Pay It Forward 

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Luke 19:1-10

Many of us know the New Testament story of Jesus and Zacchaeus (see Luke [Lk] 19:1-10).  The events of that story took place near the end of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus entered the Judean town of Jericho and a man named Zacchaeus climbed up a tree so he could see Jesus as Jesus passed by.  Zacchaeus was a short man, so he needed to climb the tree in order to see over the crowds.  But Zacchaeus was also the chief tax collector in Jericho and an extremely wealthy man.  One does not expect such a person to climb a tree to see anyone.  His willingness to do so indicates the degree of desire which he had to see Jesus.  It may also indicate that He was a humble tax collector not given to haughtiness or pretense.

So there he was, perched in a fruit tree, when Jesus walked right to that very tree, looked up at Zacchaeus, called him by name and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).  Notice Jesus’ words.  “I must stay at your house today.”  The word translated “must” indicates throughout the Gospel of Luke that what is taking place has been planned by God.  It means that it is important to God’s purposes that the designated event occur.  Jesus has found the man whom God had led Him to Jericho to see.

But why?  Why Zacchaeus?  I think that a look back through the preceding chapters of Luke makes it easier to answer that question.  Notice that in Luke Jesus interacts with many people who were, for one reason or another, outcasts–-social pariahs.  The Jewish religious establishment criticized Jesus often because He spent so much time with those whom they referred to as “sinners.”

In Lk 15, we read the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the Prodigal Son.  That chapter makes clear, in verses 1 & 2, that Jesus told those parables in response to the Jewish complaint that He should not be spending time with such low life.  You see the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son all represent, in these parables, the “sinners” whom the Jews wanted Jesus to stay away from.

But we also must notice the way that the persons whom the Jewish establishment rejected are so often described in Luke.  They are described by putting together two nouns.  The two nouns are “tax collectors” and “sinners.”  A devout Jew of Jesus’ day would not eat with a tax collector because such a person was considered ritually unclean due to their involvement with the Roman Imperial authorities.  The fear that one might have touched a tax collector is one of the reasons that the Jews ritually washed their hands before they ate; they feared that just touching such a person might religiously poison their food.  And Jewish laws in Jesus’ day did not allow a tax collector to hold a “communal office” or even give “testimony in a Jewish court” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4:522).

The view of the Gospel of Luke, however, is entirely different.  John the Baptist, in Lk 3:12, is asked by a group of tax collectors what they should do to show the proper fruits of repentance.  John does not tell them to change jobs; he tells them to be fair (Lk 3:13).  And Jesus Himself even calls a tax collector, Levi, to follow him as an apostle, and Levi does follow Him (Lk 5:27-32).  And Jesus eats with tax collectors regularly.  He clearly does not fear being defiled by them.

So Jesus had come to Jericho to meet Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, the only person referred to in that way in the entire New Teatamwnt.  And, to make matters worse, Zacchaeus is rich.  Take a person holding a hated position; make that person rich; the hatred only increases.

So when Zacchaeus and Jesus walk together toward Zacchaeus’s house, the crowd grumbles; they complain.  They complain loudly enough that Zacchaeus hears it and stops.  I know that the New International Version says that he “stood up,” but the verb here can and, in my judgment, should be rendered as stopped, which is the rendering employed in the New American Standard Bible.  Anyway, Zacchaeus responds by turning to Jesus and saying what is most naturally and literally translated by the Revised Standard Version.  The RSV in Lk 19:8 says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

Now most English translations render the verbs “to give” and “to restore” here as future verbs, i.e., “I will give” and “I will restore or I will give back.”  But the Greek verbs here are both present tense verbs.  Now, it is not impossible in Greek for a present tense verb to have a future meaning (such is called by Greek Grammarians, a futuristic present).  But, for such a rendering to be chosen, the more normal time reference of the verb has to be impossible or unlikely.  Here, I do not think that the natural understanding of these Greek verbs is unlikely at all.  Read as normal present tense verbs this story is telling us that Jesus has been sent to Zacchaeus to help expose how unjust Jewish religious intolerance really is.  He has been sent to bring salvation to him, and salvation here has the idea of Jesus the Savior staying with this “son of Abraham” and, thereby, making clear that this man is not outside of the love and care of his God.  Jesus is saving Zacchaeus from the feeling foisted upon him by His fellow Jews that he is sinful, wicked, and separated from God’s people.  Jesus makes clear that he is a son of Abraham and that the very reason that Jesus is going to Zacchaeus’s house rather than someone else’s is due to the unfair treatment which he has been receiving.

If you read this passage with the words in verse 8 as words of repentance and change (i.e., reading the relevant verbs as future tense verbs) then it is the grumbling of the crowd which causes Zacchaeus to repent, and grumbling is not normally a positive thing in the Bible.  I think it is better to view Jesus here confronting, as He so often does, a social stigma that was unfair and unjust, a stigma based upon religious elitism rather than upon the actual deeds of the person or persons concerned.

But what I want to notice this morning is the lesson that this passage gives us for the use of our wealth.  Jesus revealed the goodness of Zacchaeus by giving Zacchaeus a stage on which to communicate the generous way that he used his wealth and compensated for any mistakes that he made.  He gave half of his goods to the poor.  If he took more from anyone than he should have, then he gave them back four times more than that.

In the days of Zacchaeus we would all be considered wealthy, and I suspect that many within the religious establishment would have doubted our religious purity as a direct result of that wealth and the types of jobs we do to create it.  I want us to follow Zacchaeus’s model.  I want us to be surprisingly generous in the way we use our wealth.  I want us to pay our money forward, forward into eternity, by using our wealth to bless others and by using our wealth to give glory to God.

We have lots of stuff.  But the persons who pay it forward realize that it is not their stuff at all.  It is from God, and God really owns it.  The persons who pay it forward use it in ways that show forth the heart of God, the giver of all that we have.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as the land of the free.  But my experience is that outside of this country we are known as the land of stuff.  What will we do with all that stuff?  Let’s follow the example of Zacchaeus.  Let’s be generous in using for others.  Let’s follow the example of Danny.  Let’s use it to communicate love.  By doing so we will spread peace and the righteousness of God.

This is an edited version of a sermon by Dr. Rodney Plunket, the former pastor of Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas.  The parts I edited out were not because of the message, but because it dealt with members of the Broadway Church of Christ congregation.  I also want to add a few words of my own.

We far too often hear about people who call themselves Christians but only teach hate and fear and condemnation, and far too often these same people end up in scandals about their wealth and status.  They forget that Jesus ministered to those condemned by the Jews.  I think in the present day, LGBT Christians are the Jewish tax collectors of Jesus’s day.  Churches shun us and don’t want to have anything to do with us.  They preach about their hatred of us.  The argument against homosexuality used to be that gay men were promiscuous and committed fornication with other men.  However, now that gay people can get married and more and more of the LGBT community are in long term monogamous relationships, the very thing we were criticized for not having, the same people are trying to block us from marriage.

My thought is this, no matter what other Christians say or believe, LGBT Christians are still “Christians.”  We should continue to give back to those who need it.  I mentioned the other day that I have some medical expenses looming and the help I received from several people was tremendous.  They paid it forward, and whereas I am unable to do that monetarily right now, I try to find other ways to “pay it forward.”  Zacchaeus was judged simply because of his job, and Jews of the time didn’t care to see what Zacchaeus did with his wealth, but Jesus knew what Zacchaeus did as he knows us in our hearts.  So don’t let the judgement of other people stop you from helping those in need.  

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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