Zaccheus – And the Issue of Money
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Luke 19: 1 – 10. Focus on how we prejudge others on all kinds of issues some because of wealth, others for betraying out beliefs and our prejudices. Check out Kelly Crandell and the Choir as they sing – Rain Down.
The minute you think you’ve figured out Luke’s Gospel he throws you a curve ball. For example, Luke uses more economic metaphors to describe what Jesus is concerned with than any other Gospel. And most of those metaphors tend to equate having money with loving mammon more than God. The implication being that God wants us poor so we can enter the kingdom of heaven.
The problem with this understanding is that Jesus was offering far more than a critique of wealth. Jesus was offering us a way to find the kingdom of heaven here on earth. And that kingdom was not about creating a new category of winners and losers. Jesus wants everyone to enter the kingdom, those who are rich and those who are poor, those who are righteous and those who are not.
So Jesus tells us this wonderful story of Zaccheus. What makes it wonderful is the reversal that Jesus pulls on his listeners. Having just heard about the rich young man who wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, the disciples are perplexed, because they ask Jesus if this man can’t do what you ask of him, which is to sell all that he has, and give it to the poor, then who can be saved? To this Jesus responds: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Now the disciples and those who heard this story are in all likelyhood thinking that having money is the reason you can’t get into heaven. To correct this misperception Jesus tells the story of Zaccheus. Most of us remember Zaccheus as that little guy who climbed a tree so he could see Jesus.
But what you probably don’t remember is that Zaccheus was the chief tax collector for Rome in his district and he was rich. This is the guy who stole from the guys who stole from their fellow Jews, at least that’s what the town folk thought. Not only was Zaccheus a traitor. He was a traitor’s traitor.
Now I believe that most, if not all, of us have some category deep down in our psyches for “sinners.” When pressed, we’ll say, “we’re all sinners,” or “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” but on some level, we’re still tempted to put some people in a special category – THOSE people. “Those people” are the ones who commit the REALLY bad sins, by which we mean they are the ones who commit the sins that we’re not really tempted to commit.
It’s a tragedy, this preconception we make about “those people”, because it prevents us from seeing them for who they really are, and from hearing their stories of redemption. And that’s why Jesus brings the story of Zaccheus to our attention.
It’s a bit ironic that in retelling Zaccheus’ story we often commit the very sin that Jesus asks us to look at in ourselves. To often we professionals present Zaccheus not as a righteous and generous man who is wrongly scorned by his prejudiced neighbors, but as the story of a repentant sinner. Too many in my vocation say, “Look, if Jesus could forgive Zaccheus, he might even be able to forgive you! What an injustice to Zaccheus, to Jesus, and to God’s justice and mercy!
It doesn’t help matters that in many translations of the Bible, verse 8 and 9 have Zaccheus saying, “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.” The problem is that the Greek verbs Zaccheus uses are not in the future tense; they’re in the present tense. Our pew Bibles translates it correctly. Zaccheus is already giving to the poor and is already returning the money that is not his when Jesus arrives in town.
Now his neighbors in Jericho don’t see this or know this, because they presume that Zaccheus hoards his possessions and cheats his fellow citizens, so when Jesus invites himself to Zaccheus’ house, Jesus becomes one of THOSE people. But Zaccheus is not a cheat, nor does he hoard his wealth; as he says in our translation, “Behold Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it four fold.”
These are things he is already doing, before he meets Jesus. This rich chief tax collector, who receives only disdain from his neighbors, is actually far more generous and intentional about doing justice than his neighbors give him credit for. That’s something to think about the next time we’re tempted to point to someone as one of THOSE people.
Why does this happen? It happens for a lot of reasons, but the bottom line is that it happens when we don’t have first hand experience with someone and simply base whether we like them or not on what others have told us, which almost always is someone else who doesn’t have any first hand experience with the person either. Think of all the people we judge, who we’ve never talked to, never met, never taken the time or done the work necessary to see them as anything more than some caricature of our prejudices.
Political campaigns depend on us doing this. How many of us ever take the time to read first hand sources about those we vote for? How many of us move beyond party affiliation and partisan rhetoric to find out the facts? How many of us get our information from sources that we already agree with?
Jesus asks us to care for the sheep not to be one!
The reason Jesus always upsets the apple cart is because there’s more than just apples in this world. We are more than sinner or saint, we are more than rich or poor, and to help us see that Jesus uses someone like Zaccheus to show us that entering into his kingdom is about more than how much we have in our wallets. It’s about how we treat each other – period. And Jesus will upset the apple cart till the end of time because every one of us needs to change. We will never be perfect, but we can strive toward it.
Take a moment and look around you. Look all around. How many people do you really know? How many people do you know of? How many people don’t you know? If we really want to grow this church in every way we must get to know those we only “know of” and those “we don’t.”
Personally I’m attracted to any place where people are not trying to change me. They’re about loving me until I can change. I’m attracted to people who are willing to risk my rejection, because they love me enough to tell me the truth. I’m attracted to people who will share their faith, hope and experience with me. I’m attracted to people who want to do more than survive! I want us to thrive! And I’m attracted to those who want to make a difference. That’s why I’m attracted to this place.
But that’s me. What are you attracted to? Who are you willing to get involved with? What are you willing to invest in? How about our future and the future of our children? It’s Reformation Sunday, we changed the course of history, once upon a time, say 500 years ago. Why not do it again? It only takes a seed of faith to move a mountain. Imagine what we could move if we all planted them – in this place! Amen