Zaccheus (Luke 19) reflects something the church appears to desire from a giver. "I will give half of my possessions to the poor." If Christians are looking for a non-deity example of a giver, Zaccheus makes a top ten list.
Is half of anyone's possessions truly desired? Even by the poor? A good friend of mine was serving in a congregation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana during the time of Hurricane Katrina. What blew his mind was how many people used Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to unload the accumulated junk from their basements, garages and storage units. He was apoplectic at the lack of discretion in donation: "Stop sending us your s***! People devastated by Katrina don't need any of it." He told me that it took volunteers months before they could sort through everything, and a majority of the items were unfit on many levels: caked with mold, coated with cobwebs, rendered useless with cracks. A few months after Katrina, I saw it myself, churches and other service agencies with spray-painted plywood signs: "No Donations." "No Clothing Donations." "Please, no more donations." My friend told me that for weeks, used (not gently) items were left piled high by the church entrance each morning. His congregation eventually put up a sign turning away donations. There's more to giving to the poor than making the poor one's own personal dump.
Does Zaccheus have a lot of stuff, or merely money? Which half of his possessions would he give to the poor: the stuff he doesn't want, the best stuff, or somewhere in between? Luke 19 doesn't give the answers to these questions, so I'm not exactly certain this story is about Zaccheus' ability as a giver. What I came to notice was the response in observance of Jesus squatting at Zaccheus' house. Typical to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus draws critique for hanging out with tax collectors and other kinds of sinners. Zaccheus appears to be an honest tax collector and takes pride in his work. If this is not the case, then Zaccheus will drive himself to poverty if he has to follow through with his proclamation: if he has been a fraudulent tax collector, then he will return the money and quadruple it. Zaccheus is either grandstanding or setting an ethical standard. I'm going with the latter.
Zaccheus reflects an opportunity that all human beings have through their work--to reflect grace given in Jesus Christ. Zaccheus receives grace in that Jesus breaks through a social stigma to show grace to Zaccheus, one who is reviled in the culture. I'm not certain that Zaccheus is generous (though it's possible). I am certain that Zaccheus' work is valued as an opportunity to bear the grace of God and that he sees his work as vocation--a calling. We don't know from the text about whom Jesus speaks in reference to the "lost (v.10)." Jesus doesn't ask Zaccheus to quit his job, but Jesus' grace has inspired Zaccheus to embrace his vocation by giving to the poor and striving for a higher level of vocational ethics. Maybe the "lost" in this story are the grumblers about Jesus' association with tax collectors--people who have a narrow view about what kind of work is holy. There have always been fraudulent tax collectors, but that does not mean that tax collection is inherently evil. An important teaching of the Jesus/Zaccheus story is that all work presents an opportunity for followers of Jesus to live out their faith through what they spend most of their waking hours doing.