Taxes are nothing new. As long as there has been any form of civil
organization, any building project -- temples, roads, food storage
facilities -- people have had to pay to have it done. In the ancient
world there weren’t serial inversions or corporate tax shelters
in the Virgin Islands or Panama: it was a direct transaction: you
paid money, if you had it, or you did slave labor or had your sons
conscripted into the military. Taxes have never been very popular,
and they’re always a reliable way to get people fired up against
whomever is governing at the time.
In Luke 19 we’re introduced to a tax collector named Zacchaeus.
In this tradition, “tax collector” is another way of
saying “sinner,” or “despised person.” I
tried to come up with a 21st century equivalent, and decided that
tax collector or IRS agent still carries some of the same distaste
for some of us. Maybe “special interest lobbyist”; someone
who uses special influence with the government to take money away
from decent, ordinary, hard-working people like you and me who are
just trying to make our country great again -- like it was back
when David was king. Only Zacchaeus’ situation was worse --
way worse. He wasn’t representing a democracy of elected officials,
he was a Jew, collecting money from his own people -- other Jews
-- on behalf of the Romans. The Romans occupied Palestine by force,
and they didn’t give a rip about the Jewish people. As long
as the Romans got their share, Zacchaeus could take as much money
as he wanted. To be sure we don’t miss this implication, Luke
underlines it: Zacchaeus wasn’t just any tax collector, he
was the chief tax collector, and he was rich. The scumbag.
This is a guy everybody hated. He worked for the Romans who were
taxing away without representation; and he was short. I bet Zacchaeus
was a belligerent little guy; he would have had to be, because a
lot of people probably wanted to punch him. But for all of his shortcomings
(no pun intended), Zacchaeus has a redeeming quality. Something
which we can relate to; something that makes him like us (I hope).
Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus.
Let’s see what Ted & Co. have to say about this.
(What’s so Funny About Money? DVD Track 4 “Up A Tree”)
Those of you who are familiar with the story of Zacchaeus know
that this is not the whole story. We’ll see and hear the end
of the story in two weeks, but if we don’t get the beginning
right, the end doesn’t make any sense.
I hope you’ll all be able to stay for the discussion during
the Sunday School time today; there will be several groups that
you can join. Spoiler alert, one of the questions for those groups
is “Do you think it’s appropriate to talk about money
in church?” The study materials say right at the top that
there are no right or wrong answers, so I’m going tell you
my answer to that question, and if you don’t like my answer,
you can talk about it in your group today. Here’s my answer:
Yes, it’s appropriate to talk about money in church; but
only if we’re talking about how money can help us and others
to see Jesus. If our conversation about money is motivated by anything
besides wanting to see Jesus, we’ve gotten our priorities
Let’s go back to Luke 19. Jesus passes through the crowded
streets of Jericho, looks up in a tree and sees Zacchaeus. Jesus
knows who Zacchaeus is and what he does and how people feel about
him. And what does Jesus say? Zacchaeus, are you tithing that money?
Zacchaeus, have you named the synagogue in your estate planning?
Zacchaeus, would you come down and lead a capital campaign? Nope.
Jesus begins by asking if Zacchaeus really wants to see him: Jesus
tests Zacchaeus’ hospitality. Jesus says, “Zacchaeus,
hurry up and come down, I must stay with you today,” and Zacchaeus
hurries down to welcome Jesus. (19:5-6)
We’ll talk about the end of that story in two weeks, but
here’s some food for thought: if we want to see Jesus, we’ll
have to be willing to open up places in our lives -- our homes,
our workplaces, our schools -- and welcome Jesus in; and that experience
will change us. It will re-order our priorities and change our attitudes
about what is important and what is most important. Zacchaeus wanted
to see Jesus; wanted to see him badly enough to climb a tree and
make himself uncomfortable and a little ridiculous.
I think it’d be good for us to be up a tree more often. That
is, up a tree in the sense that we want to see Jesus so much that
we’re willing to be uncomfortable and maybe even a little
ridiculous. Willing to put ourselves out there -- not just have
other people put themselves out there -- to invite people to our
church and welcome them even if there’s no guarantee they’ll
be gracious or grateful. To treat other people like Christ, even
if they never put money in the offering plate. If we are willing
to go out on a limb for Jesus, I believe we get the beginning of
this story right.
But the church can get stuck up a tree if we talk about money without
talking about our desire to see Jesus. This is not a conversation
between Us and Them: invitation vs. money; the church is all Us.
We all share the privilege of inviting and welcoming others to come
and see, and each one of us should be part of sharing ourselves
and our resources to enable that invitation. Invitation and money
are not two separate conversations; they are part of the same conversation
about what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ.
I hope you have a desire to see Jesus, because that’s where
our story and Zacchaeus’ story has to start. I hope we are
willing to talk together about how we invite and welcome others
and how following Jesus has changed us, and how through us, Jesus
can change the world. Blessings to you and on your sharing and your
speaking and your listening today. In Jesus name, Amen.