Proper 26 (Oct 30-Nov 5)
Texts: Luke 19:1-10;
Isa 1:10-18; 2 Thess:1:1-4, 11-121
STEWARDSHIP 101: LIVING INTO A CITIZENSHIP OF THE COMMON GOOD
The Gospel stories about Jesus point to something easy for us to forget — especially two thousand years later after calling Jesus King and Lord for centuries. The thing easy to forget is that Jesus lived his life here on earth as a peasant, as a poor person. So to call Jesus King — we’re about six weeks away from celebrating Christ the King Sunday (November 20) — to call Jesus King is to protest the ordinary human system of wealth. To call a peasant like Jesus a king is to say that the entire system of wealth needs fixing. The huge wealth gap between peasant and king can never be part of God’s coming reign.
This is perhaps especially true in Luke’s Gospel, where Luke begins by letting us know that he is writing to someone named Theophilus, who is most likely not a peasant. Our best guess is that Theophilus was, or represented, a Gentile person who had some wealth. Luke features more such persons in his Gospel and in his story of the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts, for example, two of the first converts are an Ethiopian eunuch from the court of the queen and a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. It is likely that Theophilus, the person Luke is writing to, is wealthier like these characters in Luke-Acts. The audience Luke is writing to includes people of wealth and some power that can begin to live as if God’s reign is coming into the world — which it is through Jesus the Messiah! They have some measure of power to begin to make a difference.
We need to keep this in mind, then, when we notice the many details and stories about Jesus which Luke tells us that the other Gospel writers don’t. Luke is the only one who gives us his particular story of Jesus’ birth and beginnings, the one we read during Advent and at Christmas time. Luke is the one who three times at the beginning of his Gospel tells us who’s in charge (Luke 1:5, 2:1-2, and 3:1-2). He names Caesar Augustus and King Herod, other lesser-known Roman governors, and the High priest in charge of the temple in Jerusalem, the person who controlled their Jewish economy. And then Luke makes it clear that Mary and Joseph are of the peasant class. Pregnant Mary sings a song in which the wealthy are brought down, and the poor are lifted up. They are mere pawns in the politics of the day, when they have to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, to comply with the emperor’s scheme of taking a census for the purposes of taxing the poor. There, Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough for the animals. The ones who come to pay homage to this ironically-born king are not others born of noble birth but fellow peasants, a band of shepherds. When Jesus is presented in the temple for his circumcision on the eighth day, Mary and Joseph can’t afford a sheep, or goat, and certainly not an ox for the slaughter on the altar of sacrifice. No, they can afford two small birds. Not much meat for their subsequent meal to celebrate their first-born son’s Bris. Mary and Joseph are peasants, and their son Jesus will grow up and live out his life as a peasant.
So it should come as no surprise that much Luke’s special material — the parables and stories about Jesus which the other three Gospel writers don’t give us — much of Luke’s subsequent special material continues the theme of upending the human system of wealth and power. If a peasant like Jesus, whom the Romans crucify as an insurrectionist, is to become the King of all Creation, then Luke tells us stories like this morning’s encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, an encounter between a rich man and a poor man. We are told that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, which our limited familiarity of that time period tells us was bad: he was a Jewish collaborator with the Roman Empire. But we might forget that that meant he was also a person of relative wealth. He was a person of higher position in the Roman hierarchy, so he was a person in a position to invite folks over to his house for dinner. We need to keep that in mind when Jesus performs a preemptive strike by himself making the invitation to dinner. Jesus the peasant invites himself over to the wealthy tax collector’s house.
Now, to more deeply understand the upheaval going on here, let’s pause for moment to recall last week’s parable, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus — another story that only Luke tells. It’s obviously a parable that contrasts the rich and the poor. Jesus paints a picture of the rich man dining sumptuously every day at his table, with the poor man Lazarus laying outside his gate, hungry, miserable, with the dogs licking his sores. When they both die and go to Hades — Sheol for Jews, the underworld where all people go when they die — they experience an opposite fate. Lazarus is comforted by his ancestor Abraham, while the rich man is tormented with a fiery thirst. The chasm he created in his lifetime by greedily hoarding his wealth, separating himself from others, now separates him from the comfort of his ancestors in the afterlife.
Last week, we held this up as presenting us with the stewardship principle of how not to use our wealth. We are not to greedily hoard wealth in ways that create chasms between us and our fellow human beings. Rather, both parables of Luke 16 make the point of using wealth to “make friends” (Luke 16:9), as Jesus puts it — namely, to build communities of shared wealth with others, and in mutual care for one another. To fail to do so, risks the fate of the rich man in the parable who didn’t know he was building a chasm for the afterlife by greedily hoarding his wealth. We paired last week’s parable with that of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the story of how Ebenezer Scrooge’s dead business partner, Jacob Marley, visits Scrooge with the news that his greed was forging cumbersome chains for the afterlife. Jesus’ parable presents a rich man unknowingly building a chasm for the afterlife. Both stories drive home the same message for how we should live our lives in this life. We are meant to share our wealth with others.
With this week’s story of Zacchaeus, we are in a better position to see that Jesus came to do much more than warn rich people to share their wealth here and now. We are in a better position to see that Jesus as the crucified peasant king came to upset our entire typical human systems of wealth. Let me try to clarify for a moment.
In last week’s parable, the Rich Man is rich.2 What did he do to get rich? Nothing. We need to understand: In this first century world one did not change social status. There is no pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. No earning one’s way up the social latter. He was born that way. Purple. He was royalty.
The poor man Lazarus was poor. What did he do to get poor? Nothing. He was born that way. We would say, in 21st Century America, that it was an accident of birth. That’s why we’ve created an economic system that begins to change the rules from that of the first century — and most all centuries in human history.
You see, for most of human history, how you were born — whether born rich or poor — was baked into their theology, so to speak — their views about God or the gods. You are not born rich or poor as an ‘accident of birth’; you’re born rich or poor because that’s how the gods have ordered things. “Theology” was the justification for being rich and hoarding one’s wealth. That’s simply the way things are because the gods made them that way. (When I say people have thought this way throughout most of human history, we can see it even in our favorite shows that depict things only a century ago. We have loved watching Downton Abbey, about the lords and ladies in in early 20th Century England. Most of the characters in the show simply accept their ‘god-given’ places in life.)
The first hearers of Jesus’ parable would have been scandalized by the reversal in the afterlife in Jesus’ parable. From their worldview, their “theology,” the Rich Man is made to suffer and is condemned for no reason. An eternity of torment and he has not been accused of any transgression of the law. All he did was simply live out the life the gods had designed for him. The first hearers would not be scandalized by Lazarus condemned to a life of suffering before he was even born, before he had a chance to transgress the law. They would be more likely to be scandalized by a poor man like Lazarus getting special treatment in the afterlife. Hadn’t his poverty been a sign from God that he was cursed? Both these men were seen as fated by the gods to be either rich or poor, and to have that reversed in the afterlife wouldn’t make sense.
Do you see? Jesus comes into this world not just to give advice about things like sharing our wealth. He comes into this world as the crucified peasant king who will upset our entire typical human thinking about wealth and poverty. Such things are not ordered by God! When Zacchaeus accepts Jesus’ invitation to have him over for dinner, and then responds to the upheaval that Jesus represents by basically making reparations for his past injustice — when Zacchaeus does all that he is essentially re-orienting his position in an unjust system of wealth.
The story which immediately precedes this story of Zacchaeus, at the end of Luke 18, is the story of a rich man who comes to Jesus asking about salvation. Jesus responds that he must give up his wealth and follow him. The rich man must abandon his position in an unjust system of wealth to follow the new king who represents God’s system of justice. The man walks away sad, unable to do what Jesus asks of him.
The story of Zacchaeus is a very similar story with the opposite results. Jesus doesn’t even have to ask him to make reparations. Zacchaeus is willing to see and understand that Jesus, this peasant Messiah, must represent a completely different God. Not a God who orders the world into rich and poor, but a creator God who has created all of God’s children to be in one family, a family of equal opportunity. Zacchaeus can recognize the echoes of the same God the prophets had been preaching for centuries, but not many of whom were really listened to and taken seriously — especially the rich and powerful. Zacchaeus listened, and he responded. He was willing to give up his position in an unjust system of wealth, make reparations, and follow a new kind of king.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s close this morning by bringing this into the 21st Century. We recently participated in the world’s mourning of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-ruling British monarch. We rightly praised her goodness as a person, her commitment to serving the people of the British Empire, and, generally, her kindness as a human being. But there’s also some irony in all this, since she still represented an age-old system of politics and economics, one that we in America very self-consciously rejected. We designed our system to have no kings and queens and princes — no persons, in fact, who are simply seen as born to a certain position as ordered by God. No, our American experiment is founded on a very different kind of theology and politics and economics. People are not fated by the gods to be born rich or poor. No, our Constitution begins with a very different proposition than has been accepted throughout most of human history: that all people are created equal in the sight of God. All people need a fair chance to have enough wealth to meet their basic needs. This is the very different kind of king Luke shows us in his Gospel. This is the very different kind of king for which Zacchaeus gave up his position in an unjust system and made reparations to those he had harmed.
But we need to be on guard to protect and continue to bring to fruition that precious, radical idea that all people are created equal. I want to conclude this morning by actually lifting it up as one of the most precious principles of Christian stewardship.
This morning I want to propose that citizenship in this miraculous American experiment is a vital part of our Christian stewardship. Our votes one month from now are an urgent act of stewardship, since I believe that there are forces right now doing battle over the basic idea of our nation. There are signs of lurching backwards into an autocracy where the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, and the chasm between them widens. Perhaps for the first time in our 246-year history, we are in serious danger of losing our democracy, along with its fundamental principle that all people are created equal.
So as we prepare to vote there are important questions to raise. Who are the candidates that stand for an economics that don’t favor the rich, rejecting the false idea that some of that wealth will trickle down to the rest of us? Who are the candidates that represent more policies that begin to reverse the trend of the last forty years of giving most of the breaks to the wealthy that result in a wildly expanding gap between the rich and poor? Are there any candidates who stand for expanding the middle class once again (as happened in the post-war years and into the 70’s)?
More boldly,3 are there candidates seeking to bridge the racial gaps of wealth through reparations — not reparations for long-past injustices but recent ones? I grew up in the middle class of the 1950’s because of the GI Bill following WWII — the same GI Bill which turned out to be only for white people and denied to people of color. Are there policies that can begin to make reparations, like Zacchaeus did, to those we have harmed with our more recent injustices, which have a legacy reaching into today?
There are so many questions vital especially to our children and grandchildren’s generations. Are there candidates who have workable, fair ideas to care for the environment and begin to address the climate change resulting in more frequent storms like Hurricane Ian? Once again, think about why their generations are mostly missing from church. I believe that we can become relevant to them if these kinds of questions that press toward the common good are central to our stewardship and mission. Being guardians and promoters of the American experiment based on equality for all, that peasant-king Jesus represented and Zacchaeus embraced, is vital to living into God’s reign. It’s vital to God’s project of New Creation. It’s vital to making a difference as followers of Jesus. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, October 2, 2022
1. In 2022 I moved the readings for Proper 26C to four weeks earlier, displacing the readings for Proper 22C. In the Lutheran church we typically use readings for Reformation Day on the last Sunday of October. In 2022 those Reformation readings would be replacing Proper 26C. I was doing a four-week emphasis on stewardship (see also the sermons for Proper 20C, Proper 21C, and Proper 23C) in late September-early October, and I valued the story of Zacchaeus (Proper 26C) to be a part of that theme (the third in the series of four, filling the slot of Proper 22C).
2. The next several paragraphs are my version of insights I gained from an online essay no longer available on the Internet. It was a blog on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus by Russell Rathbun titled “Something There Is . . .”
3. I decided on the spot that this paragraph was too bold for the congregation that day. I skipped over it. I’m still in my first year as pastor in this church. It takes more time and building of trust to raise the boldest challenges. It doesn’t do much good in the long run if people begin to tune you out.