24 Pentecost C—10/23/16 (Reformation Sunday)
Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12; Luke 19:1-10
Pr. Scott Kramer
I grew up in the church so I often heard the word “stewardship”–and I didn’t like it. This was before I even understood what it meant! I just didn’t like the sound of the word. I guess to my young ears it sounded too much like the word “sewer,” which is neither a beautiful-sounding word, nor a beautiful thing!
What I learned just recently didn’t help those early negative connotations of the word “steward.” The word in English originally was not “steward” but “sty-warden.” That’s “sty” as in pig-sty, and “warden” as in prison warden. In other words, a steward literally in English means a “keeper of the pigs”—a pig farmer!
I have nothing against pig farmers. Both Mom and Dad were raised on farms so some of my fondest early memories are trips to the grandparents’ farms. They raised crops, cattle, chickens—and pigs! It’s hard work. It’s a humble occupation, and humility is a characteristic of discipleship that Jesus emphasizes again and again.
The tax collector in today’s gospel story represents almost the opposite of humility! He is a Jew like Jesus but he works for the enemy and so is considered by his people to be a traitor. He collects taxes not for the Jewish state but for the Roman Empire. Whatever the Empire requires he collects. But on top of that he can add to the tax bill whatever he wants and he gets to pocket that. For fear of the Romans, the people have to pay whatever the tax collector demands, and that’s why he’s rich. He must have been good at what he did because he’s the chief tax collector.
Who knows the full truth of why we make the choices we do? Maybe the tax collector chose this career path because he’d been overlooked or passed over all his adult life. The story tells us that he was short—he had to climb up a tree to see Jesus. Could it be that Zacchaeus was even one of the “little people” (“dwarf,” as it was once labeled)? Many societies, including our own, reward taller people. Maybe at some point this man had had enough of being laughed at or ignored. By becoming a tax collector he might be hated but he couldn’t be ignored. He would enjoy feeling powerful and important and his job might feel like a bit of spite and revenge toward those he felt had ignored him.
The tax collector in today’s story is not anonymous. Jesus notices him and, instead of calling him names, calls him by name. “Zacchaeus,” he says to the man in the tree, “you come down, for I must stay at your house today!” And Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, was happy to welcome him. He had been noticed, and welcomed!
Something happens to Zacchaeus when he meets Jesus. 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.
Well, what do you think of Zacchaeus’ promise? I think it’s pretty impressive! On the other hand, we don’t know much about Zacchaeus, except that he was a short but rich chief tax collector. How rich? We don’t know. If someone who has $100 million gives away $50 million, that’s a lot of money but they still have $50 million. Not quite the same as someone who has $20,000 giving away $10,000. We don’t really know how much of a sacrifice Zacchaeus is making.
In terms of paying back four times as much to anyone he had defrauded, this again sounds like an act of extravagant generosity—except, that this was only what the Jewish law required! Zacchaeus was merely moving from “traitor of the Jewish people” to “law-abiding.” And we know that being merely law-abiding sets the bar pretty low! A person can obey the letter of the law while still being selfish, unethical and even cruel.
On top of all this, we don’t even know if Zacchaeus keeps his promise! Jesus seems hopeful and encouraging, but how did Zacchaeus live his life the next day, the next year, the next ten years? This might’ve been a “politician’s promise”—and I don’t mean to beat up on politicians because all of us at times in our lives make promises we don’t follow through on. Even with the best of intentions, we sometimes fall short of what we promise.
In a nutshell, we don’t know Zacchaeus and his life story. What might look like generosity may be not so much, and what looks like very little might actually be a lot. No matter what our choices, there’s always a story.
But the focus of Luke’s story is not Zacchaeus but Jesus. And Jesus says: Today salvation has come to this house, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. Did you hear that? Not in the next life. Not in heaven. Today salvation has come to this house, meaning Jesus has come to Zacchaeus’ house! Was Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus’ love a tiny step or a huge one? We don’t know. But we do know that something happened. Zacchaeus, whether briefly or permanently, was a changed man.
Today, beloved people of God, salvation has come to your household! And today salvation has come to our church household. The same is true every day. The story of Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus is completed by the stories of our own lives. At any given moment, is our response to Jesus a tiny step or a huge one? There is room in God’s kingdom for both!
We are “sty-wardens”—stewards!–of God’s abundance. We are humble “pig farmers!” On this Reformation Sunday, we hear hints of this in one of Martin Luther’s most famous quotes. Shortly before his death Luther said, “We are beggars. This is true.”
As we move toward New Consecration Sunday, we “poor beggars” are asked to ponder the question that Zacchaeus heard, and to which he responded. The question was, “What is God calling me to give?” Some answer, “I feel God is calling me to give 10% of my income as an offering.” Another person responds, “Eventually I want to begin tithing, but I am not ready to do that. I feel God is calling me to start somewhere—at 4 or 5 or 6 percent.” A third household has been tithing for many years. These folks once said, “We tithe now. Later we’ll do more.” Years later, they said, “We can’t believe what a high income we have. We feel God is calling us to give 15 or 20 percent of our income.” Others respond in other ways.
We don’t know if Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus led to a big change or a little change, a temporary change or a permanent change. We do know that something changed in his life—something life-saving. Salvation—Jesus himself—had come to Zacchaeus’ house, and Zacchaeus responded.
Jesus said of Zacchaeus, Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. Beloved people of God, sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, salvation—Jesus himself!–has come to our house, too. In the spirit of Zacchaeus, what ways do our lives welcome the Living Christ?