Pay It Forward

by | Oct 30, 2016

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:1-10


Our sons were in elementary school when the film Pay It Forward introduced a powerful concept into popular culture. It told the story of a young boy, Trevor McKinney, being raised by a single mother with a drinking problem. His social studies teacher gave the class the following assignment: to think of an idea to change the world for the better, then put it into action. Trevor’s idea was to do a good deed for three complete strangers, who, rather than paying him back, must pay it forward, by doing good deeds for three other people, thereby creating a kind of goodness pyramid scheme. Not only did he affect the life of his struggling single mother, he set in motion an unprecedented wave of human kindness which, unbeknownst to him, blossomed into a national phenomenon.


Pay it forward became a mantra in our house, so we could talk to our young sons about a way of living in the world that starts with the capacity to receive everyday blessings and small acts of kindness with gratitude, and then commit to passing those blessings and kindnesses along. Every once in awhile, when one or both of them realized how incredibly blessed they were, they understood the power of passing that blessing on, so others might know something of the goodness they had received.


We are all the benefactors of those who made generous, sacrificial decisions for our sake, not only in our immediate family and circle of community, but countless generations of people who imagined and created the very social structures we have the luxury of taking for granted, and criticizing if they no longer meet our standards.


In my own life, I am especially mindful of the times I have received forgiveness and  kindness when I least deserved it–when I had done something truly foolish or had made a terrible mistake. There have been many such times, and when someone responded not with anger, but in love, I have felt both overwhelmingly grateful and humbled. My capacity to be that kind of person has grown as a result, for when I’m mindful of all that I have received, I’m less interested in keeping track of who might or might not be worthy of my forgiveness or my gifts. I think about this when people talk about privilege in our society–how far can we fall and still be caught in the embrace of love and forgiveness?


Last summer I had a heart-to-heart conversation with a young man whose mother works at Washington National Cathedral on the housekeeping staff. Every day she cleans floors and bathrooms, empties the garbage, polishes brass. It’s hard work and it’s taking a toll on her health, but her eyes are fixed on her son and his future. He’s very bright, as she’s doing all she can to help him pay for his community college tuition. But last year three things happened at the same time: her husband lost his job, her hours were cut at the Cathedral, and her son’s tuition costs went up.


My husband and I offered to help out financially, something we can do now that our sons are out of college. But this is a proud family and the mother didn’t want charity. So we couched it in the form a scholarship for her son, given his intelligence and aptitude, as an investment in his future. The mother agreed, under those terms. But then her son, who had a rather inflated view of his capabilities, chose not to study very much that semester and his grades were terrible. In fact, at the last minute he dropped two classes, something he had to acknowledge not only to his mother, but to me.


So we sat down in my living room and talked. I had to say to him, “Look, we believe in you and want to help you get an education, but we’re not going to throw money away, if your heart’s not into it.” I saw a flash of panic in his eyes, as he realized the gravity of his mistake. I also saw, mirrored back to me, some of my own foolish mistakes, financial and otherwise, and that of our children. I thought of all the times I had been spared the consequences of my mistakes because of the kindness of another or because there was a buffer of protection around me that this young man, the son of a housekeeper, did not have. “Everyone makes mistakes,” I said him. “Let’s try again next semester. You’re an intelligent young man. Do your best.”  He took a deep breath. “Do you want me to pay you back for last semester’s tuition?” he asked. “Don’t pay me back,” I said to him. “Pay it forward. Get your grades up. And remember this moment when the time comes for you to give someone else a second chance.”


Jesus, you know, was a second-chance, pay-it-forward kind of guy. Time and again he said things like “Love others as I have loved you. Forgive as you have been forgiven. If you have been shown kindness or mercy, go and do likewise.” And in his presence, people felt his grace and love. It softened them, opened their hearts, and moved them to share that love with others.


Case in point: our hero for today, Zacchaeus, the tax collector who wanted to see Jesus. Keep in mind that this is but one of several stories of Jesus helping people to see, and that there are many forms of blindness in biblical narrative, as there are life, and many ways of having sight restored. In the verses just preceding those telling Zacchaeus’ story, we read of a blind beggar who, like Zacchaeus, hears that Jesus is passing by. He doesn’t climb a tree,  but rather yells out at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Against the disciples efforts to stop him, Jesus goes out of his way to speak to the blind man. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. The man responds, “Lord, let me see again.” In that moment, Jesus restores his sight, and the man responds with overwhelming joy that is contagious to those around him.


Zacchaeus, while not physically blind, had trouble seeing, not only because he was short, but also due to a moral impairment. You see, he was a chief tax collector, which means that he was at the top of a corrupt economic pyramid that encouraged tax collectors to extort money from the populace. We’re told that Zacchaeus was rich, which meant that he had stolen quite a bit, and the people around him knew it. Small wonder they grumbled when Jesus expressed kindness to him.  


But his moral impairment wasn’t the thing true about Zaccheus. Yes, he was despised and resented in this community for the harm he had done. But thinking of Zacchaeus, I’m reminded of something that the civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has said. Stevenson  works every day to spare convicted death row inmates from the death penalty and to correct the racial and socioeconomic disparities of our criminal justice system. When speaking about the people he defends, he says, “Every person is more than the worst thing that he or she has ever done. Just as you and I are all more than the worst thing we have done, a thief more than a thief and a murderer more than a murderer, and a politician is more than a politician. In God’s eyes, Zacchaeus was more than a tax collector. He was a child of Abraham. And he wanted to see Jesus.


Jesus saw him, just as he had heard the blind beggar, and he loved them both. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked the blind beggar. “Come down from that tree,” he said to Zacchaeus. “And come down from your position of unearned privilege. I must stay in your house today.”

It was a powerful moment of earned kindness, and it melted Zacchaeus’ heart. As a result, he pledged to pay it forward and backward, giving half of his wealth to the poor and paying back four-fold all that he had previously stolen.


That’s what the love of God can do. That’s what the love and forgiveness we offer one another can do. It can change our hearts and inspire us to share something of that unearned, amazing grace with another.


But first we need to know that love for ourselves. Do you? Do you know how much God loves you? Can you call to mind a moment when you were shown mercy, acceptance, and forgiveness when you least deserved it? It’s important to start there, because we cannot share what we ourselves have not received. And sometimes, truth be told, we don’t want to receive it.


In the final scene of the film, Pay It Forward, a journalist interviews young Trevor about his efforts to change the world for the better. Until the journalist had tracked him down, Trevor had no idea how far the deeds of kindness he initiated had spread. In the spheres that mattered most to him, it seemed as if his plan had failed. That’s probably true for most of us–we rarely see the impact of our efforts.


In the interview he pondered the fact that most people don’t want to make the effort to bring goodness in the world, and that they no longer believe they are capable of such goodness. “I think some people are too scared,” he said, “or something. I guess it’s hard for people who are so used to things the way they are–even if they’re bad–to change. ‘Cause they kind of give up. And when they do, everybody kind of loses.”


My word to you, good people of Trinity Church, Upper Marlboro: don’t give up. Don’t give up on other people. Don’t give up on our country. Don’t give up on yourselves. Never underestimate the power of love and forgiveness to change you, to change us all, to soften our hearts and renew our hope. Open yourselves to the grace and mercy of Jesus that none of us deserve but that he freely gives. Remind yourself everyday of the goodness and love you have known, the people who have gone the extra mile for you.