Text: Luke 19:1-10
Luke tells us four things about Zacchaeus. First of all, his name; Zacchaeus, is from the Hebrew zakkai, meaning “pure” or “innocent.” Second, his profession was “chief tax collector,” meaning that Zacchaeus was neither pure nor innocent. Third, Zacchaeus was short; he had to climb and nestle in a nearby tree to get a good view of Jesus. Fourth, this short, chief tax collector with a bird’s eye view of Jesus was rich, filthy rich, most likely, at the expense of his own people.
When Jesus comes to town, he pauses and then looks up to see a short man straddled on the limb of a sycamore tree. Jesus tells the tree squatter, Zacchaeus, “Hurry down. I must stay at your house today.” He does not ask Zaccheus if he has a room free for the night. He insists, with an urgency that cannot be missed that he must spend time with Zacchaeus and do so TODAY.
To his credit, Zacchaeus scurries down the tree and rejoices that he is about to host the town celebrity, host the most unexpected guest imaginable. The translation from the pulpit Bible says that Zacchaeus was “happy” to welcome Jesus. That is not even close to what Luke says. When Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house, this wee chief tax collector is like Scrooge when he awakes after visits from three ghosts in the night on Christmas Eve. He is ecstatic, thrilled, beside himself with joy.
Jesus sees something extraordinary in Zacchaeus, while the crowd sees only a short tax collector who is a social and religious blight on the land. The crowd was not wrong. This wee man is not charming or loveable. Zacchaeus is a confirmed “sinner,” a cheat, who has extorted his own people to the benefit of Rome. Zacchaeus is a public embarrassment and the crowd must wonder why Jesus cannot see the same, and if he does, then why Jesus would pollute himself by eating and sleeping in the home of the likes of Zacchaeus. They must have choked out loud when Zacchaeus promised Jesus that he would make extravagant restitution for any ill-gotten gain, with the words, “if I have defrauded anyone.” If?!
For centuries now, the converted, wee, RICH Zacchaeus has been the poster boy for pastors in stewardship season. The sermon usually goes this way: In response to Jesus coming to him and seeing beyond all his sinful ways, Zacchaeus was forever changed by Jesus. He made a huge pledge and promised that there is more where that came from! So, fill out your pledge card to the church and act just like the changed Zacchaeus and give extravagantly.
The problem with that sermon is this story in Luke’s Gospel is not finally about Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus is certainly not the hero of the story. The cynical crowd is hardly heroic in this story either. The true hero of this story is the One who has come to “seek and save the lost.” This story is not about what happens when you and I find Jesus; it is about what happens when Jesus finds us gawking in some sycamore tree or sitting in a church pew or even standing in a pulpit.
Like most stories in Luke 15, joy holds a prominent place in this story. Jesus sees Zaccheus not as a short man, a tax collector, or a rich, potential wealthy benefactor to his religious cause. He sees Zacchaeus as a “child of Abraham,” a flawed, forgiven, child of God, so much so that he insists on spending the night in the home of someone who certainly does not merit such attention. Zacchaeus has a lot of money before he finds Jesus; he is “rich,” though, only after Jesus finds him.
I have had the privilege of knowing a fair number of “rich” people in my life, a few of whom were financially wealthy, all of whom shared something in common with Zacchaeus – an unmistakable joy that resulted in an irresistible urge to share.
My favorite story about being “rich” is told by Heidi Neumark about a young girl whose family lived in abject poverty in New York. I suspect I have told Danielle’s story before, but I cannot preach about being rich without telling it again.
Danielle was one of the poorest children in Heidi’s South Bronx parish. Danielle’s mother was a crack addict and her uncle abused her. Heidi writes: “One hot day when a swimming trip was planned for the afternoon, Danielle was brought to my office in tears. It turned out that she didn’t have a bathing suit. We decided that it would be all right to skip the morning math lesson and go out to get a suit. The trip took us out over lunchtime, and so we stopped at a nearby McDonald’s, where Danielle ordered a Happy Meal. She got up and came back with some extra napkins. Then she began divvying up the small bag of fries into five little piles, each on its own napkin. I asked her what she was doing. ‘My sisters and brothers will feel sad that I got French fries and they didn’t’, she explained. ‘I’m taking them home to share’. Sitting there in McDonald’s with Danielle, I felt rich” (Breathing Space, p. 124).
For the past three years, I have had the honor of serving the “rich” congregation of Cove Presbyterian Church. On this All Saint’s Sunday, I want to give thanks for the “rich” people of faith at Cove and in the other congregations that I have served, people who have reminded me that you and I do not “find” Jesus; Jesus “finds” us and when he does it is time to celebrate and it is time to share.
I give thanks for Bettye Jean Swart who raised our two very young children during my first years in ministry in Wilmington, N.C. She did so while also raising her own four adopted children and she lived more simply than I will ever know how to do. I give thanks for Ben West in Newport News who lived to make you laugh and to make sure that you never took life or yourself too seriously.
I give thanks for Jean Davenport, a woman in Alexandria who I knew for only a year before her death, but who when we ordained her as a deacon at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, as a care-giver in the church, we were simply being redundant. I give thanks for Florrie and Clarence Palmer in Atlanta, who though childless, loved and quietly supported more children – putting a number through college – than anyone I have ever known. I give thanks for Lew Lancaster who made his way to Cove late in his life and would not let poor sleep, poor health, or poor balance give him a poor attitude or stop him from getting here to worship God.
Every one of these friends was “rich,” a few of whom even had considerable financial wealth. Every one of these friends knew the joy of being touched by the One whom Zacchaeus scampered up the tree to see and down the tree to host.
In a few moments, you will have a chance to speak your own words of thanks for those “rich” people in your life and during communion, you will have a chance to remember aloud those “rich” people of faith who have touched your life with the love of God and are now numbered in the great company of saints.
So, here is my stewardship sermon for this year. Whatever you give, give it with extravagant joy because Jesus has not only found Zacchaeus, he has found you and me, so no matter our financial wealth, you and I are “rich.”