"Out On A Limb"
By the Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
Sunrise Presbyterian Church
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.
2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.
3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd.
4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."
6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a ’sinner.’"
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."
9 Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."
One profession that amazes me is that of the television reporter, especially the network reporters. They get to meet so many of the most interesting and famous people of our age - entertainers, politicians, scientists, astronauts. I think it must be nice to be able to see and meet such historic people in person.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go to a policital rally to see former President Reagan. I even had my photograph with him - Of course, I ought to admit that I am three feet from the camera and the President was three hundred feet from the camera, but there we are, both in the same picture.
It is nice to have an occasional opportunity to see a celebrity or to get a personal glimpse of history.
This is exactly what Zacchaeus was doing in our Gospel lesson for this morning. Jesus is entering the town of Jericho, and he does so with some fanfare. Today there would have been reporters at the city gates and maybe a motorcade to take him to the Holiday Inn, but back then, Jesus simply entered the town and the townspeople simply gathered and gawked. All trying to get a glimpse of history, all trying to see who this fellow is who has been causing such a stir over the country side for the past 3 years.
Unfortunately, the folks who have gathered to watch Jesus come into town have become quite a large crowd. And as the children’s song says, Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he. But he is very eater to see Jesus, so he begins to run through the crowd, ahead of Jesus, and he climbs a sycamore-fig tree so wee little Zacchaeus can get that glimpse of Jesus.
That must have been quite a sight. Zacchaeus, a wealthy and well known, although not well respected tax collector, running through the crowd. Have you ever tried running through a crowed? It is hard enough to push and shove your way through, but there is Zacchaeous in his three-piece suit, or whatever it was that they wore back then, running through the crowds. He climbs up a sycamore fig tree. That kind of tree was easy to climb. It had low branches, so even an office worker like Zacchaeus could scoot up the tree.
And so we find Zacchaeus in our Gospel lesson. A man out on a limb. Literally.
But Zacchaeus had been out on a limb before, figuratively that is.
Zacchaeus was not only the shortest man in town, he was also the wealthiest, and he didn’t make his money by playing it save. He took his life and went out on a limb. He made that money by collecting taxes, which was a risky sort of thing to do. One might be risking your safety. One who becomes a tax collector is certainly risking friendships and even family ties. The profession of collecting taxes back then was not something that made one popular. You see those taxes supported an alien empire, Rome, which the folks at Jericho dispiesed. And Rome didn’t provide much in a way of a salary, the individual tax collectors were expected to provide for themselves by padding the bottom line of everyone’s 1040, so that when tax time came around, you had to not only pay Rome, but Rome’s tax collector as well.
It was a risk, being a tax collector. You risked your popularity, your friendships, your family ties, and perhaps even your own welfare and safety. But Zacchaeus had to make a living of some sort, and it seemed that a wealthy living attracted him more than an impoverished one, so he went out on a limb, figuratively speaking, and he became a tax collector.
Now I don’t know what Zacchaeus was expecting, when he tried to get a glimpse of Jesus, but I’m sure that even he was surprised at the turn of events. Zacchaeus goes out on a limb to get a glimpse of Jesus and what happens is Jesus gets a glimpse of Zacchaeous.
Jesus, sees this three piece suit type of man up tin the tree, a sight that must have been something to behold, and he tells him, "Zacchaeus, come on down - tonight I’m going to eat at your house."
Now most of the people in town were shocked. Of all the people he could have picked out, Jesus picks the one man in town no one else would have touched with a ten foot pole. But we know better than to be shocked, because we have read the Gospels and we know that this is Standard Operational Proceedure for Jesus. He so often picks out the least favorite, the least popular, the least secure person and calls him or her into a special relationship.
And Zacchaeus fit the bill.
He was the least likeable fellow in town.
He was even the least in size.
About the only thing he was not least in, was money.
So Jesus goes to this fellow’s house.
And again we see Zacchaeus goings out on a limb. He stands up and makes the bold announcement that he is going to give half of his possessions to the poor, and for all those he cheated, he is going to pay them back - not just the full amount, but four times the amount.
Zacchaeus is not only out on a limb, but this time he has brought along a saw.
Knowing what we know of how tax collectors operated in that day, it is difficult to imagine that Zacchaeus had not cheated a lot of people on a lot of occasions out of a lot of money. He promises to pay that back, and then some. And to give half to the poor, one can only wonder what if anything will be left.
It is a bold thing that he does.
It is not something that is equivalent to giving to the heart fund by throwing on’es loose change in a jar at the counter of McDonalds. It is not even like digging deepinto one’s wallet to help with a favorite charity.
This is going deep into the wallet, the checking account, the retirement fund and even the money stashed away under the mattress for a rainy day.
It is a bold thing that he does.
More than he has ever done before, Zacchaeus goes out on a limb.
Now, in many ways, Zacchaeus becomes a good role model. Most of us play life too safely. We don’t take the kind of risks that we ought to. One way in which we don’t take risks is by handling our money the way Zacchaeus does.
We don’t go out on a limb in giving.
We play it safe.
We give what is convenient.
We give what we would not miss.
We give what is left over.
What would happen if we went out on a limb, like Zacchaeus, and gave in abundance to the needs of our community, rather than saved only for the needs of ourselves?
Several years ago, I had an experience in which a person gave a computer to the church. As he was bringing it into the church, he told me, "This is a great television. It doesn’t work, but it’s a great television."
We hardly ever go out on a limb in giving.
We give out of our left-overs.
We rarely give out of our generousity.
Zacchaeus doesn’t give the left overs. He gives generously.
We are told that there will be poor with us always, and since Jesus himself is the one who told us that, I am not about to argue with it. But we are called to help the poor.
What would happen if we gave out of our generousity to the poor, in stead of giving out of our left overs? Think about how much we could help those in need.
The New Testament not only tells us that we will always have poor people among us, it also tells us that if we have two coats, we are to share one with someone who doesn’t have a coat. Many of us do this, to a degree. From time to time we go through the closet pulling out old clothes, trying them, and putting aside those that no longer fit or that are no longer in style to give to the Salvation Army. This is helpful, and it is a good use of old clothing we no longer want, but that is giving out of our left-overs, not out of our generousity.
It is risk free. It costs us little or nothing.
What would happen if we went out on a limb? What would happen if we contacted those in our community who work with the poor and offered to them more than just a few out of style-clothing.
Most of the people in this world live on less than $500 per year. Most of us could not do that. It is not unusual for us to spend $500 in a week and think nothing of it. But most of us could do with $500 less in a year.
In our world there are those who are hungry. Dozens of organiztions have advertisements in television and magazines. It is easy to find ways to give money to the hungry. But how many of us do that?
We might give now and then, but that is risk free. What would happen if we went out on a limb for those dying of hunger?
Our Presbytery supports a great hunger relief program, the Two Cents A Meal program. Many of our members participate, but not all of us. What would happen if ALL of us participated in this program? Or what would happen if some of us thought of it as a Two Dollars A Meal program? Think of the number of people we could help.
The difference between giving out of left overs and giving out of generousity makes all the difference in the world.
Think of the various medical charities. They do an enormous work in fields that require enormous funds. What we give to them is often nothing more than the pocket change we get at the counter. We see the jar next to the cash register, so we just drop it in, risk free.
What would happen if we dared to go out on a limb and give out of our generosity, rather than our left-overs?
And what of our church?
As a church we support one missionary couple in Guatemala. What would happen if we were like Zacchaeus and went out on a limb in giving, and gave out of our generosity? We could support a number of missionaries all over the world, instead of the two in one tiny corner of the world.
As a church, we support youth ministries and children’s ministries. This summer we sent several young people to a youth conference at Montreat. We offer a weekly programs for youth and children during the school year. But we can never do enough for youth. What more could we do if we gave out of our generosity instead of out of our left overs.
As a church, we sponsor a wonderful scholarship program that helps young people in attending college. Think of how much more help we could give to individuals and how many more individuals we could help if we were like Zacchaeus and went out on a limb and gave out of our generosity.
J. L. Kraft, head of the Kraft Cheese Corporation, was such a generous person. Like Zacchaeus, Kraft was willing to go out on a limb and give out of generosity. Throughout his career, he gave approximately 25 percent of his enormous income to Christian causes for many years. In one interview, he made the observation, "The only investments I ever made which have paid constantly increasing dividends, is the money I have given to the Lord."