In our gospel reading this morning, we meet Zacchaeus, that “wee-little man”, who was really a terrible, awful person.
As Carol Howard Merritt describes him: he was “a man who collected taxes from his own people and gave it to the Roman government. And if that wasn’t nasty enough, Zacchaeus skimmed money off the top. This despicable man stole from the poor to line his own pockets… he was like the broker who added hidden fees to our widowed mother’s mortgage so he could vacation in Barbados.”
And he wasn’t a tax collector in our modern sense. In this world, you could be stopped on the street by someone like Zacchaeus and duties could be assessed for anything in your possession. “A cart, for instance, could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, for the merchandise that it carried.” (Rev. Wilson) No one, except for the tax collector knew how many fees he was really taking, so he could send to Rome whatever he wanted and keep the rest for himself.
As a fellow pastor pointed out, when verse 2 of our reading says that Zacchaeus was wealthy, it was an indictment about just how corrupt he truly was.
I imagine that he must have been profoundly lonely.
You see, when you live your life as a taker, you don’t make too many friends.
He also lived in a precarious position between his own people and the Roman government. He had to take from his neighbors in order to keep the occupying force happy. But that doesn’t mean he was valued or welcomed by the Romans either.
Not only that, he was a ruler among the tax collectors… which meant he couldn’t even hang out with all of the other greedy, mean old tax collectors in Israel, because he was their boss.
As much as the lepers or the Samaritans, he was on the margins of society. He had all the money he could want, but he didn’t have relationships.
He was living the opposite life described by 1 Timothy… he had placed all of his hopes on his finances, and the treasures of faith, salvation, friendship, and hope were rotting away.
Until Jesus walks by.
Jesus, who knows how to see the lonely and the lost, caught a glimpse of this sad, despicable little man in a tree.
And Jesus invited himself over for dinner.
There is a sequence of events that happens here that can confuse how we understand the story.
- Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus… he is seeking and searching for something new in life.
- Jesus sees Zacchaeus… and not only sees him, but knows him by name…. and probably knows every detail about his sordid little life.
- Jesus initiates the relationship with this person.
- Zacchaeus accepts and happily welcomes Jesus into his life.
- Zacchaeus commits to giving away half of his possessions and to repay anyone he has cheated… four times over!
- Jesus responds: Today salvation has come to your home, because I came to seek the lost.
If we aren’t paying close attention, we might think that it was Zacchaeus’s changed attitudes and his radical offering of wealth that brought salvation to his door.
We might start to think that unless we give, and give sacrificially, without abandon, that we can’t be saved.
But friends, this isn’t true.
The money you just put in the offering plate will not save your soul.
Your pledge card will not bring you salvation.
You see, before Zacchaeus ever offered to give a single penny back, Jesus found him.
And Jesus initiated the relationship, offered to come into his home, his life, his heart.
And Zacchaeus welcomed him in joyfully.
In our United Methodist understanding of grace, at that moment, Zacchaeus was saved.
At that moment, Zacchaeus accepted God’s acceptance of him.
At that moment, salvation came to his household.
It wasn’t because he gave everything to the poor.
I actually think the exchange that comes between Zacchaeus and Jesus after this moment drives home the point.
Zacchaeus stops along their walk and suddenly feels like he has to do something.
God’s grace has already entered his life and changed him and he isn’t sure he deserves it and he needs to respond in some way.
So he makes this radical and amazing offering of his own wealth to help others and he promises to make amends for past wrongs.
And what I think Jesus does in response is not praise Zacchaeus for his gifts, but remind him that he’s already saved.
Today salvation has come. You, too, are a son of Abraham. I came to seek the lost.
That might seem like a counter-productive message for Stewardship Sunday.
But I think it is important for us to understand that we can’t earn our salvation by our offering.
No, giving is our response to what God has already done for us.
It is the fruit of a life that has already been transformed by God’s grace.
It is a demonstration of gratitude for the gift that we could never possibly repay.
This morning, as I was driving in to church, I heard an interview with Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take.”
He said that “we all… receive unexpected and meaningful gifts – we want to pay it back, but there’s really nothing you can do to pay it back. So the next best thing is to pay it forward.”
Grant might be talking about human gifts, but it applies to divine ones as well.
We simply cannot do anything to repay God for the amazing, abundant, overflowing gift of salvation.
But we can pay it forward.
We can take what we have and we can bless others.
Our offerings, our giving, our pledges of time, talent, and treasure are one way we can say thank you to God and this church.
We are grateful for the Sunday School teacher who first taught us to sing “Zacchaeus was a wee little man”…. so we give to the church so other children might be blessed.
We are grateful to the Trustee who gave up their Saturday afternoon to install new lights in the bathroom… so we give to the church so that we can continue to provide a safe, welcoming space for others.
We were in the hospital and someone made us a prayer shawl… so we give thanks and we give to the church so that caring ministries might continue.
We lost our job and the people of the church prayed for us… so we give thanks and work to provide support to others.
Whether you have been a part of this church for a month or for ninety years, you are here today because someone somewhere along the line gave and made a difference in your life.
I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor right now and share who that person was who blessed you… who shared God’s love and grace and mercy with you… who do you give thanks for?
Those people you just named, that grace of God you just pointed to… that’s why we give.
We give because we have been blessed.
We give because we have been saved.
John Wesley wasn’t giving his advice to “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can” to people who were still outside the life of faith.
He was speaking to people like you and me who had already experienced God’s grace.
And they were asking what they should do now.
How could they pay it forward?
How were they supposed to live as redeemed people?
If we have been forgiven, then we should forgive others.
If we have been healed, then we should help heal others.
If we have been blessed financially, then we should financially bless others.
I often wonder what happened to Zacchaeus after his dinner date with Jesus, because he isn’t mentioned again in the scriptures.
But we can imagine that he was no longer the same person.
His priorities were changed.
He let go of his old life and committed to something new.
He probably spent the rest of his life trying to say thank-you to God for seeking him out, a lost and despicable man, someone who didn’t deserve an ounce of grace or salvation.
The way we say thank-you for every gift of God is to use it, to share it, to pass it on to the world.
And that is why these pledge cards we have don’t only include our financial commitment to the church, but our commitment of time and talents and skills as well.
God has blessed you with something and today, you can say thank you to our Lord and Savior for every ounce of grace you have received, by making a commitment to share your gifts with the world.
*image: Artwork for Texas Baptists Vacation Bible School curriculum by Scott Byers