The Give Away

This week I am writing an icon of St. Homobonus, a 12th Century Italian cloth merchant whose calling was to earn a lot of money so that he had the resources to give to those in need.  He reminds me of Zacchaeus, the little man who climbed up into a tree to see Jesus.  We ponder his story today.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector, a despised outcast because his profession aligned him with the foreigners occupying his country.  Besides being servants of the enemy, tax collectors were known swindlers, and he was no exception.

His conversion to the Way of Jesus brought about a change in his wealth-acquiring practices.  He resolved to give half of his earnings to the needy and to repay anyone he had ever cheated four times over.

We don’t know what happened to Zacchaeus after that.  The story about St. Homobonus, though, is that the more money he gave away the richer he became.  I imagine he was a real blessing to his community, a constant and uncomplaining source of aid for all those who were in need.

I’d like to think of Zacchaeus in the same way – perpetually giving away half of his wealth, a blessing to his community and a source of succor for anyone in need.  I imagine him with an overflowing generosity.  As someone who was never quite accepted by either the Hebrews or the Romans, I imagine he didn’t have many friends.  But I imagine him happy.

Jesus talks about money as being like a master that demands our total devotion, a master in opposition to God.  “You cannot serve two masters,” he tells us.  And yet both Zacchaeus and St. Homobonus seem to have won his approval for what they resolved to do with their wealth.  Neither of them served money as a master, though both of them were blessed with a lot of it.

In 21st Century America, having a lot of money is equated in a knee-jerk kind of way with having power, having happiness, and having freedom. We know that people with money get a lot of attention; others jump when they make a request.  We imagine that they are able to travel to exotic places and have wonderful experiences.  And they can hire people to put them above such mundane civic obligations as paying taxes and obeying the law.  By the same token, being poor terrifies us.  We imagine being unable to pay our bills and meet our other obligations.  Poor people are looked down on, ignored, and despised.

These are the attitudes that lead to serving money as a master greater than God.  We believe we can’t let what we have slip away.  That would be foolish, stupid (another judgment we reserve for the poor).

St. Homobonus, and hopefully Zacchaeus, show us the road to having wealth, but not serving it.  It is the Give Away.  In this season of stewardship campaigns and of all the charities that reach out for donations, this path is a good one to remember.  Why do we have money, anyway, if not to give it away to those who need it?  Why are we rich if not to lift up those who are poor?
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