A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that my old house in Vienna was up for sale. I was curious to see what the most recent owners had done to it. I attended an open house, and was pleased to see the great care they had shown it. Even more, I was very grateful for the opportunity to walk inside and reminisce.
I thought of that house this week as I was preparing for today’s sermon. Our Gospel lesson tells how Zacchaeus climbed a tree. At our old house, there were two trees that we climbed. One, a sturdy dogwood in the front yard, was climbed by the kids when they were little. The other, a large maple off to the side, was climbed by me… back when I thought that trimming your own tree branches was a good idea. That idea didn’t last long, by the way!
Zacchaeus climbed a tree because he wanted to see Jesus. Think about that. This is some kind of wanting on his part! Why did he want to see Jesus so badly?
Perhaps even Zacchaeus himself couldn’t explain the strong desire. But it likely had to do with at least two things. First, Zacchaeus had no doubt heard about Jesus… about how Jesus had helped people in multiple ways, and about how he accepted tax collectors, of whom he was one. While other people in those days wouldn’t have anything to do with tax collectors, Jesus was well known for associating with them. He even told stories where they were lifted up as the good example—like the one we heard in our Gospel reading two Sundays ago.
Related to this would certainly be a second reason. Zacchaeus no doubt felt a need to make changes in his life. Tax collectors were known for their sinning. Jesus may have accepted tax collectors and sinners, but he did not condone their sin. Zacchaeus knew that things were not right in his life. He had no doubt done what tax collectors in that day were known for—he had taken advantage of his position and overcharged people to line his own pockets. It was easy for him to do it, and easy for him to rationalize it too—persuading himself that extra money was the gift he deserved for enduring all the hatred directed toward him by others.
Sinners are good at rationalizing their sin. But they can only do it for so long. Sooner or later, what they know in their heart to be true will make them uneasy. And then they’ll do things like climb trees—looking for hope in new places; turning desperately to what they pray is a voice of acceptance from God.
God’s coming to us in Jesus always includes an offer of acceptance. Jesus said to Zacchaeus: “hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” But God also calls us to repent. Jesus made that clear in his teaching too.
Some sinners won’t repent. It’s a step too far for them. But not Zacchaeus. He seems quite eager to be unburdened of his sin. Notice how he openly announces his repentance for all to hear: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
In that confession, Zacchaeus is converted. He is converted from a life of sin to a life of faith. He is converted from being lost to being found. “Today, salvation has come to this house,” says Jesus.
This is a story of conversion. “The Son of man came to seek and save the lost.” And as we know, Jesus rejoices when the lost are found.
But I want us to notice, too, the call to conversion in this text that was not heard. At least not fully.
In this text, Jesus is also calling the crowds to accept this former sinner. “He also is a son of Abraham.” Jesus accepts him. He goes to his house. But what about the rest? It seems that the rest could only grumble.
We should pause a minute and think about why the crowd had such strong feelings against this tax collector. Yes, it was because he was a sinner—one who cheated them out of money. However, it was also, and maybe even more, because he was considered a traitor—one who collaborated with the occupying Roman government.
Could the people forgive a traitor? Could you? It’s interesting to think about what causes us to grumble. Is it sin? Or is it other things? We have strong feelings… feelings that will often need to be converted in light of Jesus’ call to acceptance.
Conversion can be hard. We give thanks that in one way – the most important way – our conversion as followers of Christ is complete. We are completely accepted by God through Jesus Christ. Jesus died to pay the price for our sin, and because of this God comes to our house, so to speak, establishing a new relationship with us, giving us His Holy Spirit. Through this we are saved. We are converted, from one who was lost to one who is found.
And yet, in another way, our conversion is still ongoing. We are still seeking a conversion of our life that lives up to our calling. We’re still trying to kick our grumbling habits. We’re still trying to stop that rationalizing of our sin. Some days we do pretty well in our conversion. Other days we struggle.
Today at St. Paul’s, we are examining our conversion progress using the lens of stewardship. Stewardship is about managing all that God gives us in ways that are pleasing to him. As such, stewardship calls us to make Godly decisions regarding the use of our time, talent and treasure. It asks us to consider how much we should keep for our own needs and how much we can give away. It asks us to think about how much we give to the church and how much we give toward other needs.
In today’s text, Zacchaeus gives away fifty percent! And where he has wronged someone, he pays them back four-fold.
Some of you may be able to give away fifty percent of what you have. What a joy to be able to help others at that rate!
Others of you may need to keep back more of that for your own needs or those of your family.
The Bible commends to all of us the practice of giving away ten percent of our income. This is a time-honored practice and one that the Lord God promises to bless. Those who do it find that there always seems to be enough to cover their needs and that there is great joy in this kind of regular, continual giving.
Percentage giving is an important Biblical teaching about giving. Another important Biblical teaching is that of sacrifice. For some, ten percent is not much of a sacrifice. They can do that easily. A true sacrifice is something that will hurt.
There are times when our normal percentage giving will be a sacrifice. There are other times when we might decide it is good to give an additional sacrificial gift of some kind—either as a means of furthering our own spiritual discipline, or because we are moved to give toward a cause that is deserving of sacrifice.
Reading through the story of Zacchaeus, and thinking of it as a story about giving, I find myself wondering whether Zacchaeus’ offer of fifty percent and four-fold restoration was made more as a sign for others of his conversion, or whether it was simply done out of a grateful heart. In other words, did he do it because he felt he had to? As proof? Or, did he do it because he just wanted to? As a gift?
I think the text could be read both ways. And that this is probably intentional… to address our individual experience and need.
In my own life, as much as I know about God’s call to give, and have experienced the blessing of doing it, I also know from experience that sometimes I need to talk myself into giving sacrificial offerings to the Lord. I need to feel a little obligation. Guilt even. Because when I think about giving, I get scared. And I worry. And, truth be told, I also selfishly think about all the things I could do with that money, and time, and talent, if I just kept it myself.
Like Zacchaeus, sometimes our giving will serve as proof of our faith. Whether we’re doing it as a witness to ourselves or to others or even to God, sometimes that motivation is what we need in order to do the right thing. It’s why we will sometimes ask you to come forward to give your gifts or make your pledge.
The danger, of course, is that such giving might lead us to think we are saving ourselves by earning our salvation – which we can’t do. Or to think that God now owes us certain blessings – which He doesn’t. He gives us blessings for sure, but not always the ones we want.
To overcome such dangers, we do our best to give from a joyous place, and from a grateful heart. Christian stewardship is the free and joyous activity of the child of God and God’s family, the Church, in managing all of life and life’s resources for God’s purposes. God has set us free in Christ. We now give from that freedom.
When we consider how God has freed us from the power of sin—taking away its eternal consequences and curbing its present reach—then we can respond joyfully in faith. We will consider, as Dr. Luther taught us, that we are “perfectly free lords of all, subject to none; and at the same time, perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to everyone.”
As free lords, we make our stewardship decisions on our own, discerning our own particular needs and setting our own particular priorities of spending and giving. As dutiful servants, we submit ourselves to God’s teachings and give accordingly—seeing our giving as opportunity to serve God and our neighbor.
Back to Zacchaeus. For one final point. Zacchaeus climbed a tree, because he wanted to see Jesus. He was not disappointed. Jesus saw him and asked to go to his house.
First, however, Jesus asked him to come down from the tree.
What about you? Are you still up in the tree—watching Jesus from afar? Or have you come down from your perch and begun to walk with him?
Jesus wants to have a relationship with you. He wants to walk with you, talk to you through the Scriptures and hear your prayers.
When we walk with Jesus, we work with him. And one of the great ways to work with Jesus is to work with his church. So, as you consider your stewardship for this coming year, consider especially ways in which you can work with Jesus through his church. Join us in this house as we work together to serve God and our neighbors.
Jesus has called us, come to us and saved us. He offers to walk with us, teach us and work with us. In our freedom and in our joy, let us respond faithfully as his converted stewards. Amen.