A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 30th of October 2022
MONEY DOESN’T GROW ON TREES, BUT TAX COLLECTORS SEEM TO
[Reading: Luke 19:1-10]
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
They say that money doesn’t grow on trees, but apparently in Jesus’ time tax collectors could be found there. For such is the incident related in our gospel reading this morning. We know the story well. Jesus came to town, Jericho in this instance, the crowds anticipating the arrival of this increasingly famous and radical rabbi gathered in the streets to see this man whose fame had spread by rumour ahead of him. A certain tax collector, Zacchaeus, was one of the curious who had wanted to catch sight of this man. But Zacchaeus was late to the event and had had to climb a sycamore tree to get a better view. Our gospel reading then tells us what happened – Jesus espied Zacchaeus, called him down from the tree and presumptuously invited himself to dinner at his home. All this overwhelmed Zacchaeus who then experienced a Road to Damascus moment, announcing he was giving up much of his wealth and would be following Jesus who himself then noted that he ‘came to seek out and save the lost.’ [v10]
This is the Gospel of the Lord – Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. Enough said?
In less than two hundred words the story of Jesus’ encounter with the tax collector, Zacchaeus was told. But oh, how much was left untold. So, let’s think about those implicit rather than explicit parts of the story for a moment, delving into the episode for more gleanings to be found.
Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector, he was ‘a chief tax collector’; a revenue gatherer for the Roman imperial authority which had used that money to build roads, aqueducts and other infrastructure as well as financing legal and defence systems, answering that question in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’
The Romans may have done a great deal with taxes raised but, as averred in the movie, they were not thanked for it. Nor were the apparatchiks they appointed to do such revenue gathering – Zacchaeus among them. So, despite all his wealth, Zacchaeus was a figure despised amongst the general populace; they grumbled when their anticipated hero, whom they had flocked to see, ignored all of them and instead spoke only to Zacchaeus. More than that, Jesus had then invited himself to dine with this despised tax collector.
On that momentous day, when Zacchaeus had heard Jesus was about to come to town, he had done two things. First, he determined that he wanted to see the man about which so much rumour had been spreading. Second, and much more surprisingly, he knew that to do so he would have to shed himself of all his dignity. The chief tax collector, whom people despised but nevertheless obeyed, had had to shed all the gravitas of his office and, like a mere child, had had to clamber up a tree. How humiliating it must have been for him.
And how lonely he must have felt at that moment; for he knew how the crowd despised him, and they certainly would not have let him through to the front. He also could have been having an existential moment and been thinking about how he had let down his parents. At his birth they had named him Pure and Innocent, for that is what his name – Zacchaeus – meant in both Greek and Hebrew. Yet, by the words he would shortly speak to Jesus, he would have felt forced to acknowledge that pure and innocent he was not; giving to the poor had not been his practice, furthermore he had defrauded others. Thus, at this key moment in his life, Zacchaeus must have been feeling heavily yoked by the personal burdens of the way he had lived to that point; and so, somehow, though he couldn’t know how, he might have been hoping that just seeing this Jesus about whom so much had been said, might make a difference to his life.
So, there it was that on that day, fateful for Zacchaeus, the first of the Beatitudes played out:
Blessed are the poor in spirit. [Matthew 5:3]
We don’t know how Jesus reacted to the rest of the crowd who lined the street waiting to see him – for all we know he might have glad-handed those who had lined the way; but the gospel doesn’t tell us anything about that. Instead, it simply tells us that he saw Zacchaeus and that then he spoke to him:
Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today. [v5]
The crowd seemed to have felt short-changed for they grumbled. Then Zacchaeus spoke to Jesus, within the hearing of all those grumblers present. What did he say?
Before we look at his response, let’s recall an incident related in the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel where another wealthy man had also engaged Jesus in conversation. Something in that particular young man’s life had also seemed to lead him to search out this unusual rabbi whose report was spreading and popularity increasing. Meeting Jesus, the man had asked the question:
What must I do to inherit eternal life? [Luke 18:18]
In asking the question, he had told Jesus that he followed all the laws, to which he received the response:
You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come, follow me. [Luke 18:22]
This had been too much for the rich young man … this he could not do, so he had turned away.
The incident reported in our gospel reading this morning was of a quite different nature. Yes, Zacchaeus had wanted to see Jesus just like the rich young man; and like him, he was a man of wealth. But the rich young man, had presumed an easy answer to attaining the keys to heaven; while for his part, Zacchaeus had not been so presumptuous, he was simply prepared to climb a tree … and to wait … and to hope.
I imagine it was against his expectation, but his hope was answered. It was answered by nothing more than Jesus simply recognising his existence – he spoke to him by name. As a result, Zacchaeus then and without prompting, offered up sizeable portions of his wealth:
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. [v8]
Zacchaeus had no doubt that he had been a lost soul, while the rich young man had only wanted to add salvation to his stock of assets. We sometimes read about Zacchaeus’ response as being merely an act of repentance; by doing so, we may overlook that his was also an astounding statement of generosity. At that moment he had promised to give half his possessions to the poor – people whom he can’t have defrauded for the poor doubtless didn’t pay any tax anyway. Furthermore, his offer to make restitution to those whom he had defrauded was enormous – way beyond the expectation of holy writ. Exodus 22:3-12 would have been known to Zacchaeus; thus, he would have known that he was only obliged to pay back twice the amount he had defrauded – yet he promised to pay back four times as much … and he made these commitments in full view of the crowd, rather than waiting to promise them in private to Jesus over dinner.
This had been no solecism, for it was important that Zacchaeus made such a commitment before Jesus entered his house; by doing so, he was offering something significant to Jesus. He would have known that the crowd must have been horrified that Jesus had committed to entering the house of a sinner such as himself – that Jesus would be defiled by doing so. Zacchaeus addressed this problem by figuratively washing Jesus of that sense of defilement by there and then making his promise of generosity to the poor and by his act of repentance for previous sin committed; having done this, Jesus could then cross the threshold into Zacchaeus’ house undefiled.
In the western Christian tradition, Zacchaeus doesn’t appear again other than in the cycle of lectionary readings. However, in the Orthodox tradition, Zacchaeus has been held in especial esteem. April 20 is his Feast Day in their liturgical calendar, referring to him as an apostle. More than that, there is a special Sunday each year referred to as Zacchaeus Sunday, occurring on the last Sunday leading into the Great Lent. The reason for this special recognition focuses on one verse from our reading this morning:
Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was. [19:3]
Orthodox faithful are thus reminded each year that the desire to see Jesus is a necessary precursor to the journey through Lent towards the miracle of Easter Day; in other words it is ‘the first movement of salvation’.
What then is the message for us? It is simply this: do we default to the comfort zone reaction of the rich young man of Luke 18, or do we share the heart of Zacchaeus in not only wanting to see Jesus whatever the cost to our personal dignity, but thereby opening ourselves up to a life-changing experience which may come upon us when we have seen him. And by such a life-changing experience, thence committing ourselves not only to repentance for our sins, but also to generosity.
Our Dean, Bishop Chris, has asked that we have a focus this month on Planned Giving; in other words that we all reflect upon how we might do more for this Cathedral – but not just for the building, nor even just for the fellowship of we sisters and brothers who congregate here each Sunday and days in between; but to do so for the potential wider ministry of this place. St Peter’s Cathedral is not only the mother church of the Anglican diocese of Adelaide, it is also a church so very well placed to speak to the wider community.
It is important that we give enough to keep the doors open of this Cathedral, but how much more might we be able to do if we could increase our giving so that we can be a louder voice to the wider community which so often feels burdened by personal yokes of anxiety and despair? Our Cathedral treasurer has informed us that we will run at a deficit of $130,000 this year – in other words, we will have to dig into the generosity of Cathedral parishioners of generations past who built up our reserves.
If we could increase our individual giving by about $10 each per Sunday, we could stop quarrying that past generosity. But if we could do more, we could so much better, we could be the hands and feet of Jesus reaching out to a burdened community.
Let me close with a prayer from an ecumenical group in the UK about Zacchaeus and us:
God of all,
we pray for those who make money their god,
that like Zacchaeus they may be transformed
from greed to generosity, from hoarders to hosts.
Bless our finances,
that we too may be open to the needs of others
and be thankful for all we have.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen