When someone tells you it’s not about the money, you can believe that it is indeed about the money. We expect that in our material world, but surprisingly that seems to be true in the Gospel of Luke as well. It’s all about the money.
This is going to take some explaining, isn’t it? Well, we’ve got some time left and that’s what we’re here for.
Jesus has begun his meandering journey to Jerusalem. If you wonder why I call it “meandering,” just take a look at one of those maps in the back of your Bible. You’ll see that Jericho, where Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, is hardly on a direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus is going out of his way to get to the Holy City… way out of his way.
You’ve seen those Family Circus cartoons where little Billy is called home by his mom and the picture traces how we goes everywhere and anywhere in the neighborhood to get there? That must be something of what it is like for Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem. But then again, knowing what we know, we can understand why Jesus, like little Billy, might not be in a hurry to get there.
Along the way, Jesus sends seventy of his followers on ahead to reconnoiter along the towns and villages where he eventually plans to visit. He gives them specific instructions: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…” They are to travel light, with no money and no extra provisions of any kind. No wonder Jesus said he was sending them out “like lambs into the midst of wolves” (ch. 10).
And by the way, that may be why Jesus is so quick to recognize Zacchaeus up in that sycamore tree. I can just imagine one of Jesus’ disciples coming back to report to him… “Let me tell you about this little man in Jericho who thinks he’s such a big shot…” Zacchaeus had evidently heard about Jesus somehow. He certainly went to a lot of trouble to get a glimpse of him, climbing up in that tree.
And he’s no spring chicken, I would think. Even with all the money he’s been skimming while collecting taxes, it would have taken awhile for him to have acquired such wealth. And, Luke informs us he was the chief tax collector. You don’t develop such a fancy resumeʹ overnight, so I would imagine that Zacchaeus is not a young man. Climbing trees is for the young, not the old, let me tell you.
I used to climb trees when I was a boy – our place was just covered in big oaks, perfect for climbing and making tree houses. But I wouldn’t dare try to do it now. Zacchaeus has gone to a lot of trouble to see the Nazarene, hasn’t he? Why?
Well, the chances are Zacchaeus had had a conversation with one of Jesus’ disciples who had come to town on this scouting mission. And since few if any of the towns folk would even talk to Zacchaeus – he was just about the most hated man in town – he would have enjoyed the conversation with one of Jesus’ friends. Come to think of it, he would have enjoyed talking with just about anybody.
On the way to Jerusalem, by way of Jericho, shortly after he sends out the seventy, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one who pays the innkeeper out of his own pocket to provide help for a man who should have been his enemy. Later, Jesus recounts the story of the rich fool who amasses a fortune and decides to build bigger barns, only to have his life claimed from him before he has the chance to see his foolish dreams fulfilled.
It is in the aftermath of that shocking story – and yes, it would have been most shocking to his listeners – that Jesus tells his followers to sell their possessions and give alms to the poor.
You’re familiar with the story of the rich young ruler, aren’t you? It’s found in Luke as well as Matthew and Mark. Jesus tells him what he has to do in order to inherit the kingdom, something the young man evidently wants very much. Like the other followers of Jesus, he has to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The young man is unwilling to do it, so he goes away with a heavy heart.
And it is in Luke’s gospel that Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have possessions to enter the kingdom.” In fact, he says, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make it to heaven. A literal interpretation of that image is quite amusing, and I imagine elicited some laughter from Jesus’ disciples when they heard it. After all, there are times when you laugh because it hurts too much to cry. None of Jesus’ disciples, I would think, had much prospect of ever striking it rich, but a man can dream, can’t he?
I remember the jokes that were told when I was in junior high, or thereabouts, that had to do with how you get an elephant into a Volkswagen. I think Jesus might have liked that joke, don’t you? A camel through the eye of a needle. That’s rich… excuse the pun.
I can tell you this with some real certainty: “Jesus is very interested in money and in what people do with their money.”1 And for that reason, it is quite possible that when Jesus comes into Jericho, he comes looking specifically for the rich little man named Zacchaeus.
Have you ever known anyone named Zacchaeus? You’re about as likely to encounter a Zacchaeus as you are a Judas. “Zacchaeus” comes from the Hebrew. That should not surprise us; he is a Jew after all, though by all accounts not a very good one… at least not a very religious one. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been such a cheat and a scoundrel. But get this… the name Zacchaeus means pure or innocent.2 Talk about a walking contradiction! That little runt was anything but pure or innocent. I mean, look at the way he defrauded the people in town.
Most of us know that being a tax collector for the Romans was the most despised position in first-century Jewish society. They were considered spiritually unclean, which was a big deal to these people, especially the Pharisees. They handled money which had the emperor’s image on it, and that alone would keep them from being able to observe religious holidays like regular folk. We are told that Zacchaeus was rich, and the only way he could have garnered such wealth was by taking more in taxes than were actually required. He would have been hated and vilified by the very people who knew him best because they would know he was cheating his own people.
It would not have been very hard for the local towns folk to hate Zacchaeus, nor to categorize him as being spiritually hopeless. If there was anybody in their community who was surely going to hell, it would be Zacchaeus.
When Jesus responds to the wee little man who had climbed up in the sycamore tree, “so Jesus he could see,” those who witnessed the event began to grumble and say disgustedly, “He has gone to be the guest of this man who is a sinner.” Whatever popularity Jesus had managed to attain along the way was gone in just an instant because he had the audacity to befriend a wicked little cheat like Zacchaeus.
It doesn’t make Jesus look very good, does it?… that he would cozy up to such a loser, that he would keep company with such a despicable character. In fact, we can understand how the towns folk might think that Jesus is paying attention to Zacchaeus only because he is wealthy. Maybe for Jesus, at least in the Gospel of Luke, it is indeed all about the money.
Think about it… money can make up for a lot of things. Who cares what people think of you when you’ve got a big house and lots of servants? Who cares what people think when you have a five-chariot garage and a stable full of the latest model of camels? Who cares what people say when you’ve got money in the bank and can buy anything and everything you want? Who cares? Money can make up for a lot of things.
I’ve told you before about a scene in the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You don’t mind if I tell you again, do you? I’ll give you the short version. When Clarence, George Bailey’s guardian angel who’s come down to bail George out of a tough fix, tells him there’s no money in heaven, George’s response is, “Well, it comes in pretty handy down here, Bub.”
Ah, yes it does, yes it does. And if you follow that line of reasoning, Zacchaeus is the handiest guy around because he’s got money to burn. Not that he would, of course, but…
Then he encounters a Man who has told his disciples not to take any money with them on their journeys, not that they had a lot to begin with. He meets a Man who has told those who would follow him – or those who want to make it to the kingdom of heaven – to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, who draws ridiculous images of camels being pulled through the eye of a needle to show how difficult it is for the rich to get into heaven. And because of that encounter, Zacchaeus is willing to give everything away – everything – fourfold, if need be. Suddenly, money means nothing to Zacchaeus and Jesus means everything.
And that is why Luke tells this story, a story found only in Luke. Why do you think that is, that Luke wanted to record this story when the other gospel writers chose not to do it? Well, I have a theory.
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Everywhere you turn in this gospel the rich are being criticized. In fact, it would be easy to assume that if you have wealth there is no way you are going to make it to the kingdom of heaven. But here – and now – salvation is coming to a very rich man… a very bad, scheming, lying, cheating, rich man.
Has Luke changed his mind? Has he switched sides, changed horses midstream? No, I think he’s telling us that it really isn’t about the money after all. According to Luke, “the one qualification to be found by Jesus is to be lost.”3 Not poor, not rich… lost. If it is so hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom, it is because riches tend to replace repentance. But poverty isn’t an automatic guarantee into the kingdom either. Both rich and poor are eligible for God’s grace. Money’s got nothing to do with it unless it has become an obstacle to receiving God’s mercy, and sometimes the love of money – whether you have it or just crave it – becomes a replacement for our desire to receive Christ’s mercy.
We talked at the outset about this meandering journey of Jesus. Just prior to his encounter with Zacchaeus in Jericho, on the other side of town – the other side of the tracks – Jesus is met by a blind beggar. He too knows who Jesus is. Maybe he talked with the same disciple who told Jesus about Zacchaeus. This beggar receives salvation from Jesus too. Why? Because he asked for it, and because there was nothing in the way – like riches – that would keep him from receiving what only Jesus has to give.
Beggars and rich men… it made no difference to Jesus. If they opened their hearts to him, Jesus was more than happy to save them. It isn’t about the money after all, is it?
So it makes no difference how much you’ve got in your wallet. But it has everything to do with what is in your heart. If you find yourself with this overriding desire to receive the grace that only Jesus can give, the only thing you have to do is ask for it.
Fortunately, for all of us, you don’t have to climb up in a tree. You don’t even have to give your money away. Well, not all of it anyway… ten percent will be enough. But when it comes to your heart, nothing less than one hundred percent will do. Why? Because it isn’t about the money. It really isn’t about the money.
Lord, reach down deeply into our hearts and remove anything – anything – that would keep us from coming to you. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
1William Willimon, “Eating and Drinking Among the Lost,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 35, No. 4, Year C, October-December 2007, p. 22.
2Vitor Westhelle, “Exposing Zacchaeus,” The Christian Century, October 31, 2006, p. 27.
Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.