The 21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 26) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 30 October 2022 | Luke 19:1-10
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our joy and our salvation.
Good morning, friends. Today we hear the story of Zacchaeus. It’s a heartwarming tale of tree climbing, repentance, joy, and salvation. It’s also a story about money, and how a person’s relationship to wealth changes dramatically after an encounter with Jesus.
So, fair warning: we are going to talk about money today. That can sometimes be uncomfortable—but Jesus talks about money a lot, and I think it can be liberating for us to work with our discomfort. So, I promise I won’t ask anyone to pledge half of their wealth to support St. Paul’s in 2023. But we will look at how giving money away is one part of Zacchaeus’ spiritual transformation, and how it might be part of ours too.
So let’s start with our friend Zacchaeus, who is a tax collector. We heard a little bit about tax collectors last week. And some of us might not have warm fuzzy feelings for the IRS, but this is so much worse. Tax collectors like Zacchaeus were in league with the enemy. Palestine was occupied by the Roman Empire, and tax collectors were the ones willing to betray their own people in order to help the Roman Empire squeeze wealth out of the lands they ruled.
Not only that, but tax collectors were known for collecting extra money unfairly and getting wealthy off of doing it. The occupying Roman forces backed up their tax collectors, so people couldn’t do much about it. Zacchaeus is rich, and this is probably how he got rich.
But when we find Zacchaeus in today’s story, his mind isn’t on his money. We find him “trying to see who Jesus is.” It’s said in passing, but there’s a lot going on there. Zacchaeus is doing something vitally important.
If somebody were to ask what it is we do in church “trying to see who Jesus is” would be a pretty good answer. Zacchaeus realizes that he doesn’t know who Jesus is and that he needs to find out.
And we don’t know for sure why Zacchaeus has such a burning desire to see who Jesus is. Maybe he’s heard Jesus’ teachings against oppression, and he’s concerned. Maybe he’s heard about the parables and the miracles and the world-changing love, and something sparked his curiosity. Maybe he caught a whisper of hope that things could be different from the way they are. Whatever Zacchaeus is thinking in this moment, we can trust that the Spirit is moving in him.
And the Spirit moves in us too. Many of us can name those tipping points where we might or might not know why it happened, but we found clarity where there was confusion. Or we were able to escape a false certainty that had trapped us. We felt our love kindled for God or for a neighbor. We knew we needed to seek Jesus out in a way we hadn’t before.
Zacchaeus needs to see Jesus so badly that he climbs a tree. It’s not a dignified thing for someone of his status to do. Maybe people who used to be scared of him point and laugh. Maybe he’ not used to climbing trees either. So maybe he scrapes an elbow or gets sticky sap all over his hands. Maybe he tears an expensive piece of clothing. But Zacchaeus needs so badly to see who Jesus is that he doesn’t care about any of that.
Whether or not he knows it, Zacchaeus is called to climb a sycamore fig tree, and he answers the call. And friends, we could stand to climb a tree now and then too—it’s a change in perspective. Lazarus’ unexpected tree-climbing reminds me of a scene from the movie Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ character invites his students to climb up on top of a desk in the middle of English class and see the room from a different angle. Zacchaeus finds that new perspective. From his vantage point among the leaves, Zacchaeus finally sees Jesus.
But what turns out to be even more important than that is that Jesus sees Zacchaeus. Jesus sees a man who needed Jesus so strongly that he climbed a tree just to get a better look. Jesus sees a beloved child of God who has lost his way in this world. Jesus calls Zacchaeus to come down, and Jesus invites himself over to stay and Zacchaeus’ house.
And then it says in the Greek, Zacchaeus “hurried, came down, and received him rejoicing.” Zacchaeus is filled with joy when he knows Jesus will be at his house. We don’t know what he felt when he went up the tree to see who Jesus was, but now we know he’s rejoicing. And this rejoicing is the ground for everything that happens next.
In this joyous encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus finds what he needs for transformation, what he needs to get un-stuck. When Jesus sees him and feasts with him, his whole life changes. He sees the world from a different perspective. And finally he is seen and loved for the glory God gave him as a human being, not for his wealth or authority.
Jesus sees Zacchaeus as a child of God’s promises. And I believe Jesus’ love is what saves Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ achievements don’t impress Jesus, and Zacchaeus’ very real sins don’t scare Jesus off either, even when other people grumble. Jesus already loves Zacchaeus just for being a person, and Jesus knows that Zacchaeus has it in him to be a very different kind of person than he has been in the past.
And in the joy of Jesus’ love for him, Zacchaeus’ whole life transforms and blossoms. He starts to be a different kind of person than he has been in the past. He gives away half of the wealth he’s shaped his whole life to pile up. He begins to make amends to those he’s harmed. And Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Bible scholar Pete Enns talks about the story of Zacchaeus as a story of salvation centered in this present life. In his blog “The Bible for Normal People,” Enns shares that he used to see “salvation,” or being saved, as only about what happens after we die. Like me, Pete Enns grew up in churches that put a lot of emphasis on heaven and hell and see salvation in terms of being saved from hell and making sure we know we’re going to heaven when we die.
But in this story, Enns sees salvation as something that happens now, that happens all along, that can happen every day. Zacchaeus needs Jesus to save him from his greed, which is making his life and his neighbors’ lives worse in tangible ways. Enns sees salvation in the present here.
And I agree with that reading. In this story, salvation happens “today.” It happens when Jesus comes to Zacchaeus in love and joy. It happens when Jesus’ love frees Zacchaeus to live differently than he did before.
Zacchaeus starts to get free from the life that was about using his position to extract as much as he could from other people. He has been orbiting around the weight of his wealth for as long as he can remember, and somehow Jesus helps him to break free of that gravity and fly off in a completely new direction. Jesus saves him.
Salvation begins to transform Zacchaeus’ relationships with his neighbors and with money. We don’t know if he gives up his position as a tax collector in a corrupt system after this, or if he stays and tries to change how it works from the inside. We don’t know what it looks like for Zacchaeus to give his money to the poor as someone who might have made a point not to know poor people until now.
There’s probably a lot left for Zacchaeus and his community to figure out in the wake of this transforming encounter. Maybe Zacchaeus will sometimes have trouble remembering Jesus’ love for him when Jesus isn’t sitting at his table in the flesh. Salvation is an ongoing process for Zacchaeus and for us.
The Spirit moves us, and we have our moments of new perspective, our joyous encounters with the love of Jesus, our choices to act within that love and to claim the freedom Jesus offers us. We have our struggles and failures too. And day by day, we are being saved.
Our salvation is happening now. God will save us after our death and bring us to the communion of saints, and God is already saving us now. Our salvation is happening when we know in our bones that Jesus loves us. Salvation is happening when we see God’s image in another person, and when we love our neighbors. Salvation is happening when we rejoice in the beauty and bounty of creation. Salvation is happening when the Spirit moves us and we find a new perspective (with or without actually climbing up a tree).
Today, salvation has come to this house. And salvation is also happening when we choose to share the resources we have. For Zacchaeus, joyfully giving money away was part of a spiritual transformation in response to Jesus’ love. Zacchaeus was saved from a life that centered on piling up more and more, and was saved for a life of joy and connection and helping his neighbors to flourish. Giving was one part of Zacchaeus’ turn toward grace, and it came from his joy in Jesus’ saving presence.
With Zacchaeus, some of us may find that there is something radically freeing about giving money away at all, no matter the amount.
In this world we hear so often that we have to hold on tight to make sure we have enough money, no matter how much we might already have. So sometimes giving something away can help us to move past a false story of scarcity. It can help us see how we might be part of the abundance God offers so that all creation can flourish and be well together.
Now I want to be clear that some scarcity is real, and if you’re struggling to meet your needs, we don’t want you to give in any way that causes more suffering. This is not about giving until it hurts, and it’s not about giving in expectation that God will multiply your money back to you.
What it is about is being more free from whatever it is that might trap us. It’s about helping each other whenever we can. It’s about is making a prayerful choice to open our hands and be generous toward the things that matter most to us.
It’s about walking forward into the transformation that Jesus offers and discerning what that looks like for us day by day, in all aspects of our lives.
In Jesus, we are called to move toward own freedom and our neighbors’ flourishing at the same time. For Zacchaeus, that happened to involve giving away a big chunk of money. For some of us, it might look like setting aside a percentage of our budget to give—this is what Brian and I do, and I’m happy to talk about that practice with you if you’d like. Some of us might give in a different way. Some of us may not be ready to give financially right now, and we may be experiencing transformation and generosity and gratitude in other ways in this season.
And friends, God is present in all of it. With Zacchaeus, we rejoice to welcome Jesus every day, and we are being saved every day. We give thanks for so much. I’ve been reading the beautiful words of gratitude we’ve shared in our jar. Some of us gave thanks for family and friends.
Some of us gave thanks for St. Paul’s—for the growth and courage and friendship we find here. Some of us gave thanks for the wonders of creation—for sunsets and sunrises and the Ohio River. Someone gave thanks for being accepted and loved in their own quirkiness. One of the cards just said “cheeseburger.” Whoever that was, I’m with you friend.
Salvation is happening among us—in the fellowship of our families and friends, in the growth we share together, in the beauty God gives us, sometimes in the delight of biting into that delicious cheeseburger, in the affirmation of being seen and loved for who we are, and in the grace to turn to God and give thanks. Jesus is saving us every day.
Salvation has come to this house. So with Zacchaeus, may we listen to the Spirit’s calling together and find the perspectives we need. May we rejoice in the salvation of the Savior who sees us. And may we live and move and give and flourish in the embrace of our Maker who loves us.