This message is part of our fall stewardship campaign, during which we are encouraged to prayerfully consider the ways God is calling each of us to support the ministries of First United Methodist Church in the coming year. Our stewardship sermon series is entitled “The ‘Saintly Ways’ of Stewardship.” Today’s message is about the call to give freely without anxiety or thought of your own or another’s deserving, and is based on a story of transformed giving as told by Luke the Evangelist.
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
Josh McDowell is one of the most prolific Christian authors. He’s written or co-authored over 150 books! His first book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, was ranked 13th Christianity Today’s list of most influential evangelical books published after WWII.
McDowell wasn’t born into a Christian home, and by the time he was in college he considered himself an agnostic at best. In fact, it was during college that he decided to write a paper that would examine the historical evidence of the Christian faith in order to disprove it. However, his research ended up converting him to Christianity after he found evidence for it, not against it. Though Evidence that Demands a Verdict was written years later, it’s my understanding that that book is his presentation of the evidence he found that brought him to faith in Christ.
While McDowell’s book was groundbreaking for the modern skeptic, he certainly wasn’t the first person to set out to investigate the truth of the claims of the gospel. As soon as word got out that Jesus was raised from the dead, the investigations began. Luke, the author of the third Gospel in the New Testament, was one of those early investigators. Luke was not a contemporary of Jesus; he didn’t personally know him. He was, however, a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, and at some point became one of Paul’s most important partners in ministry. But it’s probably safe to say that Luke didn’t start out in that place of faith; it happened over time as he responded to his own investigations.
Based on the content of his gospel, here’s what we do know about Luke. First, Luke’s gospel (gospel means “good news”) wasn’t the first one written. Other written records of Jesus’ life had already been written, and Luke read them.
Second, Luke saw these other accounts as being written by people who personally knew Jesus. For him, their first-hand knowledge and experience gave credibility to their accounts.
Third, after reading their accounts, Luke set about investigating the truth of their claims. It’s believed that he had a skeptical or scientific mind that required more than hearing a story third hand before he would believe it.
And fourth, his investigations inspired him to write a gospel himself, which a reasonable person would do only if they had a sense that they had something to add, something important to say that was not yet being said by any of the others gospels.
Based on these four things we know from reading his gospel, scholars agree that Luke was probably someone of great privilege and self-confidence. He was clearly learned in that he was capable of writing a book. And it’s been noted that he probably had quite a bit of leisure time to make independent investigations, which would have likely required travel.
It’s interesting to note that this privilege and self-confidence was not, for Luke, an invitation to hold himself higher than others. On the contrary, what’s perhaps most notable about Luke’s gospel is his emphasis on the place of women, the poor, and outcasts in Jesus’ ministry and in the early church.
Today, “privilege” is a loaded word; it can carry negative connotations. To be a “person of privilege” is to be identified as someone with an unfair advantage by way of conditions that are beyond your control. One definition of privilege is “a benefit enjoyed by a person beyond the advantages of most people.” Another definition is “having significantly more than another, to the point of undeservedly benefiting from the unjust suppression of another.”
By definition, privilege implies an advantage that’s based not on hard work, but on something that one is born-into. Unfortunately, those intrinsic advantages often come at the expense of those who don’t have those same innate advantages by birth.
In most United Methodist congregations, the majority of the congregation is what we would call privileged in at least one, if not many ways. To be sure, this does not mean that benefiting from a system in which most of us have more than others automatically implies that we desire to perpetuate a system in which we have more than others. But the difficult truth is we happen to live in a society in which being white, being male, being a native English speaker, being a citizen of the United States, and being an adult are all unearned qualities that give certain people privileges at the expense of others.
I recognize my own privilege; I fit this description 100%. And the fact is that a lot of what I’ve enjoyed in life is the direct result of being born a white male in the United States into a family that was financially comfortable and had all sorts of resources available to us.
The mode of stewardship associated with Luke is what we might call “the Way of Generosity.”
Now, we need not beat ourselves up over something about which we cannot change. To use a common phrase, it is what it is. However, what we can do is recognize our relative privilege, but be like Luke and not see it as a reason to hold ourselves higher than others. In fact, like Luke, we’re called to use our own privilege in service to others.
I think the mode of stewardship associated with Luke is what we might call “the Way of Generosity.” What is generosity? Generosity is giving freely of ourselves without anxiety or thought for our own or another’s deserving. Generosity doesn’t ask the question, “Have they earned it?” or “Do they deserve it?” Last week I mentioned the fact that our church has helped 72 persons/families to the tune of almost $10,000. As someone who’s managed many “pastor emergency funds” though the years, I can tell you that many of the people who seek financial help from churches don’t necessarily deserve it. That is, most of them can’t demonstrate that they somehow merit any help we might give. But asking them to show that they deserve it misses the point. In this case, part of being generous is knowing that there will be times when we’re being played, that we’ll be used, and that at times we’ll end up giving money to people who probably just got the same amount from a church in a different town. That’s part of what it means to be generous.
Generosity is also sharing with others what the world would say is “mine,” and doing so because I can’t conceive behaving another way. In this way, Luke is very generous in his inclusion, in sharing the Jesus story as a story that’s for all people without regard to financial status, nationality, gender, or health condition. Luke wants to make it very clear that ALL are welcome at the table. Also, in the Gospel of Luke, many of the heroes of his stories are the most unlikely persons.For example, it’s in Luke that Jesus scolds the Disciples for keeping children at arms-length. Instead, he tells them, “Let the little children come to me.” Why? “Because it’s to people such as them – little children – that the kingdom of God belongs!” (18:16) And in Luke 8 we find Jesus specifically healing women of their diseases, including the wife of Herod’s business manager.
And then there Zacchaeus, the central character in today’s story. Zacchaeus was a tax collector; he was charged with the responsibility of making sure that everyone in his jurisdiction paid what they owed to Uncle Herod. While no one particularly likes a tax collector, the Jews in that region especially despised him was a fellow Jew. The problem for Zacchaeus was that he earned their scorn. You see, the government didn’t care how much he squeezed out of the people, just as long as he got out of them what they owned the RIS, the Roman Revenue Service. But Zacchaeus made it his business to collect more than they owed – way more. He became very wealthy by stepping on the back of his own people.
We’re not privy to Zacchaeus’ pedigree, but it seems to me that he was probably someone of privilege. He clearly had a power that people didn’t cross; they may have grumbled about it, but they knowingly overpaid their taxes. As such, he chose to exercise this privilege in hurtful ways that benefited himself. What a contrast with Luke, who used his privilege to make it clear that God’s love and grace and church is open to all people.
But the story doesn’t end there. In true Lucan fashion, he makes the despised “sinner” the hero of this story of generosity. In this one setting, Luke paints a contrasting “before” and “after” picture of Zacchaeus. The “before” picture is the hated Zacchaeus, the enemy of the people. But something happens and he’s instantly cut to the core of his being. We see a new, “after” Zacchaeus. His conversion is swift and thorough, and all it took was for him to be made aware of Jesus. As a result, he turned from his old ways of living. He promised to return all his fraudulent earnings four-fold, and furthermore to give to the poor. There’s no way to prove it, but some have suggested that if he actually followed through on this promise, it very well may have entailed giving everything he had.
Jesus noticed Zacchaeus, not because he was wealthy and powerful, though he was both. He noticed Zacchaeus because he was up in tree. He noticed him because he put himself into a position to be noticed by Jesus. In fact, we might even say that Zacchaeus was a man who needed to be noticed. He’d made himself an outcast in his community by giving into his greed, and whether he realized it or not, he was hurting deep in his soul. Zacchaeus was someone who really wanted to see Jesus, and be seen by Jesus. He was a man ripe for repentance (which means doing a 180 degree turn and going in the opposite direction).
Speaking for myself, it’s difficult to admit that what I have is mine because I’ve benefited from an unjust system. I think that’s true for all of us. Fortunately for his own sake, Zacchaeus was able to admit this for himself and responded accordingly – and swiftly. It’s been pointed out that Zacchaeus wouldn’t have been in a position to give so much if he hadn’t taken so much. While that’s true, it’s certainly not a good reason for any of us to take from others in that same manner just so that we have much to give.
When it comes to our giving, maybe one of the biggest challenges most of us here have to face is the unspoken notion that we’re entitled to what we have.
And yet, what an act of courage it takes to release our hold on what is not rightfully ours. This may be especially true for the majority of us who never asked to be given an unfair advantage. It’s difficult enough to admit that what we have is not really our own because God gave it to us. But to admit that what we have is ours because we’ve benefited from an unjust system is especially difficult for us.
So when it comes to our giving, maybe one of the biggest challenges most of us here have to face is the unspoken notion that we’re entitled to what we have. And maybe our prayer needs to be, Lord, free me from the grip of entitlement. Free me from the perspective that what I have is all mine, and it’s main use is for my own benefit.
With that said, it’s good for each of us to hear the truth that regardless of our level of privilege, Jesus holds us in high regard. Jesus held Zacchaeus, a “sinner,” in high regard, enough that he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home for a meal. And despite our own sinfulness, Jesus holds us in that same high regard, enough that he wants to spend time with us. Privileged or not, Jesus notices you, loves you, and invites himself to table with you, even before you make any commitment of your own. And that’s because God’s love is not contingent upon your generosity. On the contrary, it’s God’s abundant love that makes our generosity possible. God calls us to the way of generosity, and it’s his own generous love poured out into each of us that make it possible.
It’s God abundant love that makes our generosity possible.
We want to be like Luke, and like Zacchaeus after his conversion. Mostly, though, we want to be like Jesus, who’s love for us took him to the cross, and now he generously offers us, who don’t necessarily deserve it, his life. And asks us to generously share it with others.