Transformed by Generosity 

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                        Oct. 20, 2019

Luke 19:1-10

What are Christian values? I’ve been confused lately by what some political parties are meaning by this. Some of the values they are espousing do not correspond to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus welcomed in the foreigners, including those whose faith was was different from his. Jesus said nothing about same-sex relations or abortion, but he called repeatedly in parables and teachings for a fairer distribution of wealth. These teachings of Jesus are diametrically opposed to what some people today are meaning by Christian values. We, as a church, have a responsibility to reclaim what our scripture teaches us about Christian values.

Canada was founded on Christian values of commonweal, which means that we will all take responsibility for the welfare of everyone, not just ourselves. To do this fairly, we pay different percentages of taxes according to our income. Taxes have become a dirty word but I, personally, am pleased to pay my taxes because this allows us to live into our Christian values of care for the marginalized.

I had an invigorating email discussion with my family last week about political promises regarding taxes and expenditures. My brother is so concerned about this that he actually called for a political meeting with his wife and adult son and daughter on Thanksgiving Monday. I would have loved to have been a fly on that wall! Our email thread included concern that we have devolved as a society into individualism that asks what more I can get instead of what more I can give. Our emails continued by talking about being grateful for what we have, learning the difference between enough and want, and living within our means so that we can be generous with both taxes and donations.

We know that our taxes are not enough to meet the needs of those living in poverty. And so, we as churches give even more–of both our money and time—to assist those marginalized by mental health, addictions, racism and poverty. This morning Allan McKay is speaking with the Sunday School at Trinity United Church about our West Broadway Community Ministry. I don’t think you can get closer to Christian values than what our community ministries offer. I am so grateful to Westworth for its generous support of West Broadway.

The last couple of Sundays, we collected a special offering for the Canadian Foodgrain Bank and today, on World Food Day, we’ll be having a Sabbath supper with a speaker from the Foodgrain Bank. This is another way we are trying to live out Jesus’ teachings about sharing the wealth we have.

Extravagant generosity is a frequent guest in Jesus’ parables. Zaccheus began to listen to these radical teachings of Jesus and he was shaken to the core. A wealthy man asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life and Jesus replied, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” Zaccheus may have heard this teaching, because Luke records it just before he tells the story of Zaccheus.

Why was Zaccheus so shaken by Jesus’ teachings? He was a tax collector—and more than that, he was the chief tax collector. In his time, tax collectors were allowed to charge whatever they wished as they collected taxes for Rome. They were notorious for demanding large sums from the poor—they were wealthy at the expense of the vulnerable. Zaccheus was also religious—he knew his own Jewish law inside and out and that generous support for the poor was central to the Jewish commandments.

Zaccheus’s conscience began to work overtime, reminding him of his unwieldy commissions he demanded from the peasant taxpayers. His conscience would prick him in the middle of the night, in the midst of his afternoon siesta. Whenever he stopped, even briefly, for a mental pause, it was there screaming in his face. But it wasn’t just the torment of his conscience that disturbed his rest. He was also compelled by a tenderness and love that he heard in Jesus’ teachings. Yes, these teachings certainly challenged him, but they also embraced him, soothing his pain of being an outcast. All tax collectors were shunned, especially by the religious community and Zaccheus was no exception. He, along with all of the other tax collectors who worked for him were abhorred as thieves and scoundrels who had sold their souls to Rome.

“There must be a better way,” Zaccheus began to pray. “I have to make a living—we are all expected to charge a commission. But if I charge only what is reasonable, will that make any difference? I have already been shunned—and there is no way that they will welcome me back, even if I change my ways.”

Zaccheus’s mind was spinning. He felt as though he was going crazy. And then, he heard a commotion right outside his office. He went out to look, but could only see a throng of people towering over him. He was higher than everyone else in income, but in stature he was the lowest. He simply couldn’t see. But he could hear and he began to gather, from snippets of conversation around him, that it was the Rabbi Jesus who actually coming through his town of Jericho along his very street.

He was desperate to see Jesus. He knew that Jesus would somehow help him to sort his life out. He looked for some way in which he could catch sight of Jesus and then noticed the towering sycamore tree with its widespread branches beckoning him. Before thoughts of dignity and proper behaviour could catch up to his reeling mind, he had run to the tree and climbed the laddered branches. There, from his lookout perch, he could finally see Jesus.

The swaying branches caught Jesus’ eye and he looked up, saw Zaccheus and then—miracle of miracles—looked deeply into his heart and welcomed him with these words, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

Others around them immediately began to protest: “How could this prophetic Rabbi be so mistaken by such a scoundrel? He is the chief of thieves!” Jesus had opened up space for Zaccheus to respond to those who had shunned him and his chance for redemption was now. Zaccheus jumped down from the branches and stood as tall as his little body allowed, swallowed hard and said to his accusers, “Your words are true. I have stolen from you more. My commissions were extravagant and, according to Jewish law, I will repay fourfold everyone whom I have defrauded. Even more, I will tithe not the required 10% of my income, but half of it.”

His accusers were stunned and Jesus simply smiled his knowing, loving smile. He knew that Zaccheus’s conscience had been pricking him incessantly. And he also knew that a much larger, generous love had been calling him. Through his confession, promise of restitution and extravagant generosity, Zaccheus was redeemed and transformed.

United Methodist minister Bill Easum tells a story about Idalia, a woman in his parish. She was known as a curmudgeon who let anyone near her have a piece of her tongue. With fear and trembling, Bill finally visited her one day and noticed that she had a number of ivy plants on her window sill. He asked her what she was going to do with them. “What do you mean do with them,” she snarked back. “I simply grow them and divide them.” Gathering all of his courage, he asked if he could take a few and give them to people who were ill. Idalia thought awhile about this strange request and finally decided that it couldn’t do any harm. So Bill took the plants and distributed them, telling the recipients that it was a free gift from Idalia. The only thing he asked was that they write her a thank-you note.

Shortly after, the woman began receiving these thank-you notes and she was extremely moved by their appreciation. One Sunday, she came to church—something she hadn’t done in some time. She stood up in the service and told the congregation to never underestimate how transformative it is to give, no matter how small the gift. As she sat down, the congregation was stunned not only by her words, but also by a softness they saw in her face.

We give so that our gifts might make a difference for others. But in the act of giving, we might be surprised at how we, ourselves, are transformed.