Exodus 22:1-14; Luke 19:1-10
October 30, 2022
- using our finances in just ways
One of the most wonderful gifts this week was the beautiful drive to work with the trees lining highway 460 in glorious splendor. Every turn seemed to get better and better. It was hard for me to not stop at every median drive-thru to take pictures. This has been a good year for the visions of God’s beauty in creation that we want to see. There are also plenty of things in life that we do not want to see – some of those are things we see and can never un-see. When I was at H-SC, I spent my first year spring break in Ashville, NC with other students, our Associate Dean of Students, and one Rev. Dr. Willie Thompson. Many of you remember Willie and his particular and perhaps peculiar giftedness in our community. Yes, he was a character. Not many pastors would have the theological audacity to march around the campus in a devil costume every Halloween. I am grateful he was not wearing it when he married me and Anne at College Church. Anyway, when we were down in NC for that spring break trip, we were working on a house for Habitat for Humanity. One day, we were having pizza delivered to us for lunch, and I suppose Willie was extra famished that day. He managed to climb a tree to play lookout for the car bearing our victuals. When he saw the car, he got excited enough to fall out of the tree when he was still at least a full person’s height up there. One moment he was lookout; the next moment he was a bowling pin that had been knocked over. It was the weirdest thing. He was not flailing but going down on one side. Of course, this seemed to happen in slow motion as he hit the ground, and thankfully, he seemed to find a softer spot because he bounced. We all beheld this hilarious, tragic event. As far as I knew, he was uninjured, though his pride might have taken a hit. I will never forget seeing that.
Speaking of people climbing trees to see things, we have our famous climber today – dear Zacchaeus, that wee little man, that wee little man was he. He climbed up into that Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see…. No, you will not get the rest of the song, but you do know Jesus called him down and informed him he was coming to his home for dinner. What a strange thing to happen on many levels.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and to the cross in Luke’s Gospel here, so this is later in Jesus’ ministry, when he has just little time left. This is the only gospel that records this story. Luke likes these kinds of people, though, the ones who are rejected by society but who are precious in God’s sight. It is even better when they can teach everyone else what is truly important. Zacchaeus fits that bill. Jesus seems to like tax collectors, also, and took one for one of his twelve disciples – Matthew. Jesus was the ONLY person who liked tax collectors, though. Everyone else hated, despised, and abhorred them. They were considered traitors to their own people because they were working for the Romans to oppress their own people. There is a reason why Jesus names Zacchaeus a “child of Abraham.” Also, they were hated because they were known to be cheats, charging more tax than was needed. This is generally how they became wealthy, and Zacchaeus is a CHIEF tax collectors. He had tax collectors working under him.
Now, tax collection was different back then than today. This is not someone going door to door making everyone cough up a tax on your gross income. There were taxes on farmland, a head tax, and customs tax – the transportation of goods. This is more like a toll collector. As people came into Israel or into Jerusalem or into Jericho or wherever, they would have to pay taxes based on what they were bringing in to sell. The tax on goods, the custom tax, is where the rates could fluctuate based on the situation. That is the one where people could be easily cheated.
So, for starters, Zacchaeus is not well liked. Then, he is particularly short, so he is literally and figuratively looked down on. People mock him and ridicule him and dehumanize him, but he is wealthy, so they also envy him.
When he hears that Jesus is coming through town, Zacchaeus really wants to see Jesus but cannot because of the crowds. He does what no respectable Jewish man would do and climbs a tree to get a view. This is why he climbs a sycamore fig tree. This tree would have leaves that would enable him to hide a little. He is not an idiot. He does not want to attract attention, but he does really want to see that famous Jesus (though we do not ever know why). Our American sycamore is a completely different tree. This sycamore is in the mulberry family and produced fruit.
The interesting stuff happens when Jesus spots him and calls him down. First, Jesus cannot get things right to save his life. He disappoints the crowds, again and again. In just a few days, they will be calling for his death. Here the crowds are roiled because Jesus is giving special attention, not to them, but to a horrible, sinner, traitor of a little man. This is not a big surprise, however, if we have followed Jesus’ life at all. He loves the ones that no one else does. There is something else going on in Zacchaeus, however, than even what expect.
I had always assumed (as many Bibles seem to imply) that Zacchaeus makes this pledge to Jesus before his townspeople to show how he is willing to repent and change. In this thinking, he was a scoundrel before, but from now on (after just meeting Jesus), he is going to deal with people in equity and fairness. If he has defrauded anyone, he will pay them back even more than what was required. Old Testament restitution law (part of which I read before) had different standards based on whether the person paid back voluntarily or by force of law. It was cheaper if the person who committed the crime took the initiative and paid back willingly. Zacchaeus is giving back even more than is required, AND he is promising to give half of his wealth to the poor. This story is set directly after the rich young ruler who could not spare a nickel. Here, before Jesus even makes a challenge, he promises to do right by any who are poor or by those whom he might have overcharged. That is great! There is just one problem here, though. What does human nature tell you about Zacchaeus’ promise here. If this is a pledge that Zacchaeus is making to impress Jesus and his townspeople regarding a lifetime of corrupt behavior, how much is that pledge going to matter in a few days after Jesus is gone and Zacchaeus is sitting there staring at piles of money? If we are being honest about ourselves and our promises to do better, to live better, to exercise more or eat better, how strong is human conviction in the reality of pride, greed, and lust? Even promises to God can often, if not always end up as good intentions and maybe guilty feelings if we meant it.
Don’t worry, though. There is another story here. We as readers of the Bible run the risk of our reading into the Bible what we think it says, our assumptions. If we take what Luke actually wrote seriously, then we have to respect the fact that he has Zacchaeus speaking in the present tense in the original language, not the future as the editors of this Bible wrote. A number of scholars pointed this out and opened the door to an entirely different way to read Zacchaeus’ words. His pledge, therefore, is not what he plans to do but what he is already doing. He is telling Jesus as others point their fingers at him that he is actually committed to living in just and fair ways now. If he finds out that he did charge someone too much, he repays that person back, and he already gives have of his income to the poor. He is already using his money, his financial resources, in just ways, showing the value of humanity in a world that still must pay taxes. He shifts from the tax collector that you would avoid at all costs to the most honest and most humane of the lot. Maybe, just maybe, this is what Luke is trying to tell us and why Jesus then recognizes Zacchaeus’ salvation right then and there. If this is the way he already lives and treats others, especially the poor, then he is already a living witness of what the Kingdom of God is about. Someone who should not have fit the bill, actually fits very well. Jesus rejoices and names him as truly one of God’s people, in the family of Abraham. Someone who had been named as a outsider is most definitely part of the chosen people.
I like this reading because it makes more sense to me and carries more weight with faith. It fits better with what Jesus says and does, and it also expresses the importance of being committed to using our finances to show justice and mercy and love and not just making promises. We assume Zacchaeus was a great swindler because that is what we assume of people like him. Everyone seems to be out for themselves and to get as much as they can for themselves as long as they can, and we feel pressed to get a little more for ourselves to not be left behind. The oil companies are making record profits right now – record profits – and yet not expanding their production. Every time there is a war, someone is making profits. Every time there is a natural disaster, someone is making profits. Every time there is a tragedy on any kind of large scale, someone is making a profit, if you can believe it. Capitalism at its best promotes innovation; capitalism at its worst exploits people. Who decides which way it will go? Hopefully, the Zacchaeuses of the world.
You and I, friends, are in the driver’s seat. Anyone who has any money, has the moral, godly imperative to use it most justly, not for self but for others. We also have a voice. Our money is a drop in the bucket next to the swimming pools of government. If the government is using our money in ways that do not serve, we need to speak out for the powerless, the voiceless, the moneyless, those who need the Kingdom of God the most.
It is amazing to me how simply using money in right, good, just ways can express so much of our heart for God that Jesus can recognize salvation working around him and call attention to God’s gift of life. It can be no less today. As we direct, use, dedicate, commit, and save our money in just ways, it will go from being just money to JUST money – money that shows God’s justice. To God be the glory. Amen.