Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Throughout this sermon series we’ve been looking through Luke to find those for whom the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims is particularly good news. Sometimes in that search we also run into those for whom it’s not welcome news, and that’s the case for two of our three featured actors today. The foolish parable character who builds bigger barns to store the crazy abundance of his crops…only to die and not be able to take it with him. And the rich ruler to whom Jesus explains the key to eternal life is to sell everything he owns and give the money away to the poor; this makes him sad, for he is very rich. In case the stories themselves aren’t direct enough for us, Jesus even frames them for us: Be on your guard against greed. Life isn’t about an abundance of possessions. It’s hard for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
The rich ruler responds: then who can be saved? Well, if we’ve been paying attention as we’ve made our way through Luke so far, we already have a number of answers to his question. In his inaugural address in the Nazareth synagogue Jesus proclaimed good news for the poor, for the captives, for the blind, and the oppressed. We’ve seen lepers saved, and those with unclean spirits, and those with a range of other illnesses and infirmities. We’ve seen Jesus going to great lengths to welcome into his kingdom those on the margins, those who’ve been shunned and othered and considered less-than by their communities, those who’ve suffered and struggled to get by.
But they’re not the ones on this rich man’s radar. He’s apparently surrounded himself with people who live a comfortable life like his own. How do we know this? Because when Jesus says it’s hard for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God, what could his conclusion have been? That those without any wealth to speak of may have an easier time of it? Instead to ask, “who then can be saved?” implies everyone he knows is in the same boat. And that boat is weighed down with riches.
I included a few different texts today because it’s important we notice how often the problem of wealth comes up in the gospel of Luke. And these are far from the only examples. In Luke 16, we also find a parable of a rich man who dresses to impress and feasts lavishly every day while a poor man named Lazarus lies at his gate, wracked with hunger. When the two die, the rich man is tormented in Hades and cries out for mercy in the form of even a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger, as Lazarus sits comfortably at the side of Abraham. In Luke 21, we find an indictment of rich people putting their gifts into the temple treasury – a tiny fraction of what they possess – while an impoverished widow contributes all she has to live on. Elsewhere Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:20, 24) And in yet another place he urges his disciples to “sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out… for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:33-34)
We can like or dislike what Jesus teaches about the liability of riches. But we can’t say he didn’t warn us: Be on your guard against greed. Life isn’t about an abundance of possessions. It’s hard for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
Hard, that is, but not impossible. For as we heard today, “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:27) And that third passage Reese read for us, the story of Zacchaeus, offers an example of how the wealthy can be saved.
I’d never noticed before how nicely his story contrasts with that of the rich ruler. To be fair, Jesus asks that other man to give away all he has; Zacchaeus only offers to share half. Still, where that gentleman grieved when Jesus told him to sell what he owned and give the proceeds to the poor, we find Zacchaeus hurrying to meet Jesus, welcome him to his house, and volunteer: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8) In response, Jesus says: “Salvation has come to this house… for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)
Last week we noted that the lost included individuals like the Gerasene demoniac, shackled and forced to live among the tombs. Today we learn that the lost don’t always appear that lost. In fact, they can look like they have it all. Take Zacchaeus for instance, chief tax collector, head man in what was already a lucrative profession. But it’s in giving away his wealth – freely, extravagantly, abundantly – that Zacchaeus moves from lost to found and claims his salvation. His wealth used to control him; now he uses it as a tool, a means to make right what he’d done wrong in being so selfish before.
I heard a new song about Zacchaeus recently that’s quickly become a favorite. Rather than focusing on his wee little stature like that Sunday School song I learned when I was little, this song zeroes in on his beautiful moment of salvation and offers us an invitation to find peace in a similar way. We’ll play it for you in a moment as I conclude the sermon and I invite you to listen for the way it highlights Zacchaeus offering reparation for the injustice he’s committed. Remember: Zacchaeus promised Jesus he’d give away not just what he’d stolen in his work as a tax collector, but four times as much – enough, presumably, to actually make a difference in the lives of those he returns it to. It seems to me there’s a life lesson here. All of us wondering what we can do to address the injustices we see around us, all of us concerned about our complicity in structures and systems that have oppressed others, let’s keep in mind that financial reparations can be an important piece of the puzzle. Even gifts made individually or as a household are a move in the right direction. Especially if we give not grudgingly but generously, abundantly, and because of the change God is working in our hearts.
Let’s be honest. Many of us on this Zoom call are more likely to have too many possessions taking up room in our closets and cupboards than we are to be struggling to survive. We’re more likely to worry about overindulging in food than we are to be dealing with food insecurity. And while we may not consider ourselves wealthy – it’s all too easy to reserve that term for those above us on the socioeconomic ladder –if we glance even for a minute in the opposite direction on that ladder, or for that matter around our city or around the globe, we’re reminded that we are wealthy indeed.
What will we do with our treasure? Will we build bigger barns like that foolish man in Jesus’ parable? Stuff our closets? Pack out our garages and storage units and bank accounts and max out our credit cards? Will we grab onto our possessions and not let go as if somehow that will save us? Or will we unclench our fists and open our hearts and know the joy and freedom that comes with great generosity? For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.
We can like or dislike what Jesus has to say about the liability of riches. We can act on his teachings, or not, as we choose. But we can’t say he wasn’t clear: Be on your guard against greed. Life isn’t about an abundance of possessions. It’s hard for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
Who then can be saved? With Jesus’ help, Zacchaeus shows us how it’s done.