Two Paths to the Kingdom: Homily on Zacchaeus and the Apostle Timothy in the Orthodox Church, by Fr. Philip LeMasters, Ancient Faith

Timothy 4:9-15; Luke 19:1-10

One of the worst mistakes that we can make in life is to insist that everyone be just the same. Part of the beauty of the human being is the distinctiveness of our personalities, our interests, and our abilities. We see that in our families, in our friendships, in our work, and in the Church, where the different members of the Body of Christ have different functions in working together for the strength and blessing of all. We should also learn to see that in the spiritual paths that we pursue, in the journeys that we take to share more fully in the life of our Lord.

Zacchaeus’ path to salvation was shocking, decisive, and scandalous. As a chief tax collector, he was a high ranking traitor to the Jews because he worked collecting taxes for the pagan Roman Empire, which occupied Israel. He became rich basically by stealing from his fellow Jews when he took even more of their money than the Romans required and lived off the difference. He was the last person whom anyone would have expected to entertain the Messiah in his home, but that is precisely what he did at the instruction of Jesus Christ. And when people complained how disreputable it was for the Lord to enter his home, Zacchaeus made a bold change in an instant. This man who had apparently loved money and comfort more than his own people or righteousness, repented of his own accord. There is no record that Christ told him to take any particular action, but he immediately committed himself publicly to giving half of his possessions to the poor and to giving back four times the amount that he had stolen. Since he was a chief tax collector and wealthy, these acts of restitution surely involved large sums of money. No one would have ever expected someone like him to do that, and it was such a grand gesture that many probably found it hard to believe.

Jesus Christ knew, however, that he was sincere and would follow through with these outrageous acts of repentance. That is why He said what no Jew ever expected the Messiah to say about someone like Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” Unlike those who wanted a Messiah to reward the righteous, destroy the sinners, and defeat the Romans, our Savior came to bring the lost sheep back into the fold, even those who were so lost that they had gone over to the side of the wolves.

There have been many people whose journey to the Kingdom has much in common with Zacchaeus. Like him, they had turned away from God and many people probably thought that they would be the very last people to find healing for their souls. Remember that St. Paul actually persecuted Christians before the risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus. St. Peter denied the Lord three times during His Passion. In the Old Testament, King David committed murder and adultery. St. Mary of Egypt was a grossly immoral person before repenting so profoundly that she rose up off the ground in prayer. St. Moses the Black was a feared criminal before becoming a model of holiness in the monastic life. The list goes on and on of outrageous sinners who shockingly redirected their lives to the Lord through humble repentance. In contrast with all the darkness of their past lives, His glory shines especially brightly in them.

Not everyone follows that particular path to the Kingdom, however. Tomorrow we commemorate St. Timothy the Apostle, who was converted to the Christian faith by St. Paul together with his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. He became the bishop of Ephesus and was martyred there for opposing the worship of false gods. St. Paul thought highly of him as his spiritual son, and exhorted him to embrace his calling fully and to be a good steward of his gifts. As. St. Paul wrote, “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties; devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.”

St. Timothy came to the faith early in life and the reference to his youth shows that he had responsibilities in ministry as relatively young adult. St. Paul instructed him to be responsible to the great dignity of his calling, to devote himself to cultivating all the spiritual strength that he possibly could, and to be fully aware of the gravity of the grace given him to serve as a shepherd of the flock.

Unlike with Zacchaeus, Timothy apparently did not need astounding repentance. He had the benefit of coming to Christ early in life and needed primarily to be faithful with all the blessings that he had received. That may seem easier than turning away from a life of grave sin, but it is a path with its own temptations, which can be subtle and deadly. It is easy to take for granted what we have known for so long, perhaps for our whole lives. It is appealing to denigrate “the same old thing” that we and our families have done for so long. It is a temptation to become comfortable with our level of spiritual growth or with the place that we have allowed God in our lives. St. Paul surely knew that, so he instructed Timothy straightforwardly to remain focused, take nothing for granted, and give his all to the Lord each day.

At different points in our lives, we will identify more with Zacchaeus and at other times more with Timothy. Some have given their lives to the Savior after falling into the worst forms of corruption that the world has to offer. They have found the way of Christ as a relief and a blessing that stands in stark contrast to the darkness they had previously known.

Some have grown up with the faith and always had some sense of living a Christian life. Nonetheless, we are all Zacchaeus when we turn away from the Lord by embracing darkness in our thoughts, words, and deeds. We may not be traitors and corrupt tax collectors, but we murder people in our hearts when we hate and refuse to forgive them. We fall into adultery whenever we allow lust to take root in our hearts. Married or single, we sin whenever we fuel our passions with images, thoughts, or actions that make us slaves to self-centered desire, that lead us to reject the calling to direct our deepest desires to union with God. When we are stingy with our resources, time, and attention in relation to the needs of our family members and neighbors, we steal from them. But when we reorient ourselves according to the Lord’s purposes for us like Zacchaeus did, salvation will come to our house.

And even if we came to faith from a broken and dark past, we are all Timothy in having gifts of which we must be good stewards. We must devote ourselves to remaining on the path by which we have begun the journey to the Kingdom, refusing to be distracted from our high calling. We must remember the struggles of the past and never take our deliverance for granted, for we are all only one grave sin away from weakening our relationship with the Lord. And if we want to continue on the path to healing and strength that we have begun, we must actually continue on it. St. Paul’s words apply to us also: “Practice these duties; devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.” Yes, we all owe it to one another to set the best example possible in striving to grow in holiness. This is not a journey that any of us can take entirely by yourselves.

The personal histories of Zacchaeus and Timothy were profoundly different, but they both became shining examples of our Lord’s salvation. The same will be true of us when we turn from sin like that tax collector and mindfully stay focused on serving Christ like that young apostle. No matter where we are on the journey to the Kingdom, we can all learn from these two faithful men. The beauty of our unique personalities will shine all the more brightly when, through humble repentance, salvation comes to our house and when, through steadfast commitment, we refuse to be distracted from offering our lives faithfully to the Savior each day. That is surely His calling to each and every one of us.


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