Give All You Can
Like so many stories in the Bible, the story of chief tax collector Zacchaues is rich with theological implications and visual stimulation. Zacchaues was the head tax collector in Jericho. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaues would have had no problem earning all he could and saving all he could. Tax collectors in first-century Palestine personally profited from a corrupt system of economics.
To be a tax collector required a person to play the games required of a corrupt political and economic system but once he was in, Zacchaues would have been able to earn all he could within that same system. Zacchaeus had to purchase the position he was in. We’re talking political patronage within the empire, and once he had the position of chief tax collector he would have been on the receiving end of that same patronage system benefiting from the tax collectors under his supervision.
In his own work, Zacchaues collected taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire but he also collected an additional, generous percentage for himself. Zacchaues was taking in money via patronage and taxes that were part of a “staggering hierarch of financial debts - head taxes, property taxes, sales tax, shipping fees, transport toll, and other customs and duties.”
Because of his political station and economic status, Zacchaues lived a life of extravagance. The extravagance Zacchaues lived in was a replacement for the community he lived without. His “earning” separated him from the community he lived in. Remember, in our reading from Luke when Jesus calls to Zacchaues the crowd’s first reaction was to call Zacchaues a “sinner.” He was profiting off the backs of his neighbors and strangers he passed in the market And because of his office, Zacchaues might not have known those strangers but they would have known him. He was at the top of his profession but the self-inflicted marginalization he experienced separated him socially and spiritually.
As a “sinner,” Zacchaues was kept out of the religious life of Jericho. He was one of the heads of the local economy and yet an outsider.
That’s Zacchaues’ life, he “earned” and saved but he lived in isolation. Then Jesus comes to town.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Then end of chapter 19 details Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus and Zacchaues are not only one of the most detailed accounts we have of someone encountering Jesus, but it is also the last scene in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is teaching and transforming lives before he begins his journey to the cross.
Zacchaues hears of that Jesus is approaching Jericho or he hears the commotion as Jesus gets closer and realizes the only way he will be able to see what is happening, see Jesus is by climbing a tree. Zacchaues’ status, economically, was big but he was a short man. I doubt asking people to let him move to the front of the crowds would have gone over well. Remember, Zacchaues would have unjustly taken money from the people blocking his view.
“Hey, excuse me, sir, um could you please move so uh I can get a glimpse of Jesus. Yeah, I’m the guy who took more in taxes from you than you needed to pay, yeah don’t worry I’m still holding onto the money, I haven’t spent it all yet. But could you do me a solid and help a brother out?”
Zacchaues climbed a tree to see Jesus but Luke does not tell us why. And this bugs me to no end. If we knew the why of his climb this reading might make so much more sense. Is Zacchaues curious about Jesus? Was he expecting Jesus to do something? Was he hoping to catch Jesus’ attention, perhaps hoping Jesus would recognize him from a chance meeting when Jesus called Levi, another tax collector?
Whatever the reasoning, Zacchaues got more than we might have been hoping for.
“Zacchaues, hurry and come down from there…”
If I was Zacchaues, and I was in a tree, and Jesus called me down, I don’t think I would climb down cautiously. I do not think I would take my time climbing down. I imagine having climbed the tree to catch of the passing Messiah in the first place, after being called down by Jesus, Zacchaues came falling out of that tree.
Jesus did not stop there.
“Zacchaues, hurry and come down from there… for I must stay at your house today.”
Jesus invites himself to Zacchaues’ home. He invites himself to dinner!
I don’t know about you but unexpected family visiting gives me heartburn. I cannot imagine Jesus inviting himself to dinner.
We know from the Gospels, the Apostle Paul, and our own experiences that when one encounters the living Christ their life is changed. Zacchaues was no different. After falling out of the tree and then hearing the grumbles of the crowd, “He (Jesus) has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Jesus has done nothing more than being present and invited himself to dinner. He invited himself into a moment of intimacy with Zacchaues and Zacchaues was changed.
Zacchaues responded to the presence and invitation of Jesus by committing, publicly which would imply there would be some form of public accountability, to give half of his possessions to the poor AND to repay anyone he defrauded four times over.
You might be thinking, good on him. Zacchaues did the right thing. But the right thing during this time only required him to repay an additional 20% over what he unjustly took. Zacchaues, having experienced the extravagant generosity of the divine responded with extravagant generosity of his own. Zacchaues had not yet hosted Jesus in his home and still, his life was changed.
For the past two weeks, three if you include today, we have been looking at stewardship of our finances in a way that extends beyond our annual financial commitments to the church. Giving all you can, an extravagant generosity which point three from John Wesley’s sermon titled “On the Use of Money,” is more than writing a check to the local church or your favorite charity. John Wesley understood that there is no inherent good in poverty. He noted that living without means to provide for your own needs as well as the needs of your family did not help anyone’s spiritual growth. “Life is better when you have what Wesley called ‘things needful for yourself… for your spouse (wife), your children, your servants, or any other who retain to your household.’”
Wesley did note that not moving from earning all you can and saving all you can to giving all you can was an impediment to “going onto perfection. Again, giving all you can is not about raising funds for the local church. The point of our extravagant generosity is to become more like Christ. Generosity becomes a spiritual disciple we engage in as we move towards perfection.
Extravagant generosity is about us participating in the extravagant kingdom-building work G-d is engaged in. G-d’s act of “loving, saving, and healing” in our community and around the world.
Let’s be clear, you cannot earn your salvation by giving generously to the church or to a charity. It does not matter how many checks you write, how much restitution you make, or how sorry you are for defrauding your neighbors on your way to earn all you can. Zacchaues did not earn salvation by falling out of the tree. He did not earn salvation by giving half of his possessions to the poor. And he did not earn salvation by paying everything back four times over.
Salvation was made known to Zacchaues by the presence of Christ, calling him down, and standing in front of him. The same Christ calls each of us by name down from trees. The same Christ is made known to us. When that reality is realized by us we are changed. Zacchaues was changed and his life of earning all he could by dishonest means was reoriented to a life of extravagant generosity. May it be so for us today.