Luke 19:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Poor Zaccaeus. He started out the day with three strikes against him. He was a tax collector, and he was rich, and he was short. He must have been very short indeed if the only way he could see past folks when Jesus went by was to climb a tree. Even today, in a time when we struggle to accept everyone regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental ability, and body shape, a person who is exceptionally short gets looked at, and usually not in an admiring way. In his time, people who were different were outcast and despised. Zaccaeus was looked down upon because of his stature, yes, but also because of his occupation. He was a tax collector. He was chief tax collector.
Now, when we talk about tax collectors in the ancient world, it would be wrong to equate that with an auditor with the IRS. As much as we love to hate the IRS - present company excluded, of course - tax collectors in the Roman Empire were hated so much more and greatly feared. You see, tax collectors didn’t apply for their jobs. They were appointed by the Emperor or one of his governors from among the wealthy landowners in a province. They were told what taxes were due for their area and they were responsible for collecting every penny of those taxes. If, for whatever reason, they could not collect all the taxes that were due, the balance came out of their own pocket. If they couldn’t pay the total amount, their property and even their families would be sold to make up the difference. It was not uncommon, therefore, for a tax collector to collect more than the amount due from an individual in order to keep from having to make up the difference that someone else couldn’t pay. He also had the power to seize property, including people, and selling that property to pay the taxes due if someone couldn’t pay. So people hated and feared the tax collector. The Chief Tax Collector was responsible for making sure the taxes due from all the tax collectors below him were paid, meaning his property and family were at even greater risk than those who worked for him. Chief Tax Collectors, therefore, often required more than the amount due from the other tax collectors. So he was hated and feared by all the people, including those who worked for him. And he was short. Zaccaeus was indeed greatly despised.
And Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Naturally, the crowd was displeased. How dare Jesus stay with a tax collector? And not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector - the worst of the worst, as far as his neighbors were concerned. And Zaccaeus said, “Lord, I will change. I will repay any I have defrauded, paying back four times what I took, and I will give half of everything I own to the poor.” Now remember, if anyone couldn’t pay their taxes, Zaccaeus had to make up the difference. He was giving away his cushion, the money that was keeping him safe from the loss of everything - his home, his family, even his own freedom. And Jesus, knowing all of this, reminded the crowd that Zaccaeus, too, tax collector or not, was a child of God, a member of the family of Abraham. “Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Last Sunday you all turned in slips of paper that said, “My church makes a difference in my life by…” I had filled mine out early, so when I got back to the church office on Tuesday morning after having been home sick for an entire week, the first thing I saw on my desk was a slip of paper that said “My church makes a difference in my life by loving me.” I wrote that before I came down with the nasty yucky stomach crud. Before I had to keep postponing or cancelling things I really wanted to do with the congregation. Before I had to stay home in bed on Sunday morning! Thursday I got the first offer to take my place in the pulpit if I needed to stay home. People sent messages and asked if I needed anything from the store. Alan brought me a cinnamon bun. By Saturday I was getting messages that said, “We’ll handle Sunday. You just get well.” Can I tell you how loved I felt?
This week marks the culmination of our Stewardship Campaign for 2017. Now, I know, and you all know, that one of the main complaints people have about organized religion is, “They’re always asking for money!” To which I must say, “Guilty as charged.” Every Sunday we talk about why it’s important to put money in the basket. We are very careful how we say that, of course, because somehow giving our tithes and offerings to make sure we have lightbulbs to light the sanctuary just doesn’t resonate in our hearts quite the way giving toward feeding the hungry does. The fact is, however, we do need light bulbs and toilet paper and copy paper. We do need choir music and candles and the bread and juice for communion. But when it’s time for Stewardship moments or the annual Stewardship Campaign, we are very careful to talk in terms of mission, not the minutiae of day to day ministry. Preachers are not fond of preaching on Stewardship, because it feels a bit self serving, you know? We are terrified that we will be seen as Zaccaeus was seen, a tax collector, money hungry and despised by all. “Please give generously to pay my salary,” just doesn’t feel right. But yes, that’s what a Stewardship campaign is about. It’s about making sure we can pay the bills in the coming year. But it’s more than that, so much more than that. What it is really about is commitment.
The slip of paper this week says “I will give….” and is a one year commitment to work toward the future of First Christian Church. Never doubt that this is what it is. It’s not a “here’s how I will help pay the electric bill,” although, it is. And it’s not a “here’s how I will help pay for office supplies, although it is. And it’s not a “here’s how I will help pay the preacher,” although it is that, too. What this slip of paper is, in fact, is a commitment to spend the coming year supporting this congregation’s work in the world in every way you know how. With your money, your time, your talents, and your prayers.
It’s a commitment to do what the Young Adults did yesterday, getting here at ridiculous in the morning to buy donuts and make breakfast burritos and prepare coffee and set up a table and chairs out front for the Annual Choir Fundraiser, and then hang out there making change and being the face of our congregation till well past noon.
It’s a commitment to collect canned tomatoes for Selma Cares, and volunteer for Christian Cafe, and spend one Saturday a month booth sitting at a Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back To Life Block Party, and fix what’s broken at the church, and sing in the choir, and contribute goodies to pot lucks, and decorate the sanctuary, and clean out dog cages at Second Chance Animal Shelter, and spend 24 hours at the Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and participate in Sunday School, and carry a message of Christ’s love to the women in Federal Prison, and serve at the Table, and help out planning the 100th Birthday party of our building, and hand write birthday cards, and visit the homebound, and take cinnamon buns to your sick pastor, and attend committee meetings, and hang out with our Youth, and play music on fifth Sundays, and pray . . . for all of the above, for our members, for the nation, for the world. It’s a commitment to stand up and do more, as much more as we possible can. It’s a commitment to give of ourselves, as Jesus commands us to do.
Jesus reminded the crowd that day he had come, not for those who already were doing all they were supposed to do for God, but for those who were lost; for the sinners, the despised, and the outcast. Jesus came to heal the sin-sick souls of those who were unloved, unloveable, unlovely, those who felt that God would never accept them, could never love them. Jesus came to seek out and save the lost. Jesus commanded that we do the same - feeding the hungry, giving the homeless a place to sleep, healing the sick, comforting the prisoner, reaching out to the poor in funds and in spirit, to the mentally ill, to those who don’t know the loving God we know, to those who live in brokenness. Our commitment on this day, this Commitment Sunday, is to give all that we can to do the work of our Lord in the world. Zaccaeus offered half of all he had to the poor, and to pay back whatever he had defrauded others of four times over. By doing so, Zaccaeus put his family and his own freedom at risk. We don’t have to do that, exaclty. We just have to commit our lives to God - our tongues and talents, our gold and silver, our hands and feet, our hearts and souls - our everything. For just as Jesus came into the world to heal the sick and sinful hearts of the lost, so we, too, are to follow his example. We are the body of Christ, called to be the hands and feet of our God, the gifts of grace and love He gives to all the people of the earth. When we go forth from this place today, let us go joyfully, giving our all, so that all may see Jesus in us.