It’s not Christmas yet, although with Halloween now out of the way, the Christmas stuff has begun to emerge. But when I read about Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, that famously short chief tax collector from Jericho, I can’t help but think of Ebenezer Scrooge. You know the story. On Christmas Eve, that rich penny-pinching money lender, is visited by three ghosts. By the next morning he’s a new man. Instead of taking money from the poor, he gives it away. Now Scrooge didn’t go looking for this encounter, but according to Luke Zacchaeus did. We’re not told why, just that he did. In fact, Zacchaeus goes to great lengths to see Jesus, going as far as climbing a tree so he could see the Master when he walked by. The amazing thing is that not only did he see Jesus, but Jesus saw him. That glance upwards changed his life forever.
1. Salvation – now and then
This is supposed to be a stewardship sermon, but this is really a salvation story. But in this story, salvation isn’t just about getting right with God so we can get to heaven. This is a story about getting right with God so you can enjoy the presence of God in the "here and now" and then make a difference in the world in which you live.
Last week I mentioned Eric Elnes book, Asphalt Jesus. Eric helped write the Phoenix Affirmations, a brief statement of progressive Christian principles. The ninth principle states that "Christian love of self includes: Basing our lives on the faith that in Christ all things are made new and that we, and all people, are loved beyond our wildest imagination – for eternity."
While some messages of salvation are rooted in fear – if you don’t love Jesus, you’re going to hell, the message I get from this story and from many other parts of the Bible is this: salvation is rooted in love – in God’s love for each of us, a love that’s unconditional and transforming.
2. Love that Transforms
We don’t know why Zacchaeus went looking for Jesus. It would seem that he had everything he wanted and needed in life, and yet something was missing and for some reason he thinks Jesus has the answer. Because he’s too short to see him from the ground, he climbs a tree. Think about that for a moment. Would you climb a tree to see someone famous? Would you risk life and limb and even dignity to see someone, without any real hope that this person would see you?
But Zacchaeus isn’t the only one looking. Jesus is also looking – up – and Jesus sees Zacchaeus and invites himself over for dinner. That’s the wondrous message of the gospel – God is seeking us. It’s the message of the Prodigal Son and the parable of the lost sheep. God wants to be in relationship with us – now and not just later.
By inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ house Jesus makes a statement. Do you remember the parable we read last week – the one about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? That parable is relived here in this passage. The grumbling of the religious folk reminds us that Zacchaeus might be rich, but he was also a social outcast. By reaching out to him, Jesus reminds us that no one is beyond redemption and that God’s arms are open to everyone. No one is worthless in the eyes of God.
3. Generous and Joyous Giving
Earlier in Luke Jesus tells his disciples: "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Luke 12:34). He tells them this to encourage them. Don’t worry about today, he says, because God will provide. So, give it all up, take a risk, and follow me.
This is a hard decision to make. Not everyone can make it – the Rich Ruler walked way when Jesus told him to give everything away to the poor if he wanted to be saved. Zacchaeus on the other hand, doesn’t ask Jesus what he should do, he just does it. Before Jesus could say anything about his lifestyle, he tells Jesus, I’m going to repay four times, what I inappropriately took from people while collecting taxes. And then I’m going to give half of what’s left to the poor. He didn’t need a lecture from Jesus, he knew what he should do. And so Jesus tells him: "today salvation has come to this house."
Mark Powell wrote a book about stewardship, and in it he talks about Jesus’ view of money. He says that Jesus talked a lot about money, not because he was a fund-raiser or he was interested in building projects or religious programming. No, "he talked about money because he cared about us and because he knew that what we do with our money affects who we are spiritually."1
Each week we hear an invitation to bring our offerings to the Table, and at least a couple of times a year we hear messages from the pulpit about giving. There’s a couple of reasons why this happens. One reason is pragmatic, there are bills to be paid. But the second and more important reason for doing this is that giving through the church is an important spiritual practice – just like praying or reading the Bible. As the stories of the rich ruler and Zacchaeus remind us – there are two ways of giving. We can, and often do, give out of obligation and duty. That’s the question the rich ruler asked – what am I obligated to do if my life is going to change?
There’s another way of giving and Zacchaeus models it for us. Zacchaeus gives freely and joyfully. No one has to tell him how much or when, he just gives from the heart. The amount might not be the same as Jesus required of the rich ruler, but that’s not the point. It’s not the amount or the percentage, it’s the motivation. Zacchaeus gave because his life changed. He became a new person and giving was a natural response.
In this month of Thanksgiving, as we stop to give thanks to God for the bounty that is ours, we also stop to consider the status of our relationship with God. It’s not a question of what we owe, but how much we love and what we love. When we give, is it out of joy? Or is it out of obligation? Now the church will take either, but if our giving is to have a spiritual impact on our lives, then joyous giving would seem to be the better option.
1. Mark Allan Powell, Giving to God, (Eerdmans, 2006), 54.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 4, 2007