I recently played a little game online called Consumer Consequences, which seeks to illustrate the impact of Western lifestyles upon the Earth. I entered my family’s annual income and was informed that, believe it or not, I am one of the wealthiest people in the world! Of course, my first thought was: I certainly don’t feel rich! I mean, where’s my mansion? At the same time, I was reminded me that, to a certain degree, wealth and riches are relative. For instance, Forbes magazine annually prints a list of the wealthiest zip codes in the USA. Out of curiosity, I looked it up, and the zips codes listed were, well, the usual suspects: Palm Beach, Beverly Hills, Silicon Valley, the Hamptons, and places like that. In case you’re wondering, Greenbelt didn’t make the list. But relative to the majority of the human race who live in developing nations, Greenbelt is filled with rich people just like me- some of the richest people in the world.
This is something to keep in mind as we reflect on today’s gospel reading about a rich man, Zacchaeus. In Luke’s gospel, Zacchaeus’ story follows the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he needed to do "inherit eternal life." When Jesus told him to give away his riches to the poor, he became sad. When Jesus told him that it’s hard for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, the people around them became confused and scared, because they thought that the rich young man was a righteous and godly person.
No one, however, thought that Zacchaeus was righteous or godly. Because he was a tax collector, people called him a "sinner." Nevertheless, it was to Zacchaeus, and not the rich young man, that Jesus said salvation had come to his house. In Jesus’ eyes, Zacchaeus was the righteous one. Why the difference? It has to do with what they did with their riches. The rich young man, in spite of all his virtue, was unwilling to share with the poor. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, announced to Jesus that he would gladly give away half his possessions to the poor, and he promised to repay four times over anyone he may have cheated. In short, when it came to his riches, Zacchaeus gave, and he did justice. Because of this, Zaccheaus is a model for how God wishes us to use our riches.
First of all, Zacchaeus shows us that generous giving is the hallmark of a faithful Christian. Mother Teresa was once reminded of this when she heard someone ask a Hindu man the question, "What is a Christian?" "A Christian," he replied, "is someone who gives." Do we give? I’m sure we all give something. For instance, I once read that Britney Spears gives to charity $500 a month out of her $737,000 monthly income. But do we give away enough that it becomes a defining characteristic of who we are? Do people see Christ reflected in the way we give? Do others look at us- at me- and think: "Scott must certainly be a Christian, because of the way he gives!" Zacchaeus gave away half of what he had, but he was extremely wealthy. Some of us may choose as a goal to give away ten percent of our income. Others may need to do less. It depends on our circumstances. But as Christians, our giving, regardless of the amount, should represent commitment and generosity. What we give should never be our leftovers, or an afterthought.
Generous, committed giving is a way we can express our gratitude to God for our blessings, because everything we have ultimately comes from his hand. By giving back, we’re simply placing at God’s disposal some of that which God has given to us. Committed giving is also a great way to resist the temptations of materialism and consumerism, because it necessitates that we get our financial priorities straight. Finally, giving is a way we can help those who have so much less than we do, like the more than three billion people- half the world’s population- who subsist on less than two dollars a day.
The fact that so many people have so little to live on is a grave injustice that our Lord wants us to address. You’ll recall that Zacchaeus did justice with his riches by repaying anyone he defrauded. For our part, we may not have directly defrauded anyone. But the fact that we have so much compared with the majority of the human race is a form of injustice, because the Lord intends that our earth’s resources be for the benefit of everyone, not just a wealthy few. That’s why the Church speaks of our need to work for a just distribution of the world’s goods. We can do this by living more simply so that others may simply live. And as faithful citizens, we can encourage our nation’s leaders to address the world’s inequities with courage and determination, by forgiving foreign debts and providing more foreign aid. It’s true that the United States does provide a great deal of foreign aid. Yet it ranks last among twenty-one donor nations when its official assistance to poor countries is measured as a percentage of income.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed that an additional $50 billion dollars in annual aid by donor nations would, within 15 years, cut world poverty in half, reduce child mortality by two thirds, and guarantee a primary education for every child. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen. But it wouldn’t hurt to try. Because the US’s share, a mere $13 billion, represents just seven cents a day per American citizen.
Zacchaeus the rich man shows us, who live in a rich nation, what we can do with our riches. All of us- rich or not- can give to the poor with commitment and generosity. And we can challenge our rich nation to do the same. Because as Jesus told Zacchaeus, giving is the way to salvation.