An Abundance That Sets Us Free

So this guy walks into the church and he says to the secretary: “I want to see the head hog.” The secretary seems taken aback. “Excuse me,” she says. He repeats himself, “I want to see the head hog.” The secretary says, “if by ‘head hog’ you are referring to our senior pastor, I would ask that you refer to him with a more appropriate title, like ‘pastor’ or ‘reverend.’” “Oh, OK,” said the man, appearing a bit chastised. “I just came in because I had $10,000 I wanted to give to your church.” “Stay right where you are!” the secretary says. “I’ll go get the big pig right now!”

Interesting little joke. And of course what makes it funny is that we all know how quickly the power of money can cause us to compromise our dignity or our values.

Speaking of “big pigs,” I’m sure Zacchaeus was called that on a regular basis, or something like it. “Little pig,” maybe. You see, Zacchaeus was a man who compromised his values to acquire financial abundance. A tax collector in Jesus’ world was a Jew who collected taxes for the Romans and was therefore viewed as a collaborator with the hated Roman oppressors. Furthermore, a tax collector was typically an extortionist, collecting more than was due and pocketing the rest. Needless to say, a tax collector was not a popular figure. All the more so the chief tax collector, which Zacchaeus was. A wee little man and a wealthy little man!

To those who buy into the belief that real abundance is found in financial wealth, Zach must have been the happiest guy in Jerusalem because he had the most money. But we can easily surmise this was not the case from his actions! Clearly, Zach felt compelled to see Jesus, who happened to be passing through town. But why? Curiosity? Without a doubt.

Have you ever been curious to learn more about who Jesus was, to get a better look? I hope you did get a better look. Cultivating curiosity is a virtue!

(Zach song!)

As curious as Zach was, though, that only begins to explain his actions, for he behaved like a desperate man. Let’s unpack this.

Predictably, Zach couldn’t see Jesus because a crowd was in front of him. But do you think anyone was saying to him, “Here, Zacchaeus, stand in front of me so you can see!”? I’m sure everyone relished Zach being stuck in the back of the crowd, unable to see a thing. They probably purposely positioned themselves in front of him.

So he ran ahead and climbed a Sycamore tree. Now, running with tunic flying about was not something a grown man did unless it was an emergency, particularly a man with social status and power. But not only did Zach run ahead, he then climbed a tree like a child at play. Again, adults didn’t do this and with all those people around, it is doubtful he could have climbed the tree anonymously, so he probably incurred the mockery and taunts of those who were watching him. He had pretty much lost all his dignity.

Let’s be clear. Zacchaeus really, really wanted to see Jesus. An abundance of money may have made Zacchaeus a person of privilege and comfort, but very likely, that abundance did not extend to his inner life. Money does not feed a person’s soul, particularly money by ill-gotten means. Do you think maybe Zach felt lonely? Ashamed? Empty inside? This is why he was willing to make a fool of himself to see Jesus that day. He was more than just curious. Zacchaeus wanted to be free from the weight he carried around, from the emptiness that haunted him. He wanted abundance in here. And he was about to find it!

What Zacchaeus didn’t know is that at the same time he was trying to see Jesus, Jesus wanted to see Zacchaeus. And he did see him, up in the tree. And he said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

As you strive to get a better look at Jesus today – and you guys in the balcony, I guess you’re up in the Sycamore tree – and Jesus addresses you by name, what does he say to you?

For someone important like Jesus to invite himself to your house was an honor and was clearly an affirmation of Zach’s person. The crowd who witnessed this could only grumble about this: “Why is Jesus going to the house of a sinner?!” Clearly Zach wasn’t worthy of such an honor in the eyes of the crowd. Jesus was defiling himself!

So what must this experience have been like for Zach? No details are provided about the visit, but there appeared to be no agenda on Jesus’ part. All we know is that as a result of Jesus’ visit to Zach’s house, he felt moved, without prompting, to declare that henceforth, he would give half of all his possessions to the poor, and if he had defrauded anyone (sounds like a confession to me), that he would pay back those he had defrauded fourfold.

Why on earth would Zach suddenly do an about/face and become that generous, pledging to give away so much? Was Jesus pressuring him to give, guilting him, chastising him? None of that appeared to be the case. Jesus showed up, loved Zach and set him free, that’s what happened!

Jesus once said, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Without a doubt, Zacchaeus felt an abundance inside that he probably had never felt in his life and it had nothing to do with his riches: it seems the abundance he felt was the awareness that, in Jesus, God was looking for him, and saw him and called him by name; the abundance he felt was that God was seeking his company.

I think Zach’s definition of abundance changed that day as the barren landscape of his lonely, shame-filled soul was replaced by the grace of God, an undeserved gift of exceeding value. Zach knew he didn’t deserve it based on his character. After all, people hated him for a reason, but Jesus saw beyond that to who Zach really was: abundantly loved and capable of loving abundantly.

What does abundance look like for you? Are you taking the 21 Day Gratitide Challenge that Hope told us about last week? How has God blessed you? Think often of this, give thanks and be free! Part of your freedom will be your generosity. Just look at Zach!

Now, we think that being generous in our culture is a big, painful sacrifice that makes one miserable. Like the joke about the father, mother and baby who leave church one Sunday. The baby and father are crying and the pastor asks the mother why they’re crying. “Well,” she says, “the baby’s teething and her father is tithing.”

The truth is quite different than that. Have you ever met a generous grouch? Someone who gives a lot but is unhappy? No! Quite the opposite. Generous people are usually not crying, but they’re upbeat and positive. That’s because generous people are grateful people. They’ve been set free.

This year, we’re inviting all of you to “Make a Difference” with your financial giving. God’s abundance for you, me and us is not supposed to be clutched tightly but shared with one another and our neighbors.  Because the scope and vision of Mt Carmel’s present and future is growing, and we are asking you to discern with God what it means to become more financially invested Mt Carmel’s mission.

But in light of the story today about Zacchaeus, I want to ask that no one here give out of guilt. If you do, stop giving, because one day you will be resentful of this.

Do you give out of obligation? Same thing here. Don’t do it. Obligation also has a way of making us one day resent it, because of where it’s coming from. Eventually, our well is empty, and then we just want to run away from it all.

Do you give to prove something or justify yourself? Again, stop it. God has set you free from having to play such games.

Give because you are free to give and because you want to give. Give because you are grateful for God’s abundance and you want to share that abundance.  In II Corinthians, it says that “God loves a cheerful giver.” That means a thankful giver.

In closing, yes, it is stewardship time. Like any church, we could easily think this is all about fundraising, that abundance really is about dollars and cents, and then try to use a bunch of silly techniques to get you to give. Horace Greeley, the famous newspaper editor of the mid-19th century and a leader in the anti-slavery movement, once received a letter from a woman who wrote: “Our church is in dire financial straits. We have tried everything to keep it going: a strawberry festival, an oyster supper, a donkey party, a turkey dinner, and finally a box social. Will you please tell us, Dr. Greeley, how to keep a struggling church from disbanding?” Greeley answered her in a message of two words: ‘try Christianity’”

Well, there’s a thought: Instead of the donkey parties and oyster suppers, try Christianity! Who would’ve thought? I’m surprised they didn’t mention a pig roast with the head hog!

We’ve been set free by God’s abundance. If that abundance doesn’t overflow into generous living, we’re not paying attention. Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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