Zacchaeus and the Temptation of Comparison

Recently, I noticed and then read two fine short homilies posted on our parish website concerning the story of the publican Zacchaeus and his conversion to following Christ. One was written by Father Thomas Hopko, and the other by Father Ambrose Young (in which he extensively quotes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom). These two homilies offer a great deal of insight into the character of Zacchaeus and the nature of his repentance, and I would highly recommend that you take the time to read them. I see no reason to write a further meditation that would cover the same ground. However, there is a point that I would like to add as a general comment on reading and reflecting on the Scriptures, and their “application” to our own lives. Or, rather, I would like to add a word of caution in the face of what I would call “the temptation of comparison.”

By this I mean that when we read the Scriptures and encounter a character such as Zacchaeus – or other unnamed publicans – as well as the prodigal son, and other “great sinners;” we may well console ourselves with this consciously or unconsciously formulated train of thought: “Well, I am not quite so bad as these sinners. I am basically a good person who has not fallen to the depths of sin that these figures found in the Gospels have. They are there precisely to show us that even great sinners can be forgiven by God in His mercy. And I appreciate the dramatic effect of such a lesson. I certainly need to improve myself; and I certainly need to work on my relationship with God. But I have not defrauded others as Zacchaeus did, and I have not wasted my life in loose living as did the prodigal son. Most people like and respect me. Of course I, too, am sinful, but in comparison to the sinners mentioned in the Gospels, it would be false humility on my part to admit to an equally sinful life. In other words, I may be a sinner, but I am not such a great sinner.” Even if “objectively” true – and we can never claim absolute certainty about that—such a line of reasoning would basically waste the entire meaning of the passage on us, and perhaps further mean that we would have been better off not even listening to or reading the given passage! Such self-righteousness is considered to be a great sin in the Gospels. If, in comparison to Zacchaeus and the prodigal son, we are not as bad of sinners, does that mean that we are not as equally in need of the mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and love of God?

We seem to be drawn to such comparisons because we always come out looking good, or at least better than the other, when making these comparisons. One further and fascinating attribute of “human nature.” This, in turn, appeals to our vanity and self-regard. We are very much preoccupied with how others perceive us; our self-image as projected outwardly is of great concern to us. We would be mortified – and then either angered or depressed—if we thought that others thought poorly of us. We have a deeply-felt need to be able “to hold our head high” when compared to our neighbor. If only we were as concerned about how God may see us!

There may be another revealing side to the “temptation of comparison:” How does our repentance “compare” with that of Zacchaeus or the prodigal son, or other great sinners encountered in the Gospels? When the Lord came to his home, Zacchaeus was moved to give one-half of his possessions to the poor, and he agreed to restore fourfold what we had stolen from others. Do our fruits of repentance even begin to match that of Zacchaeus? And who compares well with the prodigal son throwing himself on the mercy of his father with no expectations in return? Have any of us been so overwhelmed by the saving presence of Christ and the sheer graciousness of the Gospel to react in such a manner? Perhaps it is this comparison that can teach us some humility.

Before approaching the chalice in order to receive the Eucharist, each one of us makes the same confession as we collectively share the same preparatory prayer: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” The very point of this public confession is that we are not comparing ourselves with others, but confessing to our own sinfulness before God. If analyzed comparatively, such a prayer would be reduced to a kind of empty rhetoric. Compared to the great villains of history and the great sinners that fill our news stories, we again come off as good, decent human beings. But that does not mean that we are in less need of the saving grace of the Gospel. Do I need “less grace” than the great sinners of history and contemporary life because I am comparatively not as bad? Hopefully, the absurdity of such a question is more than immediate. The only way that we can effectively prepare for the approaching Lenten season is to open our minds and hearts to the Gospel lessons of humility, repentance, conversion, the fruits of repentance and a renewed love of God and neighbor. We do this by listening to each Gospel passage as a direct call from Christ: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”