Pastor Walther / Luke 19:1-10 / November 13, 2016 / End Times 3
Overwhelming Gratitude Leads to Overwhelming Generosity
Supposedly, a local fitness center once offered $1,000 to anyone who could show they were stronger than the owner of the gym. Here’s how it worked: The muscle-bound owner would squeeze a lemon into a glass until all the juice was gone. Anyone who could squeeze just one more drop of juice from the lemon would win the money. Over time many people tried to best the owner—other weight lifters, construction workers, even professional wrestlers—but nobody could. Then one day, a small, skinny man in a suit came in. He had come for other business, but when he heard about the challenge, he said he wanted to give it a try. When the laughter finally died down, the owner grabbed a lemon and squeezed away. Then he handed the wrinkled remains to the little man. The crowd’s laughter soon turned to silence as six drops slowly fell from the lemon. The crowd cheered. As the owner paid out the prize money, he asked the little man what he did for a living. The man in the suit replied, “I work for the IRS.” The IRS has ways of squeezing out every last drop. In our day, someone who collects taxes isn’t always very popular. Even though as Christians we understand that paying taxes is part of our Christian duty, that doesn’t mean we actually like it.
In Jesus’ day, however, it was even worse. You see, the Romans who ruled over Israel would pick people from every town and region to collect their taxes for them. So if you agreed to be a tax collector, right from the beginning people would hate you. You were considered a traitor to Israel and to the true God, who collected money for the hated Romans and their pagan emperor. With Roman soldiers standing behind him to intimidate the people, anything the tax collector could get above and beyond what the romans needed, he could keep. You can see how tax collectors oftentimes became extremely wealthy. They cheated the people. They were traitors. They were the scum of society. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were considered the worst of sinners. Everybody hated them.
Keeping that in mind, we find Jesus, the week before Holy Week. He was walking with the thousands of pilgrims who were headed up from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. The last big city through which they would pass before arriving in Jerusalem was Jericho, the City of Palms. Located in a fertile valley about six miles from the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, Jericho was a tropical paradise filled with luscious vegetation and towering trees.
The custom in those days was that, as the pilgrims went through a town on their way to Jerusalem, the people from that town would gather along the streets and cheer on their brothers and sisters. It was like a parade. Now, the people of Jericho heard that Jesus, the great prophet from Nazareth, was coming. The whole city flooded the streets. Curious onlookers came to see the man who some said was the Messiah. If you looked around, you’d probably see mothers lifting up their young children, hoping they would catch a glimpse of and maybe be blessed by the great prophet. You can imagine people wondering,“Will he do a miracle? Will he stop in Jericho or keep going to Jerusalem? If he stays here, whose house will he stay in? Will it be one of the chief priests or the elders of the city?”
Now, a man by the name of Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus. The name Zacchaeus in Hebrew means “just” or “pure.” Zacchaeus, however, was anything but just or pure. He was the chief tax collector of the district—the top of a corrupt pyramid. His interest had been peaked by Jesus and wanted to see him, but he had a problem. You see, Zacchaeus was vertically challenged. He was short. He couldn’t see over the crowds.
Because Jericho was the City of Palms, the road was lined with all kinds of different trees. Conveniently, Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore fig tree so he could see. We can imagine with the size of the crowd, he probably wasn’t the only one in the trees trying to get a bird’s-eye view of Jesus. When Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ tree, though, he stopped, looked up, and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Jesus was going to spend the night in Jericho, but at the house of the chief tax collector! The people went nuts. They couldn’t believe that Jesus would stay with the most evil man in Israel.
We aren’t told what Jesus talked about with Zacchaeus when they got to his house, but we can assume he talked about sin and forgiveness. We can assume he talked about how he had come to save sinners. We can assume that because that’s what Jesus regularly talked about and because Zacchaeus stood up to make an announcement. “Look, Lord!” he said. “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). Think about that. Zacchaeus gave half to the poor and then used the other half to pay back everybody he had wronged. Overwhelming gratitude is more than words. Overwhelming gratitude leads to overwhelming generosity.
At that, Jesus said something which probably shocked and amazed the people. “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). Here was a traitor to Israel and the true God—a corrupt politician, a thief—how could he be considered a son of Abraham, a member of the family of believers? Because Jesus, the Son of Man, “Came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
Those words echo even more loudly when we remember that only the next week this same Jesus, the Son of Man, would rescue the world by bringing salvation on the cross. He would be beaten and bloodied, nailed to some pieces of wood, and forsaken by his heavenly Father. But there Jesus would bring lost sinners into his family. They would go from being outcasts and the “worst of the worst” to being Abraham’s children, part of the family of God. Jesus had promised Zacchaeus salvation at the cross.
The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. The people of Jericho struggled to accept that truth. The Pharisees, Jesus’ enemies, the ones who had him put to death, couldn’t handle that truth. They were endlessly horrified because Jesus was always hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. If he was so holy, if Jesus was from God, how could he wallow with the filth of society? They stuck up their noses and looked down on those whom they considered unworthy of God’s love.
Sadly, we often have a little Pharisee who has taken up residence in our hearts. Our noses go up so easily and our eyes look down so quickly as we see the sinners out there in the world. You know the ones—those drug dealers and drug users who are a disease on our society, those husbands who hit their wives and wives who cheat on their husbands, or maybe the corrupt politicians in any of the political parties, or even the people who support them. Our little Pharisee even looks down on those sinners sitting next to us here in church. In polite conversation we will say we don’t think we’re any better than they are, but deep down in the recesses of our hearts, each of our little Pharisees sits back in a comfortable chair and says, “I’m so glad I’m not like them. I’m above their low-life living. I haven’t done what they’ve done.”
What we so often forget, what we so often fail to see is that we are on the same playing field because we are all selfish, sinful, lost and condemned creatures. We are lost. I was lost. That means I am nowhere near heaven, nowhere near perfection, nowhere near Jesus. I am the worst of sinners. That is me sitting in that tree like Zacchaeus. That’s you sitting in that tree. Like the Pharisees, we have spiritual blind spots. We so easily see the sins of others, but fail to see how lost we really are in our sins of pride, anger, lust, and laziness. We fail to see sin’s dark stain so thoroughly imbedded in us that makes us lost for eternity in hell.
But Jesus came to seek and to save all of us. Jesus is the essence of perfection: by never cheating or stealing, by never welling up in selfish pride, and by never giving in to unrighteous anger, lust, or laziness. As he hung with his back pressed against the wood of the cross, he allowed himself to suffer God’s righteous wrath that we, the lost scum of society, deserve. But because he did, we are forgiven. He tells us to come down from our tree. He’s here for us and stays with us. He brings to us free forgiveness and a home in heaven.
And when we finally get that—when we finally understand how lousy we are and how loving he is—when we truly appreciate what it means when God says, “I forgive you”—then we will react as Zacchaeus did. Zacchaeus couldn’t contain himself. He had finally found what money couldn’t buy. He found what governments can’t provide. He found peace and hope. My friends, the secret to overwhelming gratitude—the secret to the joy that Zacchaeus found—is opening our eyes and recognizing all the amazing things God has done for us. The secret to overwhelming gratitude is understanding that we don’t deserve any of it.
God has been overwhelmingly generous with you. Recognize how much Jesus gave of himself for you, so that you are no longer a lost citizen of hell, but a citizen of heaven. Recognize how much Jesus gives you as he treats you as family and generously cares for you. Look around you at your home and cars, your family and friends. Look at the food you eat and the air you breathe. Look at your church family, the freedom you have to worship God and learn from him. Like Zacchaeus, you haven’t earned any of it. You don’t deserve it. You’re not better than anyone else. Yet God has been overwhelmingly generous with you.
Overwhelming gratitude leads to overwhelming generosity. Zacchaeus recognized what God had given to him and became so generous with his gifts. As you give from a generous heart, God promises to bless you with even more. So be overwhelmingly generous with your family and friends. Be overwhelming generous here at church. Be overwhelmingly generous with complete strangers. Give as God has given to you. Learn from poor, vertically challenged Zacchaeus. Overwhelming gratitude leads to overwhelming generosity. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.