A Tale of Two Rich Guys

OK, here’s a quiz for you: in the Bible, when Jesus asked people to follow him and become a disciple, did he ever get turned down? Right, it’s in one of today’s lessons. That’s good, you were listening!

Next question: Did Jesus ever get turned down anywhere else in scripture? No, he did not. This is the only time someone turned down Jesus.

Today we have two stories about rich guys and each story ends very differently. The story of Zacchaeus ends on an up note. Partly because there’s a happy ending and partly because Zacchaeus was a wee little man that we make into a cute person. We even have a song about Zacchaeus.

But can you imagine having a song about the rich ruler? “and then he turned his back to Jesus and slowly walked away.”

OK, the truth is, there’s nothing fun about that story. It ends badly when the guy walks away and rather quickly the astute reader in an affluent western setting such as ours has to ask, “does Jesus ask us, too, to give everything away? Is this what it means to be a follower of Jesus?? If so, I’m with the rich man! I can’t give everything away!!

But, of course, Jesus was saying to the man that he had to make a choice. What was his treasure? Where was his heart? Jesus or material wealth?

Jacob Needleman, author of “Money and the Meaning of Life,” once wrote the following: Hell is the state in which we are barred from receiving what we truly need because of the value we give to what we merely want.

Our friend Ebenezer Scrooge was living in this hell, wasn’t he? And, I’d say, many people – including people of modest means, because they covet wealth and things too much.

How come Jesus didn’t ask Zacchaeus to give everything away? He probably should have! Zacchaeus didn’t even earn all his money honestly. The truth is, Jesus didn’t ask anything of Zacchaeus.

He didn’t have to. And that’s the point.

Zacchaeus was interested in the person of Jesus – who he was, what he was about – and because of that, Jesus entered his life and Zacchaeus’ life was changed. It sort of happened organically, naturally, in the course of their budding relationship.

Notice how much different the rich ruler’s encounter with Jesus was. Here’s how it began: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He begins by inquiring about an inheritance, an acquisition! He had already acquired a lot of stuff, but now he wanted one more acquisition: eternal life! What was Jesus’ role in all this? From the rich young ruler’s point of view, Jesus was the one with the know-how, the instructions, a means to an end. Did the rich ruler seem curious about who Jesus was? Did he seem intrigued about what Jesus stood for and what he was about? Not so much. Just wanted that last asset for the ultimate portfolio. It’s hard to determine if money was his god or himself.

Contrast this with how Zacchaeus. What was his motivation for having an encounter with Jesus? He wanted to see who Jesus was. He was curious, and we can surmise more than curious, too – probably a little desperate. Likely, Zacchaeus desired the meaningful life that he knew he lacked. Maybe Jesus could restore his life. People who were deeply compromised had been transformed, restored by Jesus, Zach had heard. Maybe that could happen to him, too.

Scrooge became curious, too, even if he wasn’t at the start. He wasn’t curious about other people, about life, about love, until the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future took him on a journey. It was then that he became curious about his nephew Fred, who had an unconditional, loving spirit – even towards him. And he became curious about Bob Cratchit and his family, admiring Bob’s character and generosity – even towards him. And maybe, just maybe, Scrooge learned to love again when he learned about Tiny Tim. We all know Scrooge was transformed and became generous and joyous in the end. Don’t forget how he got there: not by acquiring more assets, but by becoming curious about people, life, and about love. Here’s the ending to “A Christmas Carol,” A Zacchaeus character in a different time.

Zacchaeus, like Scrooge, was probably a lonely person, too, given that he was widely despised and related to people in an inauthentic way as a matter of business. We can surmise this from what we know about tax collectors for Rome: they were usually guilty of a form of tax fraud, collecting too much in taxes and pocketing the difference. So, it is likely Zacchaeus desired authentic connection to someone. He wasn’t calculating what he could get out of Jesus. He had enough stuff already. He wanted to see Jesus, which means he was obviously interested in who Jesus was. I think he knew that Jesus just might reconnect him, Zacchaeus, to the human race – to learning the dance people do with life and love.

Zacchaeus had already put on the eyes of faith: he sensed that God was up to something life changing in Jesus. Zach didn’t know what exactly or what that would mean for him, but his attention was in the right place: Jesus! Zach was open to who Jesus was and what Jesus had to offer.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: You cannot accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it with. You cannot make room for it if your rooms are already full. You cannot follow if you are not free to go.

And so the gift was offered, but the rich man had his hands full of cash and his rooms full of possessions. He was not free to follow, and so he didn’t. He was expecting maybe a hoop to jump through, a transaction to be made.

Zach said, “I think this this might be true life right in front of me, in that person, Jesus! I want to see more.” So captivated was he that climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, making a fool of himself in the process.

Are you curious about Jesus? Are you captivated by him? I hope so. This is the one you’re following if you’re a Christian. He doesn’t just point to true life, he is true life! How is your following going?

The rich ruler thought he could earn or acquire eternal life. “Ok, Jesus, what’s the program?” And so, Jesus answered him on that level, the level of requirements to merit eternal life. Turns out the requirements are pretty steep, if you want to do it on your own. It’s not only the Ten Commandments, it’s selling everything you have and following Jesus. Most of us would be out with the Ten Commandments question.

But as if that wasn’t enough, then Jesus throws in “sell everything,” which is basically the eighth commandment anyway: though shall not covet. You want to try to do what is necessary to earn eternal life? You can’t do it.

And that is why Jesus says, “It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven!” In other words, if it’s hard for a normal Joe to do what is necessary, triple that for a rich person.

But what is impossible for humans is possible for God! Which leads us back to Zach.

Zach, you see, as I’ve already said, just wanted to get to know Jesus. Do you see where this is leading? Zach’s heart was open to receive Jesus. And he did. And look at what Jesus did with Zach’s heart! What is impossible for humans is possible for God. Zacchaeus, who was a rich man, announced that he would give half of everything he owned to the poor and to anyone he stole from, he would repay fourfold!

Does it say that Jesus asked him to do this? Do you think Zach had it in his mind before he met Jesus that he wanted to give away half of everything he owned? I doubt it. It was because of Jesus. It was because he let Jesus into his heart.

So what would have been virtually impossible for Zach was possible with God: Zach became exceedingly generous. And it came from his heart, where his treasure now was. His generosity came from the joy of having Jesus in his home and in his life!

So if any of us are wondering how much we should give away, the Bible is confusing: Jesus asked the ruler to give it all. Zach gave half and Jesus declared him saved. The gold standard in the Bible is 10%. What’s the right answer?

Maybe we would all do well to be more curious about Jesus. It is in the very person of Jesus that we find salvation. How can we practice curiosity about Jesus? How can we practice building our relationship with Jesus? Our future as a congregation hinges on these questions and how we answer them. Amen.


Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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