A sermon based on Psalm 119:137-144 and Luke 19:1-10 preached October 30th, 2016
As it turns out, we have Zacchaeus all wrong. The little man has gotten a bad rap for centuries. We thought we knew the story. Zacchaeus is a greedy, crooked, little tax-collector. He’s no better than a Wall Street CEO. The kind of person whose entire life revolves around shamelessly taking money from the most vulnerable among us, and padding his already bulging bank account. We think this story is about the moment when Jesus, on behalf of the crowd, confronts this slime-ball of a tax-collector. And upon seeing Jesus, Zacchaeus confesses how greedy he’s always been, and at once promises to change his ways by divesting half of his wealth. But that’s not at all what this story is about. It turns out, Zacchaeus is a better guy than we or anyone in the crowds that day thought he was. It turns out we have completely misunderstood Zacchaeus.
See, back then crowds loved to hate tax-collectors. They’re the people who steal from the poor to line their own pockets. They were hated more than any IRS agent is hated these days. But Zacchaeus is not your average tax-collector.
Zaccheaus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, I give (not ‘I will give’, future tense, but present tense) I give half of my possessions to the poor…and if I have cheated anyone, I repay (again present tense) them four times as much.
He doesn’t say,
I’ll start giving as of this moment.
I’m already giving. I have been giving for all this time! In fact, I make a habit of it! I make a practice of giving half of what I have to the poor. And if ever I find out I’ve cheated someone, I have always (and will continue to) repay four times as much.
Zacchaeus stands in front of Jesus and the crowds, not confessing greed or repenting for something he’s done wrong. He’s defending himself against a crowd of haters, and he’s trying to set the record straight.
“Look,” he says. “You have good reason to hate all those other tax collectors, but you’ve got to understand: You’ve got me all wrong. I’m not like them! I’m following the Law. I’m one of the good guys!”
And as it turns out, this little verbal mistake translators have always made changes the entire meaning of the story! So, our task this morning is to meet Zacchaeus again as if for the first time, and find out what this story, now rightly understood, has for us, especially in the season where we’re focusing on God’s call upon our lives to be faithful stewards of all of our resources.
For the last few weeks now, we’ve been talking about the right use of money. How we earn, save, spend, and regard our money is a mirror into our hearts. We are how we use our money.
The people who were attracted to Jesus in New Testament times were the poor. Jesus was pretty much the only one around who had Good News for the down and out. That day, the crowd surrounding Jesus as he entered Jericho was mostly peasants. They knew, or at least had heard, that Jesus’s main message was for them—that the Kingdom of God favored those who had no earthly comforts.
It was into this crowd that Zacchaeus entered, and each and every one of those peasants hated the man. They knew what he did for a living, and that’s all they wanted to know about him. In their minds, Zacchaeus, no matter the facts, was automatically lumped in with all of the scoundrel tax collectors out there. It didn’t matter what the truth was. They had their minds made up already.
Imagine then the crowds’ dismay when Jesus, champion of the poor and forgotten, vindicator of the disregarded and trampled-upon, speaks up only to address Zacchaeus! No words of encouragement for anyone else, no healing of the sick, no reassuring the impoverished. None of that. Jesus solely focuses upon the short little tax collector. According to the crowd, Zacchaeus is the last person needing Jesus’ attention that day, but here Jesus is buddying up to the little guy! Jesus even invites himself into Zacchaeus’ house. Is this a joke! We can imagine the crowd whispering to one another or even shouting out loud for everyone to hear:
Jesus, I thought You were on our side!
But that’s a slippery slope! No matter what side you’re on, that’s a very dangerous thing to convince yourself of. And, if that’s what you think, surely Jesus will surprise and disappoint you every single time. Jesus doesn’t come strolling into town to take your side. Never expect Jesus to prove you right and your enemies wrong! Jesus is much bigger and a whole lot more unpredictable than that! God’s not here to take sides. When God shows up, God takes over! When Jesus walks in to our lives, he’ll slay every sacred cow we’ve got, and he’ll leave us questioning all those pre-existing notions we have of Him. Jesus is unpredictable and unsafe like that!
In the chapter before this, Luke tells the story of a rich ruler who wants to know what he has to do to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells him he needs to sell everything he’s got and give the money to the poor. It’s a familiar story. The rich ruler walks away because selling all of his possessions is way too much to ask of him. He’s too tied to his wealth. That rich ruler is the only person in the Gospels who walks away from one of Jesus’ invitations. Jesus watches the man walk away, and then turns around and says to his disciples,
How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
Camels don’t have an easy time squeezing through the eye of a needle. What Jesus is saying is, as long as that man likes the idea of being rich better than he likes the idea of aligning his heart and his life with God’s heart and life, as long as he puts more trust in his fortune than he puts in God, then he stands a just as much of a chance of understanding and entering into the Kingdom of God as a camel’s got squeezing through the eye of a needle. Jesus tells his disciples that it’s not impossible for that to happen, but it is very unlikely. But here it happened! In this story! This is the story of the day when a camel passed through the eye of a needle. They said it couldn’t be done, but they were wrong! Zacchaeus is proof that even the largest of camels—a ruler among tax-collectors, the head hauncho of tax-collectors—gets it! He understands the Kingdom of God, and He lives his life practicing God’s ways!
Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor (that, by the way, is four times the amount the Law requires of him.) And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much (that’s twice the amount the Law requires of him).
Zacchaeus understands the huge claims the Kingdom of God makes upon his life, that they cost him dearly (both financially and spiritually), but he follows through with it, because he knows that it’s much better to live his life God’s way than it is to live his life his own way. He knows that the blessings of living faithfully for God make him far richer than all the money in the world could make him!
The story of the rich ruler and camels passing through the eye of a needle isn’t about who’s in and who’s out of heaven. It’s about who understands how the Kingdom of God works, and who doesn’t! And as it turns out, Zacchaeus understands how the Kingdom of God works. He’s living proof that even the wealthiest among us can still be faithful to God if they’re generous and willing to share their wealth with others. Jesus proclaims, much to the dismay of the crowd,
Today salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, and he too is a part of God’s family!
Zacchaeus’ commitment to go above and beyond the requirements of giving has a lot to teach us this stewardship season. This passage has a whole lot of action in it. Zacchaeus is all over the place in this story. He’s peering over shoulders, climbing up and down trees. I can see him heartily welcoming Jesus into his home and excitedly introducing Jesus to his family.
Back in Zacchaeus’ day, kinda like ours, grown men didn’t climb trees. That’s only something little kids did, but don’t tell that to Pete Nelson and his crew. Pete Nelson is the founder of Nelson Treehouse and Supply. Tree House Masters is a show on Animal Planet that documents Pete and his team of carpenters and designers as they design and build huge, extravagant treehouses for adults. The treehouses they build are big enough to live in, and they’re the best quality treehouses money can buy. And it’s such a joy to watch that show, because you can tell that Pete Nelson is bonkers about trees! He has the energy level of an over-caffeinated hummingbird. The moment he finds just the right place to build a treehouse for his clients, he can barely contain himself. That’s what I imagine Zacchaeus, a tree-climber in his own right, was like! Joyful. And joy is a natural byproduct of having an attitude of gratitude.
Just like Pete Nelson who can’t stop thinking about trees, or tiny little Zacchaeus who will just about do anything he needs to do—including climbing a sycamore—to get a view of Jesus passing by, God loves when joy comes together with serious commitment! When you have a mixture like that, God is glorified! Joy and serious commitment. Let’s call it the recipe for embodied gratitude. Embodied gratitude happens when we not only say thank you to the God who has given us everything, not only when we know where all our gifts come from, but when we—just like Zacchaeus—put them back right where they came from, right back into the hands of God. It happens when we take our gratitude and we turn it around to practice the right use of all of our actions, our time, and our money so that they come right back around again to glorify the Source of it all!
I bet that Zacchaeus wondered every so often if he was a fool to give half of what he had to the poor, or what he could do if he didn’t stick to his tall promise to repay four times the amount to anyone he’s cheated. A second house in Maui? A higher pair of shoes so he didn’t have to climb a tree every time a crowd gathered around him? I bet he had those moments. But I also bet that he was content right where he was—that he thought life was good and right. That giving back was good and right. And that giving back more than he had to was even better!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!