribes Luke 19:1-10 to be read on the Sunday before the Triodion begins. The story of Zacchaeus is thus both “unknown and well known,” both marginal and essential in the journey that ends with Pascha.
Like the placement of Zacchaeus Sunday itself, Jesus’ encounter with the tax collector demonstrates the importance of seeking the margins for theosis, the process by which Christians come to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).
Zacchaeus is a powerful man, contracted and backed by the all-powerful Roman state to collect taxes from the local Jewish populace (Lk 19:2). At the same time, he is generally despised, not only as a Roman collaborator and quisling, but also as a man who has used his power to defraud his own people and enrich himself (Lk 19:8). His short physical stature epitomizes his moral situation: a “big man” on the political and economic scene, he is ultimately of “short stature” in the eyes of his community (Lk 19:3). He is both the centre of (negative) popular attention, and a dweller in the margins.
Zacchaeus’ spiritual struggle unfolds through the account. He seeks to see who Jesus is, from which we can suppose he makes every possible effort to get through the crowd. Since prestigious men like Zacchaeus would not travel anywhere without bodyguards, one imagines that his servants would attempt to physically (and perhaps even violently) clear a path for him through the crowd. When this effort fails, Zacchaeus experiences a crisis. He realizes that his worldly power and privilege count for nothing in this situation. When it comes to “seeing Jesus” (which can be understood both literally and spiritually, as the contemplation of Christ), he really is just a little man, powerless and ineffectual.
In a radical and life-changing moment, Zacchaeus makes a choice. He not only embraces his marginal status, he aggravates it. He runs—something only the lowest members of society did, such as children and slaves—and climbs a sycamore tree, discarding the last remnant of whatever dignity he possesses (Lk 19:4). Later, he gives away his wealth and bankrupts himself (Lk 19:8). Thus he relinquishes everything that guarantees his place at the centre of his world, and throws himself into the edges.
But it is this self-marginalizing act that gets Jesus’ attention. At the heart of the account, Jesus invites himself to stay at Zacchaeus’ house (Lk 19:5). In so doing, He invokes a claim to guest-friendship, which in the ancient world brought with it responsibilities that would otherwise be reserved for blood relations.
Zacchaeus’ sudden, unexpected kinship with the Son of God illustrates the prerequisite for our own effort to partake of the divine nature in Jesus Christ. Fallen human life is driven by an impulse to claim and control the centre, to be the “big man” wielding the greatest power and influence, bending everyone to one’s will.
Zacchaeus’ initial failure to see Jesus demonstrates that the fallen “race for the centre” is a futile effort that fails to gain us access to meaningful power. The tax collector’s eventual triumph tells us that God makes Himself available only to those who live in the margins. For those of us who are privileged (which includes most of the readers of this article), that means our access to the divine nature depends on the extent to which we show solidarity with those who are ignored, forgotten, rejected—even if they deserve it.
Demonstrating solidarity with the marginalized does not require us to promote their agendas or champion their causes, any more than Jesus’ guest-friendship with Zacchaeus meant that He supported the Roman tax farming system. What it does tell us is that even before we embark on the Lenten journey to the bridal chamber where the Son of God unites humanity to Himself and the Godhead, we need to seek the starting point of the journey, befriending those upon whom everyone else has turned their back. Only there will we find Lord who descended from on high to unite Himself to the lowest of His children.
Father Richard René of the Archdiocese of Canada, Orthodox Church in America, is a prison chaplain in British Columbia.