[This message was proclaimed by Pastor Laura and me at Perinton Presbyterian on August 29, 2021. The text is Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus. With Laura’s permission, I post our manuscript here. It can be watched on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page.]
Laura: This passage makes me wonder about what experiences in his life had led Zacchaeus down this path. This is the only time we meet him in the gospels, so we don’t know anything more about what’s led him to be a tax collector, someone known for dishonesty and taking unfair advantage of other people. I’m curious about his parents, and what they taught him—or didn’t teach him—about money.
Was Zacchaeus’ dad a tax-collector too, and he just took up the family trade? Was he a pickpocket as a child, with tax collecting a more socially acceptable form of theft? Or did he grow up in such desperate poverty that he was determined to lead a different kind of life no matter what?
We don’t know what formed Zacchaeus, and his attitudes toward money, but we do know that our own understanding of money is profoundly shaped by what we learn growing up—whether that’s a positive example from our parents, or a negative one, or a bit of both.
Harry: I really like Zacchaeus. His response to Jesus changed his financial practices, which is how it should be. As a pastor, I observe giving patterns for American Christians. It seems to me that Americans have a love affair with money. The per capita income in the US was about $35,000 last year. The average annual giving for the 247 million Americans that identify as Christians was $884. That means self-identified American Christians give about 2.5% of their income. Only 5% of those self-identified Christians give the biblical tithe. If every self-identified Christian in our country tithed, churches would have an additional $139 billion to use in mission. In the town of Perinton, the average per capita income in 2019 was above the national average, over $45,000. The average income per household was just shy of $90,000.
We need to hear about Zacchaeus who, when he was encountered by God’s grace in Jesus, responded in overflowing generosity. Salvation wasn’t just about his soul, but his whole being and his resources. Salvation isn’t just about our souls, but about all that we are and all that we have. It’s not just about getting us to heaven, but about living right here and now.
Laura: There was one particular experience for me growing up that shaped the way I think about giving. My dad had strong connections with Korean Presbyterians in the US and our family would often worship on Sunday mornings at our neighborhood church, then go to one of several Korean churches in the area.
At our neighborhood church—which was mostly white—I was used to my mom handing me a dollar as the offering time began, and putting it into the plate with one hand, while I passed the plate to the next person with the other hand.
But my dad said that, when we were in Korean church, I had to be very careful not to do that. He explained that in Korean culture, handing something to someone with one hand is considered disrespectful, as though it is a kind of throwaway, you don’t care about it, or the person you’re giving it to. The proper way to make a gift in Korean culture is with two hands. And so, when the offering plate came down our row, I was to hold the offering with two hands, place it into the plate, and only then take the plate to hold for the next person to do the same.
This image of giving with both hands has stayed with me, as a profound way to think about generosity. Spiritually we can approach giving as something we do with one hand—meaning in a kind of careless, this doesn’t really matter that much sort of way—or we can give with both hands, meaning that we give with an attitude that says, this is a precious and valuable gift from my heart. In my own life, I want to be someone who gives with both hands.
Harry: My earliest earnings were from mowing lawns and delivering newspapers from my bike. All through high school and college I had jobs. I was able to buy my first car, a two door 55 Chevy BelAir while still in high school. But was that money really mine to do with as I pleased?
My parents never talked much about money in the home. My dad was a carpenter and my mom was a homemaker and weekend waitress at a local Italian restaurant. My parents taught me that work was good. My parents were generous in helping people in need, without talking about it much. I could see their example. My mother gave me one warning about tithing that I remember still. She was concerned that tithing could become legalistic. She was right. I never want to give in legalistic ways.
Laura: There was another moment for me that shaped my journey with generosity. When my husband Mike and I were newly married, he was finishing up seminary in Chicago and I was working about 5 part-time jobs to help make ends meet. But the ends just weren’t meeting, and we were really stressed about money. We didn’t have enough, and we didn’t know what we were going to do.
One night we were talking about it, and about how worried we were, and then Mike said, “You know Laura, we’re not really giving to the church. We’re doing a little bit here and there, a dollar or five dollars, but we’re not giving with any real kind of purpose. We haven’t been prioritizing it.
I didn’t like hearing that. I was stressed out enough about money and I didn’t need to feel guilty about not giving. And I let him know it. But then, very quickly, I began to realize he was absolutely right.
We had both been raised to give to the church, to give whole-heartedly, with intentionality and purpose. But so far as adults we were giving with one hand, and I realized that’s not who I wanted to be. And that’s not who Mike and I want to be as a couple.
So we decided that night, that before we paid the bills, before we bought our groceries, we would give 10% of what we earned to our church. And then we’d figure out the rest.
I’m not going to tell you that all of a sudden everything was fine for us financially—we were still struggling, but we had an entirely different attitude and outlook. All of a sudden we had this sense of integrity, and generosity, and trust in our lives that we hadn’t had before.
When we gave first, it made us look more carefully at all our other expenses, and reorder things. Our whole attitude toward money had changed, because we had started giving with both hands.
That practice, that discipline of giving first, rather than last, has been a bedrock principle for us in our marriage. Mike and I became committed to tithing, meaning that we give 10% of our income to the churches that we serve first, and then figure the rest out. Tithing means we give some other things up, but it’s absolutely worth it.
It’s partially a matter of integrity, in that I have to lead as a pastor by doing what I am teaching and preaching to others, and it’s also about our own spiritual lives as Christians, and choosing to give with both hands, to put generosity and trusting God first, so that all our other financial decisions flow down from that.
Harry: I really like Zacchaeus. When I became a pastor, I faced the challenge of how to talk about financial giving. How much should I say? One thing I knew: I couldn’t talk about my wife’s and my giving without her approval. She gave it and probably said, “Keep it brief and be honest. Guilt doesn’t work.” Her parents had taught her to tithe. Her parents never made much money, but they were generous givers, always giving more than the tithe. Rachel and I had both learned about generosity from our parents, so we would pass that forward.
I tithe. My wife and I give at least 10% of our earnings to the work of the church, local and global. Pastors tend not to get overpaid, yet pastors are usually among the highest givers in congregations. We tithe not to impress God or anyone else and not to earn God’s favor. We don’t tithe so that God will have to do good things for us. We tithe because we have been so richly blessed by God and we want to be faithful and generous. Generous giving is a spiritual discipline for all followers of Jesus.
I shared that story annually in Brunswick Church and we saw the congregation’s giving increase regularly and significantly. I found that people needed encouragement and positive testimonies. And I always gave this caution. Tithing should never be legalistic. If you’re tithing regularly, make sure to find ways to give over and above, at least on occasion. God has shared with us abundantly. Let’s respond with generosity—and occasionally with extravagance. Like Zacchaeus.
Laura: Ultimately this conversation that we’ve been having today with the Biblical story of Zacchaeus, with one another, and with all of you, is a conversation that it’s vitally important for each of us to have with God and the other people we’re close to.
God calls each of us to respond with generosity to his abundance and extravagance. To deepen our own personal commitment to giving first, rather than last, and letting the other priorities flow down from the starting point of generosity and trust.
Like my dad, who gently and clearly taught me to give with both hands, God gently and clearly teaches us, his children, to do the same. To learn to give with both hands. Whole heartedly honoring his generosity to us. It’s how we’re called to live. And it’s how we’re called to give. Amen.