Wealth and Generosity

Wealth and Generosity

Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

October 30, 2022

Wealth and Generosity

Homily for Sunday, October 30, 2022
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Luke 19:1–10

Though we might think of Luke as the “nice guy” evangelist… Luke is not like Mark, for example, who sticks it to us that being Jesus’ disciple means following the crucified (“the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed,” says Mark, three times! (8:31, 9:31, 10:33)); Luke is not like Matthew, who warns in no uncertain terms that unless we give the hungry food and the thirsty drink, unless we welcome the stranger and give the naked clothing, we will be cast “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41); nor is Luke like John, for whom being a disciple means exclusive fealty to Jesus: “I am the way and the truth and the life,” says John’s Jesus, “No one can come to the Father except through me” (14:6)… [though we might think of Luke as the “nice guy” evangelist] who tells beloved, seemingly-benign stories about the angel announcing unto Mary, or about the Good Samaritan, or about the father welcoming home the Prodigal, Luke is perhaps the most demanding of the evangelists, for Luke hits us right where we can feel it: in our money and possessions.

At first glance, today’s story of Zacchaeus may seem like yet another beautifully-told, heart-warming story from “nice-guy” evangelist Luke—here is Zacchaeus who, because he is short, climbs a tree the better to see Jesus, who calls Zacchaeus down and says, “Zacchaeus… I must stay at your house today”; and Zacchaeus “hurried down and was happy to welcome him.”  But the more I look at the story of Zacchaeus, the more difficult I find this passage.  For in the story of Zacchaeus, Luke calls us to a discipleship, a disposition of heart, in which we are not attached to but generous in sharing our wealth and possessions.  In the story of Zacchaeus Luke makes clear that it is when and only when we are not attached to wealth and possessions but are generous in sharing them that we are free—truly free—to be Jesus’ disciples.

“Context is everything,” and the full impact of today’s story of Zacchaeus in chapter 19, the shift from appearing seemingly-benign to being extraordinarily demanding, becomes clear when we turn to Luke chapter 18 and the story of the so-called “Rich Young Ruler.”  The “Rich Young Ruler” serves as a foil to Zacchaeus: like Zacchaeus the Rich Young Ruler is wealthy (“He was very rich,” Luke tells us (18:23)); like Zacchaeus the Rich Young Ruler seeks out Jesus (“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18)); and like Zacchaeus Jesus speaks with the Rich Young Ruler about discipleship (“You know the commandments,” Jesus says, “You shall not murder.  You shall not steal” (18:20)).  But the Rich Young Ruler and Zacchaeus differ in one important way: unlike Zacchaeus, the Rich Young Ruler—though he is ostensibly righteous and has kept all the commandments since his youth (18:21), and though Zacchaeus by contrast is a tax collector, “one who is a sinner,” says Luke (19:7)—is attached to his wealth and possessions and is therefore unable to follow Jesus.  “You may have kept all the commandments since your youth,” Jesus tells him, but “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  And the Rich Young Ruler, because he was attached to his wealth and possessions, because he could not be generous and share what he had, “when he heard this, he went away sad, for he was very rich” (18:23).  And in case we missed the point, Jesus adds, “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” (18:24).

But Zacchaeus…  When Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ home, and when “those who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,’” Zacchaeus said, “Look, 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."  Jesus then said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house.”  By giving away half of his possessions, by being willing to pay back “four times as much” to anyone whom he may have defrauded—by having a disposition of heart that was not attached to wealth and possessions but was willing to be generous and to share—salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house.  Immediately, “today,” writes Luke.

And the story of Zacchaeus’ generosity is not an outlier for Luke; there are many other passages in Luke that connect discipleship with our wealth and generosity.  Consider, for example:

  • Luke chapter 1: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones… and the rich he has sent away empty” (1:52–53)
  • Or chapter 6: “Blessed are you who are poor… but woe to you who are rich.”  (6:21).
  • Or again in chapter 6: “Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone takes away what is yours, do not ask for it back again.” (6:30)
  • Or chapter 14: "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your… rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed because they cannot repay” (14:12–14).
  • Or again in chapter 14: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all—all!—your possessions” (14:33)

If the Rich Young Ruler’s inability to sell his possessions precluded him from following Jesus, Zacchaeus’ generosity caused “salvation to come to this house,” “today!”  For Luke, attachment to money and possessions precludes discipleship, no if’s, and’s, or but’s.  For Luke, having a disposition of the heart that is  unattached to wealth and possessions, an unattachment signified by generous giving, leads to “salvation coming to this house,” “today!”

I realize Luke lived in a different time and place, and I realize, too, that Luke is given to hyperbole and to sweeping statements and grand gestures.  But I urge us not to write off Luke’s words and the ways in which he connects faithful discipleship with wealth and generosity.  For though Luke may challenge us where we are likely to feel it the most—in regards to our wealth and possessions—yet Luke has a point when he says that “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (12:34; see also Matt 6:21).  As we consider our lives, our money and possessions, and the not-too-many years remaining to us here on this earth, I wonder, where is your “treasure?”  Is your treasure with the Rich Young Ruler, attached to wealth and possessions, which in the end will doom us like him to go away sad?  Or is your treasure with Zacchaeus, in following and seeking Jesus, accepting his invitation to “come down,” having him into your “home,” and living a transformed life of generosity?  For God’s sake—for our sakes—are we able to let go, can we find a disposition of heart that is not attached to wealth and possessions but that is generous with what God has given us?  For those who are generous the result, says Luke, is known and felt immediately: “Today,” said Jesus to Zacchaeus after he was generous with his wealth and possessions, “Today salvation has come to this house!”

More Sermons