Zacchaeus is a household name for most Christians, thanks to the annoyingly catchy Sunday School jingle. Sadly, most of us don’t know much about Zacchaeus except that he was a wee, little man—or, in the modern vernacular, “vertically challenged”—who knew how to climb trees.
But Zacchaeus’ story is an incredible picture of gospel-motivated generosity. In Zacchaeus, we see a stingy, fiscally corrupt man become one of the most generous people in the entire Bible. Zacchaeus teaches us three critical truths about our money:
1. Money problems usually come from money idolatry.
Idolatry describes the posture of our heart when it craves, depends on, and demands something other than God. “Without this,” idolatry says, “I could never be happy.”
Zacchaeus worshipped money as the greatest thing life had to offer, so he was willing to steal, lie, and hurt his own people because he loved money more than anything. No one sells out his own people naturally: for Zacchaeus to have become the corrupt “chief tax collector” that he was, money must have had a tenacious grip on his heart.
We may not idolize wealth as flagrantly as Zacchaeus did, but the love of money still leads us to all kinds of evil. For many people, that means cheating on their taxes, or hedging on their time cards. It means overspending, and going into massive debt to acquire a standard of living they have just got to have. It means being eaten up with jealousy when they see other people with something they cannot afford themselves. It means refusing to be generous, telling God that his dominion doesn’t extend over our wallets.
As Chip Ingram notes, a biblical vision concerning money is to be smart, wise, and generous. Smart—spend carefully. Wise—save regularly. Generous—give extravagantly. Or, as one of our staff members says, “Steward the temporal with gratitude. Invest in the eternal with abandon.”
But a heart worshipping money will never see things this way. That leads to number two:
2. Only an experience with the gospel changes our heart’s attitude toward money.
Zacchaeus didn’t become generous because Jesus commanded him to. (Go ahead, read through Luke 19:1–10. The only command in there is, “Come down from that tree!”) No, he became generous because he wanted to. Zacchaeus didn’t sit through a sermon on generosity; he soaked in the grace of Jesus, and that did more than 10,000 sermons on generosity ever could.
Zacchaeus deserved to be rejected, yet Jesus invited him into the warmth of fellowship, sharing a meal with him. Zacchaeus climbed a tree because he was despised. But Jesus would die, hanging up on a tree, cursed and despised for all mankind. Jesus traded places with Zacchaeus—so Zacchaeus got the joy, while Jesus got the pain.
We should all see our story in Zacchaeus’ story. We deserve to be rejected by God for our sin, but God invites us into fellowship with him. Jesus offers to take our place on the tree, offering his joy in exchange for our pain.
Just a glimpse of that turned Zacchaeus into the most generous man in the New Testament. How much more should we, who know the full extent of Jesus’ grace toward us, change in light of that grace? Zacchaeus got the crumbs, but we get the whole feast!
The only way our stingy, wee, little, fearful hearts will change is by looking at the cross. And when that happens, we will begin to be generous—without a single command.
3. People who ask, “How much do I have to give?” don’t get it.
I am often asked how much Christians should give. Some who ask this are looking for wisdom, but many are looking for an out. They want to know how much is enough to get God off their backs, to fulfill their duty. And that attitude is miles away from the gospel.
Gospel giving is about love, not law. It’s not about percentages, but about a person. Zacchaeus throws out some numbers, but not because Jesus gives him the benchmark first. He does it out of sheer joy, as a love offering to God.
A lot of people who ask, “How much do I have to give?” labor under the delusion that God needs their money. In their minds, God is like the government, endlessly low on funds and constantly seeking more funding. But God doesn’t need our cash.
That’s why 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that God loves a cheerful giver. If God had needs, he wouldn’t care why you gave; he would only care that you gave. I’ve never gotten a letter from the IRS saying, “Yes, you paid the legal amount, but we sense that it wasn’t joyful giving. We’re concerned about your motives.” No, the IRS needs money, so that’s their bottom line.
But (thankfully) God isn’t like the IRS. God loves cheerful giving because gospel giving is primarily about worship and joy, not meeting needs. I have heard it said that God measures our generosity not by the size of our gifts, but by the size of our sacrifice, because sacrifice expresses the affections of our heart to God.
And if we find ourselves growing stingy and fearful once again, the answer is not to try harder. The answer is to look back at the cross, where God was lavishly generous with us. Because those people who truly experience the gospel become like the gospel—overflowing with grace.
For more, see chapter 4 (“Changed without a Command”) of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.
 Chip Ingram, The Genius of Generosity, 15.