By Pastor Tracey
If you drive a car, I'll tax the street
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat
If you get too cold, I'll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet
Cause I'm the taxman, Yay, I'm the taxman.
Those are lyrics to the old Beatles song “Taxman.” If there’s one thing that spans all centuries and cultures, it’s a common disdain for the “taxman.” Taxes have become a big topic of discussion during this election season. Now, I don’t think most of us object to the rationale for taxation. If you think about it, the concept of pooling our resources so that everyone’s needs are met is about as Christian and biblical a concept as can be. It’s a big thing in the book of Acts. And we understand that taxes are needed to provide care for our veterans, to build schools for our children, to pave our city streets, and – of course – to help provide for all of us in our retirement years. Yet, it’s the practice or process of taxation that seems, inevitably, problematic and controversial. We seem unable to develop a system where every pays their “fair share”; a problem stemming from disagreement as to how one defines “fair.” Necessary or not, none of us enjoy paying the tax man.
And that brings us to this morning’s bible story about a tax man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a wee little man. And I’m not just talking about his stature. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and, in doing so, Luke gives us quite a bit of information.
Here’s how the system of taxation worked in 1st century Palestine. Palestine was an occupied country; occupied by Rome. Now the Romans occupied quite a few places and an ever-expanding empire carries with it an ever-expanding price tag. It takes a lot of money to be an expansionist. There’s the expense of armies to defeat the country one is over-taking. There’s the expense of occupying forces to “keep the peace” (wink, wink). There's the expense of setting up local government in any given locale – after all, government headquarters ought to be comfortable enough to keep local leadership committed. And, of course, you need enough people in place to ensure a system of checks and balances; to make sure no one gets too big for their britches and gives Caesar a run for his money. All in all, it took a hefty chunk of change to keep the Roman governmental machine running and precious little of it trickled down. To make matters even worse, here’s how the collection system was carried out. Roman officials contracted with local businessmen to collect the various taxes, tolls, fees and tariffs. The amounts had to be paid in advance. So, only those who already had some wealth at their disposal could even afford to play this lucrative game.
Rome, for its part, didn’t care a bit if the system turned the screw to the little guy. Generally, those local businessmen – the “chief” tax collectors – would hire other guys to go out and do the unpopular work of collecting the money. It wasn’t a very pleasant job and it was assumed that the collectors would take a little something extra for their trouble. Likewise, it was assumed that the chief collectors would also bill a little something extra for themselves. Now, the chief tax collectors in Palestine were particularly despised because the nature of their job required them to fraternize with those Roman Gentiles and, each time they did so, they made themselves ritually unclean for a period of time. When one was ritually unclean, one could not enter the temple to worship. So, these were folks who demonstrated disdain for their people and their religion. So, now you know why I say that Zacchaeus was a wee little man… in more ways than one.
Now remember that, although on Sunday mornings we hear just bits and pieces of the gospel stories, the gospels originally were recited out loud and performed in one sitting much like attending a play today. So, if you were a first-century Christian listening to this story, what you would have already heard would have set you up for some expectations when you’re introduced to the character of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. You see, Luke’s gospel has quite a bit to say about tax collectors. For one thing, Jesus seems to have an embarrassing habit of befriending these despicable folks. When Jesus is labeled as “a friend to sinners and tax collectors,” let me assure you; that’s no compliment. So, when we learn that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, we might very well expect Jesus to befriend him. But, here’s where things get tricky; because the final description Luke gives for Zacchaeus is this: He’s rich. Now, that complicates matters; because the rich don’t fare very well in Luke’s gospel. Just a few verses before this story of Zacchaeus, Luke tells us of an encounter between Jesus and a rich ruler. The ruler wants to know from Jesus what it is that he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus initially tells him that he must obey the commandments. And the man assures Jesus that he’s done that. Then Jesus tells him that there’s one more thing he must do: he must sell all that he has and give the proceeds to the poor and then follow Jesus. This the man cannot do. He loves his money too much. And as he walks away, Jesus makes this pronouncement: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Ouch! Jesus doesn’t have a lot going on in the way of subtlety or tact.
So again, we arrive at this story of Zacchaeus uncertain what to expect. There is a tension here; things could go either way. Zacchaeus is a tax collector – clearly an outcast, despised and ridiculed by others – and, therefore, likely to receive compassion from Jesus. But, he is also very rich and, therefore, likely to elicit judgment from Jesus.
As the story progresses, we’re told that Zacchaeus is eager to see Jesus. Now, we don’t know exactly why. But, perhaps Zacchaeus has heard that Jesus has this reputation for befriending tax collectors. Who knows? But his height is an obstacle. So, he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs up in a sycamore tree so that, when Jesus reaches that point in the road, Zacchaeus will be able to get a good look at him. Now today, in 21st century America, we can’t possibly understand the scandal Zacchaeus running and climbing that tree would have created. In the Middle East, both then and now, no respectable adult male is going to run and climb a tree. It is humiliating behavior reserved for children. So when Zacchaeus decides to run and climb a tree, he makes a decision that seeing Jesus is more important to him than what anyone might think of him or say about him. These people already dislike Zacchaeus for taking their money and giving it away to those dirty Romans. To see him embarrass himself publically must have been pretty gratifying to the crowd. Kind of like watching the school bully trip with his lunch tray and spill everything all over himself.
But here’s the thing, from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel, there’s been this reversal of fortunes thing going on. I spoke about it two weeks ago when I preached on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Just as the poor become rich and the rich become poor, Luke’s story has already told us as far back as chapter 1, that the proud will be laid low while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
So how is Jesus going to respond to Zacchaeus who has just engaged in humbling behavior by running and climbing a tree just so he can see Jesus? The audience, hearing this story for the first time, might be holding their breath.
And then it happens: Jesus stops under that tree and speaks words to Zacchaeus that will exalt him in the eyes of the crowd. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus says. “Come on down out of that tree because I’m going to your house for dinner.” What? Is Jesus crazy? I mean, this guy is a jerk. The good righteous folks in the crowd must have been gritting their teeth at this point. They’re grumbling to one another.
You see, to “break bread” with someone, to share table fellowship in the ancient world was a sign of friendship. And for someone to host a rabbi in their home; it really boosted that person’s reputation and honor. Jesus confers honor on Zacchaeus by receiving his hospitality. And that’s the reason why the people in the crowd begin to grumble. After all, there might well have been some good religious folks in that crowd that had come out to see Jesus; people who would have been far more appropriate and deserving of the honor. But, Jesus chooses Zacchaeus because – fortunately for all of us – Jesus isn’t a big fan of giving people what they deserve.
Now Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus results in an immediate life change; right then and there. Zacchaeus repents. He vows to donate half of his riches to the poor. And, for those he has defrauded, he will make restitution to the greatest extent of the law. The Old Testament and rabbinical teaching, you see, had a variety of laws on the books regarding how one ought to make restitution if one had wrongfully taken another’s property or belongings. Those laws related to a variety of different circumstances and intents. Some called for an even return. Others dictated giving back twice as much. But Zacchaeus chooses the law that is most demanding: the law of returning fourfold. In response to Zacchaeus’ announcement, Jesus declares him to be a son of Abraham.
Being a child of Abraham has been a common theme in the sermons of these past couple Sundays. That Abraham guy was a pretty important character and whether you’re a first century Palestinian Jew or a 21st century Hoosier, being a child of Abraham is a coveted status and here’s why: because, as we discussed last Sunday, being a child of Abraham means that we embrace God’s promises in our lives. It means recognizing that we’ve been blessed by God beyond our wildest imaginations. It means, as Zacchaeus demonstrates that we understand that God has blessed us in order that we might bless others. It means we realize that the good we have in our lives should never be hoarded or used to provide us with some kind of personal advantage over others. It means we comprehend, above all else, that God’s grace means we don’t get what we deserve. We are blessed not because we’ve earned it; not because of anything we’ve done; but because of what God’s done. We are blessed not because of who we are; but because of who God has made us become: his beloved children. As I mentioned last Sunday, when we give to anyone – the church, a friend, a family member, a stranger in need – we should give out of a sense of gratitude. Zacchaeus was clearly so thankful for the change that Jesus brought to his life that he has an immediate desire to be generous with others. Not simply to do what is fair; but to do what is gracious, even extravagant.
Friends: as I mentioned last week, before we count our money, we need to count our blessings. We are called to give out of gratitude. We give not based on what we’ve earned; but based on what God, in his grace, has given. We are blessed to be a blessing.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Genesis 12:1-3
If I were to sneeze, most of you would be likely to say to me, “God bless you.” It’s not something most of us think about. It’s an automatic response; the polite, or at least expected, thing to say. But how did the custom begin? Many point to Pope Gregory VII. His papacy coincided with an outbreak of Bubonic plague. Since coughing and sneezing were symptoms of the plague, the pontiff encouraged Christians to say “God bless you” immediately following a sneeze as a sort of intercessory prayer beseeching God’s protection for the sneezer lest they fall prey to the dreaded plague.
But what is this mysterious thing called blessing really all about? Right there at the beginning of scripture in Genesis, chapter 1, the litany celebrating God’s work of creation concludes with this summary statement: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…’”[i] It would seem that, to live within this world God created, is to live as one who has been blessed. God is in the business of blessing.
And yet, the concept of blessing has been subject to much religious manipulation. “Prosperity gospel” is the current label given to what was referred to during my adolescence as “name it and claim it” theology. It is an approach that seems to envision God as a sort of cosmic vending machine. Should you be so adept as to insert the perfect change and push the right button, your favorite treat will come tumbling down. That theology, when subject to careful biblical study, will collapse like a house of cards. God is not like a vending machine or a magic genie in a bottle. And yet, as I’ve already noted, scripture does reveal God as one who blesses and is the source, in fact, of all blessing. The writer of the Book of James reminds us, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...”[ii]
So, how are we to arrive at a sound theological understanding of blessing? Well, I can’t possibly – within one sermon – address all of our questions. But I hope to touch on at least a couple important truths about blessing this morning.
Genesis, chapter 12, has a lot to teach about blessing. It marks a pivotal turn in the book of Genesis. In chapter 11, we read the story of the Tower of Babel. People are gathered in one place; they speak one language and share one central aim: to climb into the heavens, entering God’s domain; to barge right in to God’s sacred space. But their plan is thwarted when God confuses their language and their speech becomes like babble to one another. Immediately thereafter, our bible writer draws our attention to one particular character and his family. It is a man named Terah and he is the father of Abram, who we will come to know in time as Abraham. Later in the story, God will change his name from Abram to Abraham. Terah’s family is migrating toward the land of Canaan but they stop short of their destination and settle, instead, in Haran. Now, the future of this family is dubious. One son is already deceased and, as for the son named Abram, his wife, Sarai, is unable to conceive. With no offspring, this family’s story will come to an abrupt and decisive end…
But a situation that appears hopeless is about to be transformed in a dramatic way by the God from whom all blessings flow. God interrupts this story and makes his presence known to Abram by announcing a promise and declaring a blessing. This family’s story is far from over and they’ve not yet reached their destination. Abram is to keep moving toward Canaan and to place his trust in the promise that God will make a great nation out of him and Sarai. They must leave what is familiar to them and walk into the future God is preparing for them. They will be blessed but they will also become a blessing to others. Yet, this encouraging Word of God, this promise, does require response. It asks something of Abram. It demands trust evidenced through action, through forward motion. There is an option here. Abram could have chosen to simply stay put; to remain right where he was. Yet, when God spoke “go,” Abram went, equipped with nothing more than that promise of blessing. It takes awhile; but, in time, that promise takes substance; that blessing takes on flesh; it becomes incarnate in a baby boy named Isaac.
Such a personal thing: the birth of a baby. Yet there is nothing personal or, at least, “individualized” about this birth. This birth represents the birth of an entire nation: the nation of Israel; a nation that will one day birth a Savior of the world: Jesus. In Jesus Christ – as the apostle Paul will tell the Christians in Galatia, the blessing given to Abraham has drawn us in. We have been adopted into this special, chosen family. The blessing was first given to Abram but it was never intended to stop there. Abram was blessed by God in order that blessing might come through him to others… even those born centuries, millennia later.
Just as a stone thrown into the center of a pond creates ripples that radiate outward, ever expanding, the blessing dropped into the lap of this elderly couple has radiated outward, an ever-expanding circle to ultimately incorporate everyone who is willing to believe in the promise and the promise maker; everyone who is willing to trust in the blessing and is ready to accept the gift that is Jesus Christ. We have become part of Abram’s family; a family defined not by genetic material but by the willingness to trust in the promises of God.
This promise to Abram is a blessing meant to be shared, meant to expand outward and multiply. In as much as the blessing of Abraham is a foundation for our faith as children of Abraham, it proclaims the good news that blessings are meant to be shared. Blessings are not meant to be hoarded because the very act of sharing them returns praise to God, the giver of the blessing. We are, like Abraham, blessed in order that we might be a blessing to others. And when we give, when we share our blessings, we celebrate not only the gift, but the giver.
Today and every Sunday throughout this month, we’ll have the opportunity to add a leaf to our blessing tree. Each week all of us have opportunities to use the blessings God has given us to be a blessing to someone else. It might be something big; but it can also be something simple like taking your grandchildren out for ice cream or buying a friend a cup of coffee. And that is the way we should view our giving to the church. Giving isn’t about guilt or even about supporting the church budget. Giving is our opportunity to praise God, to express our gratitude for the blessings God has given us.
Kent Millard who retired from St. Luke’s UMC in Indy shares a story of gratitude from when his son was in the fifth grade. Kent had been appointed to serve as a district superintendent and the family would need to move. Kent would be replacing Rueben Job who would later become a United Methodist bishop. Kent’s son, Kendall, did not want to move. He was adamant, refusing to leave his friends, his room, his church and his school. But Kent and his wife explained that they were a family and they would all move together. When they arrived at the district parsonage (their new home), in the large downstairs family room, they discovered an electric train and track set up and plugged in. Beside it was a note that said, “For Kendall from the Rueben Job family.” Soon a local Methodist pastor stopped by the house with his son, John, who was the same age as Kendall. They began to play with the train and then began to explore the neighborhood. The next day Kendall walked into his father’s study with his hands cupped. They were filled with coins that he poured out on his father’s desk as he said, “Here, dad, give this to God.” Kent was surprised and wanted to know why Kendall was giving his money to God. He responded, “Just to say thanks.” “Thanks for what?” Kent asked. “You know – the train, John, my new room.” Kent asked, “How did you decide how much you were going to give?” Kendall said he opened his piggy bank and counted his money on his bed and then decided to give half of it to God.[iii]
Friends, our motivation for giving shouldn’t be guilt or fear. Before we count our money, we need to count our blessings. Giving to the church, to a friend, a family member, or even to a stranger in need should stem from a sense of gratitude; from the wonderful recognition that we’ve been blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others.
[i] Genesis 1:28
[ii] James 1:17
[iii] Story taken from The Gratitude Path: Leading Your Church to Generosity by Kent Millard. Abingdon Press; 2015; pp. 1-2
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