At a friend’s request, I’d like to write a little about Jesus’ words, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down.” As you recall, Zacchaeus is sitting in a tree when Jesus “looked up and saw him, and said to him” these words. Zacchaeus is a man who wants to see Jesus but because of his short stature, and because of the crowd, he cannot. Some of the Fathers of the Church interpret his inability to see Jesus as a kind of blindness, not unlike the blindness of Blind Bartimaeus whom Jesus had just healed before entering the city. Zacchaeus’ blindness, however, was a blindness caused by a spiritual illness called avarice—the love of money.
The crowd who surrounded Jesus could be likened to the worldly cares that because of Zacchaeus’ avarice were all that he could see. Interpreted more broadly, this crowd—the same crowd who told Blind Bartimaeus to be quiet when he yelled for Jesus to have mercy on him, the same crowd who will follow Jesus to Jerusalem to shout Hosanah at His entrance, and the same crowd who a few days later will cry out “crucify Him, crucify Him”—this same crowd represents the fickle jumble of distractions, excuses and bad experiences with religious people that keep any of us from seeing Jesus. But Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus. The text tells us that “he ran ahead [of the crowd] a climbed up into a sycamore tree, for [Jesus] was going to pass that way.”
Please note that Zacchaeus was active: he ran and he climbed. Zacchaeus didn’t wallow in his weakness, in the unfair reality of his short stature and that he couldn’t see through the crowd of people who always seem to be surrounding Jesus and making it impossible to see Him. Zacchaeus left the crowd and made use of the instrument at hand to increase his height. He climbed a tree. This tree could be interpreted several ways. It could refer to the Law of Moses. It could refer to the tree of Knowledge. It could refer to prayer and spiritual activities that lift one’s mind above the worldly level. In fact, the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbs could refer to all of these and more, for it represents anything we can do that might get us in a place where we can see Jesus. Desire and longing must lead to action; otherwise, we are deluding ourselves to say we want something—want to see Jesus, for example.
But notice, again according to the text, Zacchaeus doesn’t see Jesus. Jesus looks up and sees him and calls his name. Desire and longing lead to action, but human action never makes us worthy nor earns us the right to have spiritual insight—to see Jesus. God is always taking the initiative and coming to us, nothing we do makes Him come. Nevertheless, our actions have a great deal to do with whether or not we are (mentally and spiritually) in a place to hear Him when He calls our name. Prayer, fasting, alms giving, study, self discipline, charity, and all of the various activities and disciplines that the Church recommends to us are like trees God has put along the way, the way he will pass by. When we climb these trees we are putting ourselves in a place where we can see and hear when Jesus looks up and calls our name. And what does Jesus say to Zacchaeus after He calls his name? Jesus says, “Come down.”
A couple of years after I had become Orthodox, I had the opportunity to have a long talk with the abbess of a small monastery. I was sharing with her some of my troubles and stumbling attempts at prayers. After I had babbled for a long while, she said to me the following: “Whenever you are praying and you sense the Holy Spirit stirring in your heart, stop praying and pay attention to what you are feeling.”
“Stop praying?” I protested.
“Yes. Stop praying with words. The purpose of prayer is to cleanse us and prepare us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. When that begins to happen it is time to leave the words and try as long as possible to pay attention to the quiet presence of the Holy Spirit in your heart. Once your mind begins to wander again, that is the time to resume your prayers.”
When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “make haste and come down for today I must stay at your house,” the tree has fulfilled its purpose. The tree was no longer needed; indeed, the tree was in the way. The whole purpose of religious and spiritual activity is to make our hearts vessels able to receive the Holy Spirit, to make our houses a place where Jesus can enter. Once this happens, we need to come down: we need to shift our focus from the “running and climbing” of religious and spiritual activity and pay attention to the presence of the God who is calling our name.
It does sound rather arrogant to claim that I or anyone who is not already a saint could have such an experience, to hear Jesus calling my name, to sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in my heart. With Nicholas Motovilov (in his conversation with St. Seraphim) I want to protest: “How do I know it is the Holy Spirit?” How do I know whether this calm, peaceful presence I sense is really the Holy Spirit and not just another distraction keeping me from my spiritual discipline? How do I know? I think the answer to this question is twofold. On the one hand, as St. Seraphim says to Motovilov, it is very simple. That’s it. It is simple. You just know. On the other hand, you can’t know—not in the same way you know that two plus two is four or that the yellow mug sitting on my desk is half full of poorly brewed, lukewarm coffee. The presence of the Holy Spirit in my heart is known neither through logical certainty nor with my physical senses. The voice of Jesus calling my name, the presence of the Holy Spirit in my or anyone’s heart is known intuitively, noetically, through discernment and by experience.
Ultimately, on a human level, the only real evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life is holiness. The Spirit of Holiness manifests holiness wherever It goes. The evidence that Zacchaeus had heard the voice of Jesus and that Jesus had come into his house is the changed life of Zacchaeus: “Behold I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore it fourfold.” No house stays the same after Jesus enters.
Most of us do not experience a repentance as dramatic and public as Zacchaeus’. Most of us experience repentance rather in dribbles. We have a faint inkling of the voice of Jesus calling our name. We feel a slight conviction, we think (we hope) maybe it is the Holy Spirit, that we should do some small act of goodness or love, or that the attitude we took with our spouse or child or coworker yesterday was really quite selfish and unloving. We act on this feeling. We say we are sorry. We force a little more self control on ourselves. We let go. We confess. We ask for help. Dribbles. But dribbles of living water, dribbles of repentance.
And so like Zacchaeus full of longing we run and we climb. We say our prayer rules, we keep the fasts, we give generously, we go to Church. We do all these things in longing and hope, waiting for Jesus to come by and call our name. And when He does—or when we think He does—we come down. We make haste to obey, to repent, to make room in our heart for the Guest who today must come and stay in our house.