Generations of Generosity: Lived in Faith
Generations of Generosity: Lived in Faith
October 30, 2016
When our daughter Rachel was little, she’d make a grand, dramatic entrance into a room filled with people, wearing hot pink and sparkles, dance and sing like Brittney Spears, take a deep double bow, and then look around with mock bashfulness, and say, "Why is everyone looking at me?" She was hungry for attention, and she got it.
I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t a little bit of Rachel in Zacchaeus. Here’s a notorious man, wearing his fancy chief tax collector clothes, in the middle of a big crowd, climbing up to the top of a tree. And when Jesus calls him out, Zacchaeus looks around and says, "Aw shucks, did you mean me?" Zacchaeus too was hungry for something. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus "was trying to see who Jesus was," and we’ll get to that in a minute. But as much as Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was, I expect he wanted Jesus to see who he was too.
Have you ever played hide-and-seek with very young children? Oh, they want to hide, sort of, in the same two places over and over. But mostly they just want to be found. And so wherever they’re hiding, they’ll always leave an arm or a foot sticking out, and if you pretend not to see them right away, they’ll start making noises or calling out your name. I think there was something inside Zacchaeus, I suspect there’s something inside all of us, that just wants to be found by Jesus.
Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, "wanted to see who Jesus was." But he was too short. That’s why he had to climb up in that sycamore tree. You know how it is. You find just the right seats at the movie, right in the middle, about two-thirds of the way back. You settle back into those comfy seats, and then somebody 6’5" comes and plops down in front of you.
But being short isn’t the main thing that can keep you from seeing who Jesus is. Some of us are too busy to see who Jesus is. There’s work and there’s going back to school and soccer and the house at the lake—we’re too busy to see Jesus. Some of us were just not raised knowing how to see Jesus, or we’re too cool or too intellectual to want to be seen with Jesus. Some of us are just too grouchy or too fearful to want to see anything new or different in Jesus. Lots of things can keep us from seeing who Jesus is.
Not only was Zacchaeus short, however, he was also a tax collector; a chief tax collector. Now I understand that if someone at a social gathering announces they work for the IRS, they might not be the most popular person at the party. But at least IRS agents collect taxes for their own country. In Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, tax collectors collected taxes for the Romans. The Romans brought in thousands of soldiers to harass and keep the people down, and then charged them taxes to pay for these soldiers. Tax collectors were the worst sort of people—collaborators with the enemy. What’s more, the Roman assigned each tax collector an amount of money they had to raise from a certain area, and anything they could raise above that amount was theirs to keep. So Zacchaeus was not just a collaborator; he was a blood-sucking collaborator who’d become rich by selling out his own people.
And this Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. He wanted Jesus to find him. Somehow deep inside he knew there must be more to life than cheating people and making money. He knew there must be some other way to live. He suspected there must be something out there called forgiveness and maybe even love, and somehow or other he knew that Jesus was where to find them. Here I am, Jesus! Come and find me, Jesus. I want to see who you are, and I want you to help me be the person I believe I can become.
As you know, Jesus does find Zacchaeus. And as you know, Jesus asks him to come down. And then Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. One writer has suggested that Jesus’ invitation sounds like one child saying to another, "Hey, let’s go play at your house!"1 And so Jesus and Zacchaeus ate and played and talked. And for Zacchaeus everything--and I mean everything--changes. For wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.
In his response to Jesus, Zacchaeus uses only two verbs. The NRSV has them as "I will give," and "I will repay." But more literally the Greek says, "I give," and "I give back." Zacchaeus’ first response—in fact, so far as we know, his only response—to Jesus coming into his life was to give. He gives half of everything he had to the poor, and for restitution to anyone he’s cheated, he promises to give back four times the original amount. This is not a polite gift made out of guilt or social convention; this is a gift grounded in gratitude, the offering of a changed mind and touched heart. Wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.
Now I want to ask you a question at this point in the story: how do you suppose Zacchaeus felt, having made such a lavish gift? Well, Luke does come out and tell us how Zacchaeus felt, but we can infer from the story. This is a party; it’s Celebration Sunday at the Zacchaeus household! There is no indication that Zacchaeus gives grudgingly or out of guilt. His life has been changed by the love and acceptance of Jesus, and he is set free to give joyfully and with excitement.
This is both a biblical and a psychological truth. Jesus famously said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." But a microbiologist named Hans Selye has proven it scientifically. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on stress and he coined the term altruistic egoism. It means that giving to others is a way of taking care of yourself. He reports the outcome of his studies this way: "those who earn the goodwill of their neighbors are dramatically better off psychologically and physiologically than those who are looked upon as selfish and greedy.2 In other words, giving is good for you! Jesus knew that. Zacchaeus joyfully discovered that. And that truth is always there, waiting for us to claim it.
There is, unfortunately, a flip side to this truth. If giving brings joy and salvation, not giving brings sadness. Just a few verses before he tells us about Zacchaeus, Luke tells about Jesus and the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The man says, "I’ve done all that." Jesus says, "There’s one more thing you can do: sell everything you’ve got and give the money to the poor." And when he heard this, Luke tell us, the man became sad. And that’s how the story ends: with sadness. No generosity, not joy.
Years ago I had a relative. I’ll call her Agnes. Agnes’ husband struck it rich. He became a multi-millionaire back in the 1960s, when a million dollars was a fabulous amount of money. But he wasn’t nice to her—in fact he was abusive to her. And over time, the family saw Agnes less and less, she grew thinner and thinner, and eventually got cancer and died. When the family got together to go through her possessions, they found rooms filled with brand new clothes, never worn, the tags still on them. As a way of coping with her stress and disappointment, she shopped. And what she bought, she kept. And in her keeping, she became sad beyond all telling. Just imagine how Agnes’ life might have changed if only she’d given all those clothes away. She could have provided free clothing to every poor woman in her city for years. How much fun it would have been to give it all away! But she didn’t, and that’s how her story ended. And more than thirty years later, I can still feel the sadness of it.
Here is Luke’s point, I believe, in putting these two stories so close together: we sometimes talk about giving as a sacrifice, by which we mean something painful, something that costs us dearly. But Luke is suggesting that giving is joyful and saving; it is not giving that turns out to be painful and costly.
So where are we in this Generations of Generosity campaign?
- We’ve been sharing the list of projects we hope to do. Admittedly many of them aren’t all that thrilling: leveling sidewalks, repairing roofs and mortar, replacing old electrical circuits and getting reliable heat in the education wing. Not exciting, exactly, but I think we all know these things have to be done.
- We’ve been praying our prayer: Lord, what do you want to do through me?
- And now we’re about ready to hold those commitment cards in our hands. They were mailed out on Friday; you’ll probably get them tomorrow. Most of us have mixed feelings as we hold these cards in our hands. There is a Christmas song that tells about "tidings of comfort and joy." Well, commitment cards bring, for many of us, tidings of discomfort and joy. Oh, there’s joy all right—joy at being blessed to be able to give, joy at doing something together that none of us can do alone. But there’s also discomfort as we ponder just how God might answer that prayer: Lord, what do want to do through me?
Now I understand that not everyone can participate. I’ve received some lovely letters from people saying we’ve moved to a retirement community and don’t really have any money of our own any more. But we love Maple Grove and will keep supporting the annual budget as long as we can. Or we’re expecting another child and childcare is all we can afford right now, but we love Maple Grove and will keep doing the best we can. Thank you for those notes. Other people won’t participate because they’re unhappy about something at church or about something in their life. And that’s okay—everyone gets to make up their own mind.
- But here’s where we are. We’ve been trying to see who Jesus is, and more than anything, we want him to come and find us. We’ve climbed up in a tree because we know deep inside there’s more to life than what we’ve seen so far. And it turns out Jesus wants to come to your home. The Lord Jesus wants to come into your heart, into your life. And you wonder, if I let him in, will I have to give something? Or maybe you worry, if I let Jesus in, will I have to make a painful sacrifice? And the answer is: No. No, you won’t have to give anything at all. But you sure will want to. And the result will be: joy. Joy and celebration. Wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.
1 Paul D. Duke, "A Festive Repentance: Luke 19:1-10," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (October 18, 1995), 957.
2 See Bob Buford, Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2