Luke 18:18-27 ; Luke 19:1-10
As we begin this season of dedication and stewardship, I want to look at this amusing character of Zacchaeus as a model of joyous giving. Jesus sees in Zacchaeus not his bad reputation and compromised ethics, but his desire for new life; and so Jesus chooses to dwell with him; as a result, Zacchaeus the rich tax collector turns his life around, adopting a path of generosity and justice. You can think of this as a sequel to the sermon a few weeks ago: “The Rich Man in Hades.”
But to appreciate the Zacchaeus story, we have to see how Luke sets it up. Luke loves to contrast a righteous person, or a story about salvation, with an unrighteous person, or one who misses out on salvation. Hence the odd device of two readings from Luke today. Luke’s foil for Zacchaeus comes in 18:18, with the story of the Rich Ruler. Both are rich. Both seek out Jesus. One succeeds and one doesn’t. It is instructive to see why.
The story of the rich ruler should be familiar; it appears in Mark and Matthew. But Luke shapes his version for a particular effect. Only in Luke is the figure identified as a “Ruler.” In Mark, which is almost certainly the original version of the story, he is simply a man who runs up and kneels before Jesus. Luke deliberately leaves out this humble gesture. And making him a ruler (“archon” in the Greek) also sets up a parallel to Zacchaeus, who was a “chief tax collector,” an arch-itelōnēs (hear the parallel?). But being a chief tax collector is not as dignified as being a “ruler.” Zacchaeus is in the upper echelon of what we would call “mid-level managers;” more precisely, he is a collaborator with Rome, a shill for Roman domination. And of course, people understandably hated him for it.
The Rich Ruler lacks Zacchaeus’ eagerness seeking after Jesus. He simply comes up, shows moderate respect by calling Jesus, “Good Teacher,” and asks about what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus returns what must have been the ruler’s nonchalance or indifference: “Why do you call me good?” It is an odd response, and it’s even more puzzling in the original story from Mark. But in Luke I think it functions as a cutting question to the ruler, in effect asking: “Why do you really care about my opinion? Do you really trust me to be your teacher, let alone your Lord, your savior?” And then Jesus continues by saying to him, you have the commandments. God has already given you the minimum standard for righteousness. Why do you want anything more?
The Rich Ruler evidently thinks that the five commandments Jesus cites are kids’ stuff. “I have kept all these since my youth.” And notice that he doesn’t just want to be a good and faithful member of the people Israel; he himself wants “eternal life.” He’s rich, he’s powerful; he is satisfied that he has done nothing wrong in his life; but he still thinks there must be something more he must do, because he wants what his wealth and power cannot buy: he wants to live forever. He probably sees eternal life as the ultimate possession to be won: his crowning achievement.
Jesus sees all this, evidently. You probably are familiar with Jesus’ healing touch. For those who are weak, marginal, outcastes, downtrodden, he knows just how to touch them, physically and spiritually, to liberate their energies of health, well being, and righteousness. And then he tells them, not: “I have healed you,” but “Your faith has made you well.” But by the same token, for the powerful and self-righteous, Jesus knows just how to expose the weak point, the Achilles’ heel. He has a knack at confronting them with their own false faith, by which they make God into an accessory of a respectable and successful lifestyle. And that is always a temptation, wherever religion is seen as respectable, whenever you have rich rulers who proudly declare their own righteousness. And isn’t this our temptation, here in Granby? Going to church isn’t as respectable as it used to be; it is no longer the “thing to do.” But still today, if you wanted to be a respectable Christian, a rich-ruler Christian, you would probably come here, right? You’d say to yourself, I should go to that old, charming, respectable clapboard church on the hill. No other church in Granby faces this temptation like we do. And not to get ahead of ourselves, but picture now short, gung-ho Zacchaeus climbing a tree and peering in one of our new windows, eager to see what’s going on, but still a little too ashamed to just come inside.
It is noteworthy that Mark tells us Jesus “looked at him and loved him;” Luke says no such thing. Indeed, noting his attitude and his satisfaction with himself, Jesus calls out the Rich Ruler: There is one thing lacking (only one little thing): sell all you have, give to the poor, and only then will your treasure be in heaven (we talked about that several weeks ago). Then come, follow me–something the Ruler had indicated no interest in doing; he apparently didn’t think he was in need of Jesus’ leadership. The Rich Ruler becomes sad, because he was very rich. So Jesus, probably guessing that the ruler would be too attached to his wealth to follow him, takes the occasion to make a public example of him: “See?” he says, pointing at the ruler. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Harsh.) The others standing around ask, “Then who can be saved?” Evidently, they are now a little nervous, because they perceive themselves as at least a little rich. And then Jesus says the enigmatic words: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
In Luke’s version of things, Zacchaeus is the answer to that anxious question: “Then who can be saved?” Zaccheaus is like the Rich Ruler, but even though he doesn’t end up selling everything and giving it all to the poor, he, in contrast to the ruler, receives salvation by story’s end. He’s also a more humorous character than the rich ruler; his story recalls the humor of the parable of the widow and the Unjust Judge. Zacchaeus is a rich chief tax collector—giving him all the status and respect in that day of, roughly, a very successful pimp (though he’s pimping Rome, not prostitutes). You can imagine him dressed expensively but awkwardly. Maybe he wore something flashy to try to make up for his lack of respect. To top it off (so to speak), he was too short to see Jesus through the crowd. So he’s a flashy pimp bobbing his head up and down to see over the crowd. Funny, right? It’s not at all like the image we receive of the confident, self-righteous rich ruler. Moreover, in contrast to the ruler, he’s so very anxious just to see Jesus. He doesn’t come up to Jesus and say, “I’ve dotted all the I’s and crossed the T’s. Now tell me what do I need to do to have it all after I die?”
Zacchaeus is so anxious to see Jesus that he forgets all dignity, runs ahead of the crowd, and climbs a tree. Can you picture this short buffoonish guy, wearing clothes that are a little gaudy, up in a tree, anxiously espying Jesus as he approaches? It’s a delightfully funny image. Jesus probably didn’t need superhuman powers to see right through Zacchaeus. We saw that Jesus was naturally wise enough to see exactly what was up with the Rich Ruler, seeing right through his conceit cloaked in piety. And just so, he sees what is up with Zacchaeus, when, chuckling to himself at the sight of him, and overhearing the crowd making sport of him, he realizes that this is a man who is ready for salvation. So he calls out to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Jesus calls out Zacchaeus in precisely the opposite way he called out the rich ruler, because Zacchaeus was one was abased by the crowd, and bearing shame; just so he is filled with desire for something new in his life. The rich ruler had it all and still wanted more. Zacchaeus doesn’t know what he needs, but he knows he needs something great change, and he senses that this Jesus may be the one to give it to him. But more than that, Jesus perceives that this Zacchaeus, though rich, is an outcast. Jesus declares, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost”—recalling the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. He has compassion on Zacchaeus, and restores to him his human dignity: “He too is a son of Abraham.”
For his part, Zacchaeus responds with the opposite of the rich ruler’s sadness. He hurries down and is happy to welcome Jesus into his home. If we don’t begin from stand-offish pride, Jesus doesn’t need to break our pride with absolute commands, like, “Sell all that you have.” Zacchaeus, full of desire and suffering social shame, just needed a little invitation to embrace a turn toward justice. Unbidden by Jesus, he pledges to give half his possessions to the poor, and to repay anyone he has defrauded four times as much—that is the strictest restitution recognized in the Old Testament. So Zacchaeus shows that he knows not only the ten commandments in which the rich ruler boasted, but the larger social vision of justice embodied in the Torah. And so Jesus proclaims salvation upon this man, even though he will probably maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
And so, just in case you were worried, our stewardship campaign will not be telling you to sell all that you have and give it to the church. For this story is not primarily about money, but about the shape of God’s justice: it is offered to those who desire it, and to those who need it because they are not in the good graces of human society. And it gives rise to a passion for justice: when God’s invitation is received, it makes the just open their homes with joy, and spontaneously embrace just actions toward their fellows.
But what message can we garner from these stories, if not: you’ve got to give until it hurts, O rich ruler! Let me try a few.
Here we are, hunkered down in our truly lovely house, trying to cling on to what little dignity we have left. Lovely though it is, and a fine testament to the faith of our forbearers, this house can be a real money pit. Dave Desrosiers will tell you about that and more in a few minutes. But Zacchaeus, as best we can tell, did not have to sell his house. He did joyfully welcomed Jesus in, while pledging to give away most of what he has. So I think we should try to keep this house, even though we could be the same congregation without this building. But let’s not keep it to ourselves! Let’s open it to whomever we can. And likewise with our property: we are de facto the center of town, the closest thing to a public center in Granby. We should be using our property and our commons to make statements about God’s justice, just like Zacchaeus did, once he had the attention of his neighbors. Let’s use signs or props or demonstrations to tell the world what God’s justice is. (How about a public bonfire on the commons on election night to reaffirm the bonds of community amidst a divisive election?)
Second, we’re thinking and discerning in this season how to dedicate ourselves and our property to God through the church, and today in particular, what is minimally required of us to keep our ministry sustainable. Again, Dave will be presenting on behalf of the Trustees to guide us. In the next two weeks, we’ll turn to what exciting new possibilities that await us as a church if we find it within ourselves to become the church God wants us to be.
But today, we’re just talking about holding steady, at a minimum. And when it comes to holding steady, I have been amazed at this church’s commitment to thrift. You all take great pride in making do. Some of you bend over backwards to find a cheap fix, or you rely on a few of the extra hard-working folks here to keep the show going. I was advised that this good-ol’ Yankee thrift would both amaze and unsettle me, and indeed it has done both.
Well, it is what it is. It’s how you’ve been able to keep going. But realize that Jesus nowhere praises people for thrift. (There’s the parable of the talents, which is kind of strange; and you can find some praise of thrift in Proverbs, but that’s about it.) Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor, for they shall be saved by thrift.” Zacchaeus shows us what salvation looks like for someone like us, gifted with some wealth (as we surely are, however much we may grumble): it looks like generous hospitality, and above all justice. Zacchaeus doesn’t want to keep his money, if it means defrauding anybody. He wants to apply to himself the strictest standard of justice when it comes to defrauding people.
So when we turn to the budget, our eyes naturally zero in on the expensive items: me, and our buildings. And we want to figure out how we can hold on to a minister, even just a part-time one (I’m contracted at 25 hours a week), and to our building, and we’ll employ our utmost powers of thrift to do it. But meanwhile, if we look elsewhere in the budget, are we paying attention to justice, even in our own house? One of our very best gifts as a church is our paid staff: Ginette attentively and with wisdom runs the operations in the office, Michael fills our worship with transformative music, Andrea brings real professionalism to our Christian education, Dennis takes care of our property while also being a deacon and leader, not to mention being a force for justice and healing on the streets of Holyoke—he is about as far from an ordinary sexton as you can get; and Ricky brings heart and a needed edginess to our youth group. I know you value these amazing people, all the more so to the extent that you get to see them work up close, like I do. Have you ever asked yourself if we are defrauding these partners in ministry? To my knowledge, we haven’t given our staff pay raises in a long time, and at least we have no commitment in place to give them a regular performance-based raise, or even a cost of living adjustment. Now, if you worked for an employer who had no operational policy in place to provide performance-based, or just cost of living, raises, you’d probably say to yourself, “Hey, this company is defrauding me!” I don’t think we want our church to be less just to our employees than the gentile businesses out there. I think we want to adopt the strictest standards of justice, the same way Zacchaeus did, when Jesus asked to stay in his house.
But I know we didn’t set out to defraud anyone. Our budget works like this: we ask people to give whatever they feel is right, and then we add it up and see what is left once we cover our expenses. Because we are thrifty, we like to make do with what we have. And we are afraid to call each other out to do what is right. We New Englanders hold the right to financial privacy above all else. But here is what I propose. As part of our discernment about what we can dedicate of ourselves to the church, we should do an annual review of all our staff members. We should tell them, through the proper channels, how much we appreciate the work they are doing. (And if there is a need for improvement, we would be right to point that out, for the sake of our mission to God.) But if we appreciate what they are doing, we should recommend an appropriate increase in salary; at a minimum, we should specify a cost of living increase. And then bring these recommendations before the church and say, “Are you going to do justice to these people we say we value? Not because the squeaky wheel gets the grease—this is not the way of Christ. But because it is just? And because you have received Christ with joy?