This sermon was delivered Sunday, March 4, 2012
Luke 19:1-10 (New Revised Standard)
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
Our scripture story today is one many of us have heard before, maybe you even remember it from Sunday School—the image of a rather short man climbing a tree just to get a look at Jesus is one that is well-suited to children’s stories and craft projects, not to mention being easy for small children to identify with. The profession of Zacchaeus is not as clearly ingrained in my own Sunday school memories as the image of a little man scurrying up a tree and Jesus noticing him up there. But, in fact, Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and for Jews in Jesus’ time, that was the same thing as being a thief, or worse. You see, the Romans hired Jews to collect taxes for them, and the collectors got paid based on how much money they could extort, so Jews who were tax collectors were victimizing their own people in service to the oppressive government, and doing it for their own financial gain.
Eating with a tax collector, entering one’s home, was enough to make you ritually unclean, because their sins were considered so great. And so, the important part of this story has nothing at all to do with Zacchaeus’ height, or that he could climb a tree, but with the fact that Jesus announces to the stunned crowd that he was going to eat at Zacchaeus’ home that day.
That wacky Jesus! He was always saying and doing things that seem to be completely opposite of how a respected rabbi would behave—that don’t make sense—that jar us from our comfortable understandings and beliefs and make us question whether or not we really know anything at all about what God wants from us. But he did those things because he came to do a new thing, to preach a radical Gospel of love and grace and personal transformation, and often, that kind of transformation requires us to do the unexpected, the uncomfortable, the scary.
And so, in our story, Jesus reaches out to this man whom everyone else scorns and announces to a stunned crowd that he will join him for dinner. In response, Zacchaeus announces that he is giving up half his wealth and making reparations to anyone he has defrauded. At this point we might wonder what the other people in the crowd were thinking. I imagine they found this transformation hard to believe…Tax collector one minute, generous and honest follower of Jesus the next? It seems too good to be true! But Jesus accepts it, and actually acknowledges that Zacchaeus is a beloved child of God, a person who is worthy of God’s Grace, despite what anyone else might think.
Now, an important thing to remember about this story is that Jesus calls Zacchaeus before he has made any statements about giving up his ill-gotten wealth. Jesus calls him down out of the tree and states that they will break bread together. Knowing how important a ritual it was to share a meal together with another person, to be welcomed into their home and accept hospitality, we should understand that this is an act of Grace, freely given, before Zacchaeus makes any claims of repentance or generosity.
The message here, one that is difficult for many people to accept, is that God’s Grace, love and forgiveness are free and available for ALL people, regardless of station or history or what society might think of them. This is the Gospel—the Good News…God’s Grace is already available, already ours… but what Zacchaeus teaches us is that how we respond to that grace can make a big difference in our own quality of life and spiritual fulfillment.
Zaccchaeus responds to God’s grace by giving away much of his wealth, by letting go of his greed and helping his community. And thus, Zacchaeus is transformed.
Now, we are not all tax collectors. Most of us are not even particularly wealthy, at least compared with the one percent at the top of our economy. But the kind of transformation that Zacchaeus felt when he was converted from hoarding to giving is available to all of us.
God is a giving God. God gave us this beautiful earth, these beautiful bodies, these beautiful relationships…But not so we could own them—hold tight and not share them with anyone—God gave us all this so we could share it. Share the beauty of creation, walk in the world helping others with our bodies and our lives, and live in relationship with each other, sharing love and struggle with the people around us. God gives to us so that we can give to each other, and the giving becomes a continuous circle, the gifts expanding and multiplying and being offered back to God. It’s a beautiful thing, if we can let go of our tight grip on what we have long enough to open our hands to the Divine.
This is why giving can be such a profoundly spiritual practice. Because when we give, be it money, or time, or love, we open ourselves to receiving, and we join the Divine in being stewards of our communities and our world. The more we give of ourselves, the less focused we are on self and ego, and the more we see Christ in others…and therefore, in ourselves.
Today we begin our annual season of commitment, a time when we as a congregation speak openly and honestly about giving, about need, about what it means to be a part of a community. Each one of you, whether you have been here 50 years, or whether it is your first time entering this church, are an important part of our community. Your presence is essential to our functioning, to our ability to follow the teachings of Jesus. You help us in so many ways; by praying with us, by making music with us, by asking hard questions and sharing your struggles.
You help us by washing dishes, by changing diapers, by teaching and by listening. And yes, you help us by contributing financially, so that we have buildings to meet in and ministers to teach us and musicians to bring us to new heights of worship.
Money can be a difficult thing to talk about in church, but it is an important part of all of our lives, and like it or not, our church cannot be sustained without it. So, as we enter into this pledge season, we invite you to see it as a time ripe with possibility, ripe with spiritual gifts just waiting to be opened. Let us move away from an attitude of scarcity towards an acknowledgment of the abundance in our lives and what a gift it is to share that abundance with others. AMEN.