5th Sunday after Epiphany
February 5, 2017
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us for our 3rd of 4 sermons on Stewardship is the Gospel lesson read earlier from Luke chapter 19.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
You probably remember the song from Sunday School, but did you remember the narrative? “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…for I’m going to your house today.” That’s all fine and good, but this narrative has a LOT to say about Stewardship/generous giving; nobody ever sings cool songs about that.
This is a narrative of giving and love, which Jesus extends to a man who most consider a vile, awful traitor to his people. Zacchaeus is a tax collector. In the 1st Century, a tax collector is one who made his income by extracting money from his neighbors and giving that money to a foreign, occupying, often brutal government not to mention his own piece of the action: tribute taxes, head/poll taxes, land taxes, trade taxes/tolls, Temple taxes. If you didn’t pay the tax collector’s rates, big guys with sharp swords and pointy spears showed up. There was rampant corruption among tax collectors, and everyone knew it.
Suddenly, words like salvation and son of Abraham show up to describe Zacchaeus. These words imply a relationship with God that no one thinks Zacchaeus deserves. Even further still, the words are spoken by Jesus himself!
This is a narrative that involves love and giving. When we think about generous giving, it’s important to know that it is not exclusively financial in nature. Remember me saying that over the past weeks? Generous giving is a lifestyle of deep love for Jesus Christ and extraordinary generosity toward opportunities of service and the advance of his kingdom.
Consider Zacchaeus. He wants to see Jesus. Luke says he is (political correctness like “woman of the city”?) “small in stature;” he’s short. He is also curious. As Jesus approaches his town of Jericho, Zacchaeus runs ahead of him and climbs up in a sycamore tree.
Jesus looks up in the tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (v 5). This moment of engagement and invitation is radically different for Zacchaeus. Think about it; Zacchaeus is accustomed to people not stopping for him and not speaking to him. He is familiar with disapproving stares. He knows the names people use when they refer to him. He hears their threats. He is the man people love to hate. Yet, with a look and a word from Jesus, Zacchaeus hurriedly climbs down from the tree and gladly receives him.
The people who observed the moment grumble. They complain. They accuse. “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” (v 7). People can say what they want – and they often do. Sinners quickly assume the worst case scenario and worst construction on things. God’s grace intersects Zacchaeus’ disgrace. No one sees it, but Jesus knows it. Zacchaeus’ life is transformed by his encounter with Jesus. The one who receives the redeeming gift of God’s grace becomes a generous giver. In response, Zacchaeus gives out to others. “The half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (v 8).
What is going on here? This kind of giving is more than an attempt to soothe a troubled conscience or silence his critics. This is a kind of giving out to others that Martin Luther recognizes when he describes the Christian life as consisting of faith and charity. Zacchaeus gives out to others because he is found by a Savior who seeks and saves lost people. The saved person becomes the kind of person who WANTS to give out of themselves.
The encounter with Jesus changes the entire orientation of Zacchaeus’ life. Paul describes this encounter: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). “Giving out” to others is the way Zacchaeus expresses this new orientation of his life with Christ at the center.
Yes. Zacchaeus responds to Jesus. Yes. He responds to the needs of the community around him—the poor and those he had defrauded (v 8). Yes. He responds with generous giving: “The half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (v 8). Yes. Jesus notices; you cannot fake it to make it with Jesus. Jesus makes the connection between “giving out” and “new creation.” “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (v 9). On another occasion, Jesus taught about the relationship between the “treasure” of my life and the orientation of my life: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21). In other words, your giving – your giving out – gives you away.
Once I worked with our church’s Men’s Group doing some yard work for one of our shut-ins. As I stood there, sun burning my bald spot, covered in grass clippings and Lord knows what else whacking elephant grass and cockleburs taller than myself, I wondered “why am I doing this? What’s the point?” Then it came to me. The reward for giving out is the act of giving out. Giving yourself away – giving out to others – through our time, talents, and treasures is what the Baptized, saved, forgiven, and redeemed people of God do. Our encounter with Jesus crucified and risen again for the forgiveness of our sins changes our life too, not just Zacchaeus.
What is your giving out practice? How do you give of yourself? What was the last volunteer opportunity you took advantage of? What was the last charity you gave to? What was the last thing you signed up for at church? What was the last board or committee you served on? If it happened when Reagan/Clinton/a Bush was still in the White House, it may be time for you to step up once again and do some generous giving out of yourself. Sure, it could have been easy to be Zacchaeus. It’s easy to sit back in your comfort zone and love the environment you’ve created for yourself. But when you hear that still, small voice of God calling you down out of your tree – your comfort zone – you know it’s time to start loving and start truly living and giving. Why? Because you can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.
The time for you to come down out of your tree and be a generous giver of yourselves in every way is now more than ever.