November 3, 2019 Communion 2 Thes 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
Hurried, Happy and Grateful!
Zacchaeus was a small, wealthy, busy man with a terrible job! He was a tax collector! As you know, tax collectors were a despised group of people. They collaborated with the enemy, the Romans and the way they were doing their business was shameless, ruthless and sometimes even brutal. No wonder the Jews who viewed them as sellouts, sinners and crooks hated them. And this little man was the worst of the worst! He was the chief tax collector!
This scoundrel wanted to see Jesus but he had to overcome an obstacle: his size! He was vertically-challenged. But he was determined to see this Jesus. He did a few unbecoming things for a wealthy man: he ran ahead, he climbed in a sycamore tree to see Jesus and after Jesus talked to him, he hurried down to welcome Jesus. In itself these were quite extraordinary. So why did he do this?
Luke does not give us any clear reasons but perhaps this terrible, despicable person realized that there had to be more in life than wealth, or perhaps he was just tired of being loathed by others. Maybe he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself, or maybe he knew that with Jesus new beginnings were possible. Maybe all of the above. Of course, there were those who were not happy that Jesus showed interest in Zacchaeus even a Zacchaeus himself was happy to welcome Jesus. There are many actions in this paragraph: he ran, he climbed, he hurried and he was happy!
However, there is more: This sinner, who was now in the presence of Jesus, almost in the blink of an eye, had a profound change of heart! He changed his behavior. He wanted, no he needed to make right with God and the ones he defrauded. He committed half of his possessions to the poor. He understood that making right with God implies doing something for the poor! And he was willing to give back four times to those whom he had defrauded! He became a brand-new man! In the presence of the Lord – have you noticed that this was how he addressed Jesus? – his life was transformed! And then Jesus responded with words that probably offended the Pharisees and Sadducees even more: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
An amazing story! You know this story but let me try to approach it from a different angle. Bear with me, you will see how everything fits in. This chief tax collector, after he experienced the unconditional love and acceptance of Christ was profoundly moved to change his ways! It was almost as if he saw a before and after picture of himself. And I would suggest that what was at the roots of his transformation, the reason why he changed his ways, was gratitude! He is an example of someone who once was lost but now he was found!
Recent research has taught us quite a bit about gratitude. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology recently published two articles on what was called the Grateful Disposition. The authors of these articles came to some fascinating conclusions. And their conclusions have relevance to our Chief tax collector- and to all of us!
Studies confirm that grateful individuals have a sense of abundance. They do not feel that they have been deprived in live. They feel that they have enough. The researchers observed that very wealthy or even extremely wealthy individuals do not necessarily have a sense of abundance. And they also observed that there are many people with rather limited resources who do have a sense of abundance. In other words, there are people who have a lot but don’t have a sense of abundance and there are people who don’t have that much who do.
What makes the difference? Gratitude! After reading this study I for the first time understand now why some billionaires would cheat on their tax-returns and why many middle class people would be extravagantly generous. Gratitude makes the difference! Grateful people have a sense of abundance! It is very possible that our Chief Tax-collector when he allowed Jesus in, wanted to give back way more than he had to- half of his possessions to the poor, and four times to those he has cheated even though the custom at the time was 20-25% because he was grateful. His sense of abundance was not linked to his wealth but to his perhaps newly discovered sense of gratitude!
Grateful people acknowledge the role of other people in their lives. Grateful people are quick to acknowledge that they cannot be who they are without others. They value friendship and they are good friends themselves. They appreciate the contribution of others to their wellbeing! They realize that without others they cannot truly be happy and fulfilled human beings. In other words, they know they need others and they understand that others need them! We here at church would say in this context, grateful people know they belong. Each one of knows that there is a place for us at CCRC. Young and old are accepted, respected and valued! We take this sense of belonging for granted but there are many people who don’t have this sense of belonging!
When Jesus entered his house, the chief tax-collector perhaps for the first time experienced the richness of being with a friend, with a neighbor, with another human being. There are certain things that even extreme wealth cannot buy. Fellowship, friendship and a sense of belonging! Grateful people know that they belong. And people who belong feel affirmed, esteemed and valued!
Grateful people appreciate simple things in life. The studies show that grateful people enjoy simple pleasures like good food, time with friends, good conversation, sharing and listening to others. I often hear that our people who form part of Table for 8 or who attend events like the 5km run/walk event or the Advent festival are just having a grand time being together. You see grateful people don’t need special, expensive and unique experiences to be happy and fulfilled. These studies pointed out that gratitude promotes happiness by enhancing one’s experience of positive events, Gratitude even prevents or mitigates depression! Happiness and gratitude operate in a virtuous cycle whereby gratitude enhances happiness and happiness enhances gratitude!
I feel sorry for people who can only find happiness in exceptional, superlative and extraordinary events. The fact is that grateful people see that the simple things in life count! The chief tax-Collector perhaps discovered this truth. The Bible does not say anything more than Jesus stayed with him. Nothing more. It does not say anything about a banquet or special food or entertainment!
Grateful people are oriented toward recognition of non-human forces that might contribute to their wellbeing in a broader more existential sense! Studies say that grateful people tend to be more spiritually inclined! Grateful people see positive life events that are not due to the actions of another person, like a beautiful sunset, pleasant weather, health, good friendship etc. as gifts from God. They have a worldview that everything they have is a gift, even life itself is a gift. And they have a sense that there is a power or Deity bigger than them. The fact that the tax collector called Jesus Lord is evidence of the spiritual aspect that became part of his life. He acknowledges Jesus as Lord, a common way of saying that Jesus is now master of his life!
This is actually an easy aspect for us to relate to. We have received so many gifts from God. Our faith makes it easy for us to live as grateful people for we are loved and accepted and redeemed by God through Christ. Our life is a sacrifice of gratitude for what God has done for us! That is why we are here, that is why we belong, that is why we live.
We don’t have time to discuss other traits of grateful people like them being humble, content, not judgmental, less narcissistic, well-adjusted, less anxious, lower levels of negative emotions, higher in agreeableness, greater willingness to forgive, willing to help others and less concerned with materialistic pursuits!
But there is one. More aspect that I want to point out. Grateful people give back. They don’t hold onto things as if things give meaning to their life. They view what they have received as undeserved favor and good will and therefor they are able give back. The give back financially but they give more. They give themselves in ministry to others.
We are a grateful congregation consisting of grateful and generous people! We have received so much. That is why we give back. The Apostle Paul when he wrote to the congregation in Thessalonica writes: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” He goes on to talk about their steadfastness and faith during all their persecutions and the afflictions. You see, grateful and faithful people are always mindful of the wellbeing of others. They are generous, they know that they are part of a greater human family! Amen!