The tale of two Rich Men
Zacchaeus is one of the more well known figures in the bible. It is a story practically hand made for a children’s bible. A man who stole from people but after Jesus interacts with him he repents of his wrong doing and faithfully gives to everyone that he wronged. The children’s stories love to pick up on Zacchaeus being small in stature. I remember one children’s bible story book growing up depicting Zacchaeus like a hobbit, coming about to the waist of everyone else. There was even a song, ever stuck in my head from Sunday School about Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus…house today.” And Zacchaeus is ever remembered as the short sinner who became the short follower of Jesus. But for our reflection upon what is taking place in this section of Luke, I want us to first consider another story of a rich man, that is described in the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel.
Luke 18:18 says “and a ruler asked [Jesus], ‘good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ And he said ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, ‘How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But he said, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
This is a much sadder story than the story of Zacchaeus. Comparing these two stories one could come away with the importance of rich people giving away their money. One guy doesn’t do it, and Jesus is sad, one guy does do it and Jesus says “Salvation has come to this house.” It can be easy then for any of us present, who would not consider ourselves to be rich, to come away from today’s lessons thinking, I thank God that I am not rich, because then it would be more difficult for me to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or thanks be to God that I am not rich, otherwise I would have to give all that I have to the poor. But if either of those thoughts are what sprang to your mind, then I assure you that you are missing the problem of note. It is neither the money itself nor is it the quantity that is the problem being described, but rather it is the love and the trust of money that is the problem. I remember when I was in seminary, Hope was working two jobs and I had only scholarships to contribute. We were far from being rich, and yet admittedly I had a problem with money. It wasn’t a problem like gambling, or habitually buying frivolous things, but the problem was that I was worried about the lack of money that we had. I was newly married, trying to be the head of the family, and as I looked at the money in our accounts, the money that we were likely to earn, and the estimated expenses for the duration of our lease, I did not know how it would all add up. I spent more than a minute, more than an hour, more than a day, and even more than a week accumulated of my life worrying about how to make our family budget work. My trust at that time admittedly was not fully resting in the grace of God, but was instead placed upon myself. My ability to figure out a way that our family could make ends meet. Worrying about money is not only a rich man’s disease. Sometimes the call to follow God and to trust in Him above all things is a greater challenge than other times. We can look at the rich man who walked away with sadness and we can look at Zacchaeus and we can easily miss how we are more often like the former and not the later. Zacchaeus promised to give half his goods to the poor and to pay back anyone he defrauded fourfold, a venture that was likely to leave him destitute, with nothing to his name.
But the real point that I want to leave you with by juxtaposing these two stories from the life of Jesus together actually has nothing to do with money and your relationship to it. The main point that I hope you leave here with is a reflection of the words of Jesus, and who he is. Again, in Luke 18 a rich man seeks to justify himself to Jesus asking what he can do to inherit eternal life, thinking that perhaps he has already satisfied the requirements. Then Jesus says your trust is in yourself and in your possessions, put your trust in God where it belongs. The rich man goes away sad, and Jesus too is sad and exclaims how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Those who heard it said, who then can be saved? Jesus says what is impossible with men is possible with God. Then a short while later Jesus encounters another rich man and does the impossible. Jesus brings about salvation for this one who was lost. Jesus is the son of God, who can lead even the most rigid sinner who trusts only in himself and his stuff to repent and be saved.
This then should be a message of encouragement and hope for each of you. I imagine that each of you know someone who, by your abilities, seems as though they are outside of the possibility of knowing Jesus or ever calling him their lord and savior. You know someone who is so filled with pride in himself or herself, trusting ever in what they can do, what they have done, and what they expect to do in the future to ever put their trust in the true God. But the good news is that no one, not even a rich man is outside of God’s ability to bring salvation to him. I am not saying that by you praying the right prayer today, that your loved one will be converted just like that. These things only happen in God’s time, and not our time. The story of Zacchaeus that isn’t sung is “Zacchaeus was a tax collector who stole from everybody, some extra money here, an extra coin there, so he could become wealthy, and after all this accumulated wealth he sat and thought with glee, Zacchaeus, way to go, for you have a nice house today…” The point I am making is that there was a time before Jesus finally acted that Zacchaeus was far from God. Right now, you know people that you love who are far from God. But you also know that no one is out of the reach of God’s ability to bring about repentance and forgiveness. So you continue to pray and put your trust in this God, who can make what is impossible for man happen. Amen.