Will Your Money Put You Outside of God's Love?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 31
October 30, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: When a Roman tax collector goes looking for Jesus, Jesus already was looking for him. And Jesus had terrific news to give him. In our day, we must find ways to look for that same Savior, who already is looking for us. Finding him will be our greatest treasure.

You no doubt have heard a famous saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 19:24. Most translations have Jesus saying that it's easier "for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Even if you turn to a translation that doesn't use the word "camel" there, it still looks bad for rich people. For instance, George M. Lamsa's translation of that verse in the so-called Peshitta text, translated directly from the Aramaic language, the verse says this: "It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And Lamsa has a footnote that says this: "The Aramaic word gamla means (both) rope and camel." So given that Jesus spoke Aramaic, you may find that the "rope" version makes more sense and, besides that, is funnier to think about.

Yes, some scholars suggest that the eye of the needle in the traditional translation refers to a Jerusalem gate by that name. But, as I say, either way it doesn't look all that good for rich people, does it?

And yet the story we read from Luke today provides evidence that in the view of Jesus, even ill-gotten wealth may not prevent someone from a healthy relationship - even an eternal relationship - with God.

A story for the child in us

The story of Zacchaeus has long been a favorite of children because, from what Luke reports, he was a small man, perhaps not much taller than a 10- or 12-year-old. Kids can relate to people their size. Plus, he does what lots of kids love to do - he climbs a tree. Specifically, he climbs a sycamore tree, though it's unclear why readers need to know that.

But maybe it helps to know that sycamore trees are among the largest deciduous trees anywhere. They can grow from 75 to 100 feet tall with a similar spread. Beyond that, the trunk may grow to be as much as 10 feet in diameter. At any rate, such a large tree could provide Zacchaeus - or any of us - with a great view.

The fact that Zacchaeus chose to climb the tree was almost certainly a sign that Zacchaeus was ready to make a change in his life. Why? Well, people with power, like a tax collector, normally would just walk right up to anyone they wanted to talk to and demand to be heard. Instead, Zacchaeus slips up a tree and is prepared simply to look and listen. He'd given up the privilege that his wealth and position provided.

So we know he's up there to be able to get at least a glimpse of Jesus. Which, of course, should raise the question for us of what we need to do today to see Jesus. Climbing a tree isn't exactly an answer for us. But perhaps that's not the point of this story. Perhaps this story is telling us to find a place that can give us some perspective, that can open up a way to understand just who this Jesus is for us today and how we can best understand what he wants of us.

How can we find Jesus?

So instead of climbing a tree to see Jesus we can read the gospels. We can read books by scholars who spend their time studying those gospels and offer us lots of help in seeing Jesus. We can ask our family and friends and pastors who Jesus is for them. We can pray directly to the Triune God and ask for help in seeing Jesus and in understanding what he wants from us.

In other words, our lives are full of symbolic sycamore trees to climb in order to see Christ. And we shortchange ourselves when we don't take advantage of them.

But it wasn't just that Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus. In some ways, Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus. Indeed, Luke reports that Jesus looked up into that sycamore tree, spotted the little man and told him to "come down; for I must stay at your house today."

If Jesus said that to one of us today, it almost certainly would knock us off of any tree branch on which we were sitting.

Zacchaeus knows himself. He knows he's a reviled man because he's a tax collector for the Roman rulers of Palestine. In today's terms, he's an Internal Revenue Service agent. Except that most IRS agents today are simply trying to do a job that results in the collection of money needed to provide the services government is tasked to provide. Zacchaeus, by contrast, seems to know that he has been not entirely honest in his dealings.

The complaint against tax collectors for the Romans in Jerusalem and that area then was that they often collected more than they should and kept the difference for themselves, making them wealthy in a society in which well over 90% of the population lived in poverty.

So Zacchaeus not only comes down from the tree to talk with Jesus, he almost immediately confesses and promises to give half his possessions to the poor, and if he's defrauded anyone, he says, "I will pay back four times as much." And Jesus hasn't even accused him of anything yet.

Does that sound like an innocent man to you? Maybe not. But it does sound like someone trying to set things right. And Jesus recognizes almost immediately that Zacchaeus has chosen the right path - the path of honesty, confession and reparation.

The prominent 18th century Methodist minister, author and historian John A. Newton caught a bit of that in his poem about Zacchaeus. Newton writes this:

His long forgotten faults

Are brought again in view,

And all his secret thoughts

Revealed in public too:

Though compassed with a crowd about,

The searching word has found him out.

Jesus gives us more than we deserve

No wonder we feel a little sorry for Zacchaeus. All he seemingly wanted to do was to get a glimpse of this itinerant rabbi who was attracting huge crowds of people. He got more - way more - than he bargained for. He got what Jesus himself called "salvation."

As Jesus explained, "the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost."

Jesus's words raise this question: Saved from what and for what?

And this is where we move from a story that involves a small Jewish man in a tree 2,000 years ago to a story that is about you and me and our world, which at least at the moment is not under the political thumb of Rome, though who knows if at our doors tomorrow evening for Halloween we might see kids dressed up like Roman gladiators?

First, let's acknowledge the reality that the text from Luke that we read today quotes Jesus as saying that salvation came to Zacchaeus and his household "today," not in the sweet by and by. This is very much in harmony with the way Jesus began his ministry. What were almost the first words out of his mouth at the start of it? He told his listeners that the Kingdom of God was "at hand."2 Meaning that they - and you and I - could live in that kingdom, that realm, this very day by adopting the kingdom values of love and mercy and compassion and justice. And did I mention love?

That emphasis on today doesn't deny there's an afterlife, a heaven. But it does suggest that if our first goal is to get to heaven, we are forgetting that Jesus is talking about giving, not getting - giving ourselves to others in need, giving love and mercy and, well, you already heard me list those kingdom values. Giving, not getting. That's what God's reign is all about. That's what finally dawned on Zacchaeus sitting in that tree. He would give away what he got fraudulently. And once he made that decision, Jesus gave him and his household a place in the kingdom.

We must be careful not to imagine that one of the lessons of the Zacchaeus story is that people of wealth cannot participate in God's reign, that they are excluded from a relationship with Christ today or in eternity because of the size of their bank accounts. The question isn't whether you have a lot of money. The question is who (or what) is your god?

The reason the First Commandment - to have no other gods before the Lord God - is first is that if you get that one right, you pretty much are going to get them all right. So if money is your god, you might want to reread this Zacchaeus story and see if you can find a way to climb your own sycamore tree and, when you hear Jesus calling your name, come down, repent and give your life to the life-giving Christ.

For you and me, that would be a perfect ending to this story. May it be so.


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