The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26), Year C.
Jesus 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.”Luke 19:1-10
Can you feel it in the air? The weather getting colder, the leaves starting to turn. The vague hint of pumpkin spice trickling out of every grocery store, restaurant and coffee shop? The brutal heat and stale humidity that has made everywhere feel like a damp musty towel has finally broken and given way to crisp cool air inviting a warm drink and a soft blanket. It’s finally the magical season we have all been waiting for before the oppressive winter. It’s Stewardship Season.
Yes it’s everyone’s favorite time of year again, a magical few weeks before advent that clergy write awkward sermons asking for money, using the example of Zacchaeus’ extravagant generosity to chastise, plead, and beg to the congregation. In many congregations the discomfort about money causes many rectors to ask a vestry member to preach on Stewardship. The reasoning for this is obvious: we have been trained to not talk about money. Because when we start talking about money it takes us to uncomfortable places, mainly the realization that the world is profoundly unfair. Especially in America we hold so dear to the idea that everyone starts at an equal playing field, equal wages for equal work. We want to believe that we have an egalitarian society, where hard work is rewarded equally and appropriately. Only it’s not. Work and merit is not always judged by its importance to the common good, but by the fickle demands of the market. Yet despite the faith people put in it, the market is not God. It is not wise, just, and omnipotent, rather it is manipulated, fickle, and so weak it can collapse by the slightest shock. Worst of all, unlike God, the market does not care about people, especially not those who do not neatly fit into its whims.
To have any truly honest conversation about money, especially the stewardship of this congregation there is something you all need to hear: Thank you. I am continually humbled by the tremendous generosity of this congregation. This community is generous not only in material wealth, but in talent, in time, and most importantly of all, in love. Because of your sharing of time, talent, and funding, in these years of profound crisis, we have been able to maintain our facilities, support our staff, help many people in need, and above all be a community who loves and welcomes all. In a world where people are valued only by their supposed productivity, the love and generosity that this community demonstrates daily is a profound rebuttal. The Holy Spirit of generosity and gratitude working through you has made the impossible possible. Of course, one of the most direct and profound means I am honored with is the discretionary fund, where I share your generosity with those who need it. When we pay off those bills you aren’t giving them money, you have given that person peace and just a little more freedom. So on behalf of all those who come through our door and we can help, I thank you.
Though along this profound feeling of joy and gratitude there is always a tinge of sadness. In my relatively short time in ordained ministry, I have seen people from all walks of life in crisis, but I always see the same crisis. An injury, a death in the family, even a small car accident, or simply trying to get an education to improve oneself, in an instant they go from self-sufficient to calling church to church trying to scrape enough together to avoid the fees that keep digging that hole deeper. Many of the people that have come to see me for assistance have jobs, some have had two simultaneously. Yet they have trouble making it to the end of the month. We see it again and again, so many people living on the knife edge of society.
But what can we do? We aren’t the market. We don’t hold in our hands the levers of governance and fiscal policy. And as much as we would want to, we can’t give everyone everything they need. It can be overwhelming and depressing. It can feel hopeless and pointless. There’s a name for this feeling: Giving fatigue.
There is so much wonderful charitable work being done, in this congregation, in the countless local organizations, and in our private lives when we help a friend or a family member or save for our children’s school to minimize their debt. But life keeps getting more expensive, and the need just keeps growing. This is the other reason why we as a society, and even the church, shy away from talking about money. A profound sense of fatigue and embarrassment that after all this time, it feels like we haven’t accomplished anything.
This is where we look at Zacchaeus’ story as little more than a charming folk tale. Here is a rich and powerful man climbing a tree and just after seeing Jesus, notice, not even really talking with Jesus, he says he’ll give up half his possessions! Not only that, but if he’s defrauded anyone, he’ll pay it back four times over! How about that for a pledge!?
It’s this point in the story, as charming as it is, that we want to write it off as unrealistic, naïve, or irrelevant. So Zacchaeus gives up half his wealth to the poor and follows Jesus, what’s that really going to do? Is Zacchaeus giving up his wealth really going to help anyone more than it is going to hurt him? Does Zacchaeus really understand what he’s giving up here? How could we reasonably expect to follow his example? Wealth is more than possessions, it’s security, freedom, social status, the ability flourish beyond biological necessities. But even if only half his wealth is enough to afford Zacchaeus a comfortable life, what about all the rest of us? You just want to shake the book and say, “but you don’t understand all the economic underpinnings of poverty! We do so much already how can you possibly ask for more?” If we all pledged like Zacchaeus, put on sackcloth and gave it away, would we be saving everyone? Would we be saving anyone? Would we inherit eternal life?
It’s easier to walk away from it, say it’s all pointless and go back to what the market says. Just look out for no. 1. If you give, it should be ultimately because a healthier society benefits me.
It’s this moment of despair that Jesus reminds us of our mission as the Church: “Today salvation has come to this house…For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
If you ask people on the street what they remember about Zacchaeus, the first thing they’ll say is “Who’s that?” But when you keep asking and finally find someone who knows the story, they’ll say “He was that short rich guy who climbed a tree to see Jesus.” Ever wonder why Zacchaeus had to climb that tree? Sure, he was apparently short, but why wouldn’t the crowd let him through? The answer is simple: they hated him. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. So not only was he actively oppressing the poor and betraying his community to the Romans, he was the one in charge of it all! The crowd turned their backs on him because he had turned his back on them. He traded his community for wealth, and for all his money, he could not buy back their love or trust.
Until he met Jesus.
Though the rest of the community would not even look at him, Jesus not only saw Zacchaeus, but called him by name. Jesus even broke all sense of good manners by inviting himself to stay in Zacchaeus’ home, much to the shock of the crowd. But Jesus saw something in Zacchaeus that the crowd, and even Zacchaeus himself never saw until that moment. Jesus saw his humanity. Jesus saw past Zacchaeus’ sinful occupation, saw past all the hurt and pain he had caused, and saw past the hurt the wealth had caused him. Instead of all these things, Jesus saw someone who was lost and worth saving.
Being seen for the first time in a long time as a human being, rather than a sinner, changed Zacchaeus’ life. In this moment of being seen for his true worth, Zacchaeus pledges half his wealth, and four times over whatever he defrauded anyone, to be restored to his community. Zacchaeus isn’t just giving away money, he’s giving up his profession that harms the community. In pledging four times over what was defrauded, he’s admitting and committing to return what he had stolen. When we look at Zacchaeus’ story, we realize that the wealth he gave up was never his in the first place. We also see how transformative the Church’s mission really is.
This parish is a place where those who market deems unworthy of a good life are seen for what they really are: God’s people. This is a community for all, where we look out for one another not because it serves our interests, or has a payoff down the road, or because God told us to do it! We do it because this is what it means to be Christians, that we are known by our love. And yes, it’s expensive, difficult, and sometimes thankless. But that’s what it takes when we have standards. We invest in the mission of this parish not because we expect financial returns but because together, we are building toward something greater than ourselves. We seek out those who are lost, those deemed unworthy of love, and welcome them. Today salvation has come to this house.
When we get lost in the sheer magnitude of the work to be done, faithful people can very quickly show little faith. Will that food donation save someone who can’t afford their rent? No, but it means that they had one less meal to worry about. Will those old clothes you gave away pay off that crippling medical debt? No, but it might help them get a job, or at least keep warm tonight now that the weather is turning. Will giving to the Church fix this broken world? No, but it will make sure there’s a place where all are truly welcome; a home to strengthen the faithful, soothe the suffering, and seek out the lost. When we give, we are sharing God’s love. Every time we ease just a little of the pain that is so deeply a part of the world, we are laying a foundation for God’s kingdom. We are building a kingdom where there will be no war, poverty, or pain. When we trust in God, we will learn to beat our swords into plows, and our spears into pruning hooks so we can feed the world. And when our Savior comes again He will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. In God’s kingdom all these things have will have passed away.