“The Arc of Gratitude”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
5When 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.”
6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (NRSV)
Back in Luke 3, crowds from all over Judea flock to the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach. The prophet calls for radical repentance, and offers baptism to all who want to live new and different lives.
What should we do? they ask.
Share, John says to regular folks. If you have enough for two, give away half of what you have.
How many of us have extra? How many of us give away 50% of our stuff?
Don’t practice extortion, he tells Roman soldiers. Don’t threaten or manipulate harmless people just because you can, not even to further some mission.
There’ve been instances of modern governments taking action against military abuse, but what are the chances that first or twenty-first century governments would universally curtail such activity?
Collect only what the law gives you permission to collect, John tells the tax collectors.
How will they do that and make a living! Instead of charging for their services, ask for suggested donations? John’s advice seems radical and impractical.
Tax collectors have the authority of Rome’s wealth and power behind them, so even diminutive men like Zacchaeus can get rich swindling entire communities. It’s no wonder that people despise them. It’s no wonder that Jesus doesn’t make a lot of friends by showing kindness to them.
In Matthew’s gospel, Matthew is called to discipleship from his job as a tax collector. That evening, Jesus eats with him and other “tax collectors and sinners.” (Mt. 9:9-13) In Luke, Levi is the only disciple identified as a tax collector. And the evening of his call, Levi hosts a banquet to celebrate his new-found life. (Luke 5:27-32) In both cases, the Pharisees bristle at Jesus’ choice of friends and acquaintances.
I’m not here for folks who have it all together, says Jesus. I’m here for those who need help, those who need thorough-going change in their lives.
Jesus sets a remarkable example that stands in contrast to that of John the Baptist. While John creates a stir that attracts people to the Jordan River (probably somewhere near Jericho), Jesus enters Jericho and invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home.1 He doesn’t wait for the people he calls to understand him or to get their theology, or ethics, or anything else “right.” He says, “Follow me,” and enters their lives, trusting that along the path of discipleship they will be made new. They will become merciful, generous, courageously compassionate and hospitable. He trusts this because he trusts that as they continue to receive his mercy, generosity, and transforming holiness, they will discover their own capacity to show mercy, generosity, and transforming holiness.
We never stop receiving the gifts of grace because we never stop needing them. As we receive grace upon grace from God through Christ, Jesus is present in them calling us to recognize that we do not create these gifts. And like all God-given gifts, they’re never intended to remain ours alone. As we gratefully receive these holy gifts, they fill and overflow the vessels of our lives. As disciples, we live on an arc of gratitude where Jesus calls us to share the gifts we receive in his name and for the sake of all Creation.
“Look,” says a rapturously grateful Zacchaeus, “half of my possessions…I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Half of his possessions—the amount John called for!
And four times the amount of his fraud!
Zacchaeus’ generosity reminds us of first line of Mary’s song of gratitude: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:46b-48a) The humbled tax collector’s response to grace received is to magnify that grace—to share it in exponentially greater measure.
Isn’t that what we try to do during stewardship season? Ride the arc of gratitude for the mercy, generosity, and transforming holiness given to us so that we share those gifts with others, in ever-increasing measure?
When we begin contemplating stewardship with the question, What can I afford?, we begin in a place of scarcity. In that place, we view ourselves as bank vaults of meager resources. So, we see giving as merely a reduction of personal holdings.
When we contemplate giving along the arc of gratitude, we recognize ourselves as wellsprings of gifts that we do not create. We hear Jesus calling us to show more mercy than we think someone may deserve, to give more generously than we think we’re able, and to embody more transforming holiness than we think we’re worthy of having received in the first place. Along the arc of gratitude, we begin to inhabit a far more spacious world than ancient catechisms and current headlines would have us believe.
The prosperity gospel says that getting and having stuff declares God’s favor. Jesus says that simply getting and having leads to nothing but accumulation. Getters and havers of possessions create nothing but envy and resentment because they never learn to receive, not in any truly spiritual sense. The story of Zacchaeus proclaims that sharing generously is the sign of having received gratefully and humbly.
Christian singer/songwriter Alana Levandoski sings a song entitled “I Become What I Receive.” And that’s not just the title; those are the words. The song begins with her singing those five words by herself. With each repetition, she adds more voices, harmonies, and instrumentation to create a fullness that represents the magnification of God’s grace as we receive it, as we ride the arc of gratitude, and share that grace in, with, and for all that God creates and loves.
As you listen to this song2, close your eyes or look out the window. Do whatever you need to do to be present to these simple words, and to this music which, to me, is a kind of holy visitation. Think of the unique gifts God offers to you, and how you might truly receive them and share them through this congregation in the coming year.
This song also prepares us to receive the Sacrament this morning, and in truly receiving the bread and the cup we receive Jesus who invites himself into our lives and frees us to live the new and different lives of our own baptisms.
God, help us to receive, and share from a place joyful and humble gratitude, so that we magnify your presence in the world. Amen.
1E. Elizabeth Johnson in her article Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pp. 261-265.