What brings you joy? What makes you joyful?
Sunlight brings us joy, especially in January. Playing with a child or grandchild can bring joy. When your team wins the big game, it brings you joy. “What brings me joy?” is a good question to ask. Ask it of your soul, and wait quietly for an answer. Hold this thought while we look at the story of Zacchaeus.
Jesus went on into Jericho and was passing through. There was a chief tax collector there named Zacchaeus, who was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he was a little man and could not see Jesus because of the crowd. So he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, who was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to Zacchaeus, “Hurry down, Zacchaeus, because I must stay in your house today.” Zacchaeus hurried down and welcomed him with great joy. All the people who saw it started grumbling, “This man has gone as a guest to the home of a sinner!” Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Listen, sir! I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much.” Jesus said to him, “Salvation has come to this house today, for this man, also, is a descendant of Abraham. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
(Luke 19.1-10 GNT)
My wife and I were driving this week, and I mentioned preaching on Zacchaeus. On cue, we both began to sing his song. It’s hard to talk about him without singing the song. Join in with me, if you know it:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he
He climbed up in the sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see
And as the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree
And he said,
“Zacchaeus, come on down,
for I’m going to your house today,
for I’m going to your house today.”
Zacchaeus was not simply a tax collector. He was the chief tax collector. He was at the top of the pyramid. He had piles and piles of money. He heard that Jesus was coming by. Jesus was a celebrity, a rock star. Zacchaeus knew, as a short man, he’d not be able to see Jesus over the crowd, so he ran ahead and climbed a tree. Already he is doing two things out of character: in his day, powerful men didn’t run in public, and they didn’t climb trees. His planning pays off. He sees Jesus. If he had social media, he’d have snapped a picture and posted it on Instagram. “I saw Jesus! #prophet #excited”
But when you see, you can also be seen. Jesus sees him there in the tree. He stops and laughs. It’s ridiculous, if you think about it, this powerful man in a tree! Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner. Zacchaeus is thrilled, and everyone else is stunned.
Zacchaeus lived in the Roman world, and what a powerful man or woman in the Roman world wanted above all else was honestas — or honor, the respect of one’s social group. And for all of Zacchaeus’s money, he had no honestas, no honor at all. People despised him. So when Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’s home, he gave him the honor of showing hospitality to a great prophet. He raised Zacchaeus’s profile. He gave him honestas, perhaps for the first time.
Why did Jesus do this? Well, he certainly saw Zacchaeus as a lost sheep who needed to be brought back to the fold. That’s clear enough. But on a deeper level, he also saw Zacchaeus as a human being with intrinsic worth and value before God. Jesus believed all individuals had undeniable value simply because they were created in the image of God. This was not a widespread belief in the Roman world. Today, it seems commonplace to say that each person has unique value; what we don’t know is that we think this thought because Jesus introduced it into our consciousness.
No wonder Zacchaeus ‘hurried down’ (fell down?) from the tree and ‘welcomed him with great joy.’ Jesus had given him honor and shown him grace in a way that no one else had ever done. Zacchaeus was filled with joy.
His joy, later in the evening, gave rise to a radical generosity in his life. He publicly resolved to give away half of his wealth to the poor, and he pledged to repay generously anyone he had cheated. In Zacchaeus’s life, joy began to remake him from the inside out, and its first effect was to give birth to generosity.
He was followed by others. St Francis of Assisi gave away all of his wealth. John Wesley lived frugally so that he could give away most of his wealth. C.S. Lewis regularly gave away two-thirds of his income. There are many examples in history of such generosity. Even today, I know a man in Adrian whose goal in life is to become a reverse tither — to tithe is to give ten percent to church or charity; to reverse tithe is to live on ten percent and give away ninety percent.
If you look underneath these examples of generosity, you will find joy as the force and motive behind them. Joy sets us free from possessions, detaches us from them, so we can freely give them away. Joy remakes us — as it did Zacchaeus — and makes us generous.
Joy changes us in other ways too.
This week I came across a story about Margaret Feinberg. She is a popular Christian author and speaker. She speaks to 80,000 people a year, and her books have sold one million copies worldwide. Recently, though, she was diagnosed with cancer, and she had a double mastectomy — before the age of 40. She also began chemo and radiation, with all the ills that attend those treatments. At first she didn’t talk about her cancer struggle; she’d go off to a speaking engagement and then go home for chemo, keeping the two separate. But now she has begun to speak publicly about it. She has found joy to be an unexpected ally in her struggle with cancer:
“Joy is more than I ever thought or was taught… It’s a more dynamic, forceful weapon than we know. When we fight back with joy, we lean into the very presence of God — the one who fills us with joy, even on our most deflated days…I live in fear [of cancer returning], but I’m not controlled by fear. I’ve found a capacity for joy expanding against all odds.
As joy made Zacchaeus generous, so it has made Margaret Feinberg courageous. Joy changes us in these ways.
St Thomas Aquinas said, “We must dare to affirm that God is ecstatic with joy.” How can God not be joyful? We are filled with joy at the sight of a beautiful sunset — God beholds every beautiful sunset everywhere in the universe, all at the same time, plus all the other beautiful facets of creation. No wonder scripture says God rejoices in his works! God finds joy in us, too, as a part of that creation.
When we open our lives to God’s presence and influence, then God’s joy flows into us and begins to change us from the inside out. This is the ultimate answer to the question I asked at the beginning: what brings us joy? God brings us joy! And when God’s joy contaminates us, so to speak, it changes us in powerful ways. Joy makes us generous like Zacchaeus. Joy makes us courageous, like Margaret Feinberg. Joy makes us all these things and more. Joy works in us to reshape us into the new creation we were meant to be.
Come down from your tree. Open your heart and life to the joyful God. Then watch that joy change you from the inside out.