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"Take This Personally"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 25, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Luke 16:19-31

When someone criticizes you, does it ever feel like a personal attack? I'm asking because recently someone in my family told me that I've been hiding out in our basement a lot lately, and it feels like a personal attack. And I start to justify myself in my mind. I say to myself, I'm in the basement because that's my home office and I'm doing important work down there. But just between you and me, my work hours have been getting a little out of control, spilling over into the agreed-upon-at-home-with-family hours. I have been in the basement a lot, but when someone close to me who cares for me, points this out to me, my neck and shoulders tighten up, my heart starts hammering in my chest, fight or flight synapses fire off in my brain, and I can't help but feel that it's a personal attack.

Why? Why do I take it as an attack on my person? A criticism can be many things; it doesn't have to be an attack. It can be a caring warning. For example, one morning, I'm lying there half awake, listening to the rain, hammering on the roof over my head, an unscheduled alarm from my phone jolts me out of bed. I stumble over to see what's the matter. The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood emergency warning. This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation, it says; do not attempt to travel. Implicitly criticizing any plans I had for going out that morning. And I don't take that criticism as an attack on my person and my plans. I don't take it personally because that warning isn't so much about me as it is about the structure of the reality around me. It's a warning about that reality sent with care to keep me from harm.

So why don't I take the comment about me hiding out in the basement in the same light? Because in some ways it also is a warning concerning the structure of the reality around me sent with care to keep me from harm, because there are real dangers associated with hiding out in your basement. A long-term study of 10,000 seniors at Yale University showed that people who tended to hide out in their rooms and avoid social contact with others were twice as likely to be dead within five years as compared to those who had several close friendships and relationships. There are relational realities in which you and I are swept up like cars in a flash flood. You know this, I know this, but when this truth comes downstairs to me in my basement lair, in the personal presence of someone who cares, I take it personally.

That's because I know it's not a general public service announcement; it's not a documentary on the epidemic of isolation and post-modern society. The truth is targeted at me personally. And if you, in any way, can relate to how this feels, then you know what it felt like to be a religious insider in close proximity to Jesus of Nazareth. The ancient Jewish insider group known as the Pharisees was probably closest to Jesus in terms of their views about God and the world. Jesus and the Pharisees both deeply respect the Jewish Bible: the account of God's promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham and his family as recorded in the books of Moses and in the prophets. Jesus and the Pharisees both believe that Israel, Abraham's family, had turned away from God. Jesus and the Pharisees both hoped for life after death.

As well as life after the great Day of the Lord, the forthcoming day in history, when the promises would be fulfilled, when the dead would rise in their bodies and stand before God for judgment, Jesus and the Pharisees are very close on many things, but Jesus also warns them. He criticizes them because they are swept up in the flash flood of God's kingdom, locked in the basement of their own puffed-up opinions. Jesus criticized them. He said, you all are those who are justifying yourselves before people, but God knows your hearts. Those words of Jesus are recorded in chapter 16 of the Gospel according to Luke, one of the ancient biographies of Jesus. In this chapter and the prior ones, several exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees are recorded.

The argument starts because they're upset that Jesus is having dinner with sinners, dirty people, shameful people, and then they ridicule Jesus for His views on money because He doesn't grasp the power of wealth and social status like they do. So in response, Jesus tells them stories—stories He's invented, stories meant to accuse, to cajole, to criticize, stories He tells to invite them out of their love of money and power and into life with God, with Him. First, Jesus tells this grumbling gaggle of religious insiders a story about a grumpy older brother who refuses to celebrate with his father, even though his long-lost-thought-to-be-dead younger brother came home.

Jesus tells them, hoping that they'll grasp the point—and His invitation to them. And when they don't, they get another story. One about a foolish worker who grasps the error of his ways after it's too late, but then makes a last-minute desperate effort to put things right, throwing himself on the mercy of his master, and Jesus tells this one implicitly urging them to do the same. And when they persist in dressing themselves up in self-justifying opinions with their love of money and status and power, Jesus tells them this story:

There was a certain man who was rich, who used to dress himself in purple clothing and fine linen and feasted day after day in luxury. But, at his doorstep, in his gateway, there was thrown a poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores who longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man's table. But instead, the dogs, as they came used to lick his sores. And it happened, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades, he lifted up his eyes being in torment and he sees Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side, and he called out and said, "Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue because I am in agony here in this fire."

And Abraham said, "Child, remember how you and your life received your good things and Lazarus, likewise, received bad things. But now here he is being comforted, and you are in anguish. Besides all this, between you all and us, a great chasm has been fixed so that those who would wish to cross from here to you are not able and neither can anyone cross from there to us. So he said, "Then I beg you father, send him to my father's household because I have five brothers and let him testify to them so that they also do not come to this place of torment." And Abraham says, "They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them." But he said to him, "No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, then they will repent. They will turn back to God." But Abraham said, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead," Jesus said as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.

And when you hear it, you can imagine how the Pharisees are feeling, neck and shoulders tightening up heart, hammering, blood pressure rising, fight or flight synapses firing off in their brains. It's no surprise that they felt attacked and that they with other religious insiders started conspiring to have Jesus crucified. They understood the point of His parable. They knew it was targeted at them. This wasn't some off-the-wall documentary on the afterlife; this was personal. And there were plenty of off-the-wall stories in the ancient world about life after death, details on the seating arrangements and the assignments in Hades, the realm of the dead. These often-satirical stories from ancient Egypt and Rome and Greece depicted death as a great reversal of fortune: the ultimate turning of tables. Death was pictured as the leveler of rich and poor. Those who had their best life now would suffer most in death it was said, because you can't take it with you. But death for the poor would be a relief like a long nap after a bad day at work.

Other ancient stories depict death not so much as a leveler, but as a compensator, as a punisher. In the great beyond, there would be a division. There would be rewards for virtue and retribution for vice; there would be payback, heinously devised punishments, which ancient authors were not bashful to depict in gruesome detail. You see people, ancient and modern have always had an inborn sense that this life isn't all there is, that our actions will eventually catch up to us. And death is not the escape that some people hope that it will be. Jesus' story to these religious insiders interacts with these beliefs, but He makes an entirely different point. Make no mistake: Jesus' story does tell us that this life matters. It warns us that what we say and what we do has eternal consequences, that there will be a final judgment. There will be a final division between those who are right with God and those who are not. But what's striking about Jesus' story is the cause of that division. Listening, He says, is what matters—listening to Moses and the prophets, hearing them or not. That's the source of the division.

And when you listen to Moses and the prophets, you hear that death isn't just a leveler or a compensator, death is a revealer. Death reveals a long-lost, thought-to-be-dead relationship. The opening of Genesis, the first book of Moses, tells the story of how death came into the world. Death came because humankind broke faith with God. Death is not our most-pressing concern. Death is only a symptom of a deeper problem, a problem of not listening to God's Word to His promises, not trusting Him, not walking with Him and talking with Him, not wanting to know Him. Jesus came to undo death by dealing with the problem at its source. He came to confirm what Moses and the prophets had already made known that God is relational to the core. God and His Word and His Spirit in eternal union created and structured reality relationally, and we are all swept up in it.

If you hide out in the basement of your own cherished opinions, if you turn away from God and the people He loves, death and hell will only reveal what was already there: self-chosen exclusion from God's open invitation. Jesus' story isn't a distant documentary about the afterlife, it's personal. It's a warning sent with care to keep you from harm. Turn back to God before it's too late. Author Nikos Kazantzakis in his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, takes creative license when he retells the life of Jesus. Okay, that's putting it nicely. He actually distorts the ancient accounts in the Bible. The novel imagines Jesus telling this parable, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in a totally different context with a totally different ending. Instead of hearing Jesus' story told for religious insiders in the height of their pride, the novel asks us to imagine Jesus telling this story to a humbled irreligious rich man in the depths of a midlife crisis.

And in the novel version, when the Jesus character gets to the part about the rich man being in eternal torment, someone says to Jesus, "Rabbi, how many times have you instructed us to forgive our enemies? But now with this man in hell, is God unable to forgive?" And so the imaginary Jesus changes his mind and says, you're right, the parable cannot stand as it is; it must have a different ending. And then we're asked to imagine Lazarus praying for the rich man and God hearing his prayer and sending Lazarus to go and fetch the poor rich man. "Bring him here, he says, "so that he may drink and refresh himself for all eternity."

And part of me with my self-justifying, modern sensibility likes that ending better. But then I see what the novel is trying to do. It's trying to comfort me with an imaginary Jesus who gives away forgiveness like free tickets to a circus, without relationship, without trust, without repentance. It would have me imagine God like a wealthy, absent father, who tries to spoil me with happiness, delivered from an emotional distance, without coming downstairs to talk to me, without mentoring me, without caring for me enough to keep inviting me into the one thing that will truly make me happy forever: a relationship with Him. The novel tries to comfort us with an idea about God, but not the living God. It offers the lonely comfort of a family without family members, an adoption without parents, a marriage without a spouse, forgiveness without a relationship. But Jesus, the actual historical Son of God, Jesus does something totally different.

He tells the story as a warning: a warning sent with care to keep us from harm. And even when we would send Jesus off to be crucified there on the cross, stepped around and ignored like a dirty man eaten up with sores, thrown on our doorstep, there He will be praying for our forgiveness, and not just forgiveness, but for fulfillment—fulfillment of the story Moses and the prophets have been telling us all along, not only of God dying to forgive us, but God living to be with us. And when Jesus rose again, He crossed the chasm into your self-exclusion and mine to bring us up to God with Him. Everything Jesus has done, everything He is doing leads to this so that you and I would keep turning back to God. All His stories are for this single purpose, including the one about the rich man in Lazarus.

It doesn't answer my questions about what happens after death, what it will be like, and what about the people who didn't have more chances to hear about Jesus? What about the people who may have died without ever hearing? I give these questions to Jesus. He doesn't give me answers, but he gives me something better. Neither a general public service announcement nor a personal attack, but a promise, a caring warning, a loving invitation He brings even into the basement of my opinion so that I'll come up with Him and join the family. And that you would come, too. Please pray with me: Dear Father, by Your personal Words spoken through Moses and the prophets and most especially through Your Son, Jesus Christ, I know the height and the depth of Your loving care. So help me to use the good things that You've given me in this life to help my neighbor in need. And when bad things come to me in life, help me cast all my care upon You. Through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for September 25, 2022

Title: Take This Personally

Mark Eischer: Now we're back with our Speaker, Dr. Mike Zeigler, and thinking about today's message, I'm wondering how much of our teaching on heaven and hell is based on this story and its imagery.

Mike Zeigler: Hmm. I would say not a lot.

Mark Eischer: Okay.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah. Not a lot. We just have so many other passages of Scripture that teach us about the final judgment and that final division between people. So there's going to be a division between those who have trusted in Jesus and have received His gift of life and have life in His name, abundantly and forever. And then there are people who reject Him and His gift and will suffer the consequences of that rejection. So, for example, in John 5:28-29, Jesus says an hour is coming when those who are in the tombs, the dead, will hear His voice and come out of their tombs. Those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. The point is not instruction about the geography of the afterlife or hypothetical conversations that might happen there. It's a warning about the trajectory of your life, of my life. It's either one of two options: it's either toward God and His gifts and His promises or away from Him.

Mark Eischer: Whether you're following God's purpose or not, it's a warning that makes us stop and then consider—in which direction are we going?

Mike Zeigler: How am I using my life? Where am I ultimately headed? This is important, because if you're following Jesus' teaching in Luke 16, He starts with that story we talked about last week, of the unjust manager. He got a wake-up call, and he turned it around, it seemed. This is a story about the time is coming when there's no more time left, and this guy realizes too late.

Mark Eischer: Did the rich man's wealth have anything to do with him being in hell?

Mike Zeigler: Maybe. It definitely appears that his wealth gave him a false sense of security, a false confidence. Also, that false faith in his wealth hardened his heart toward his neighbor, towards this guy who's on his doorstep suffering. So the wealth definitely has something to do with it, but there's a bigger question behind that question, and it's what is it that puts us in a right relationship with God? Mark, you've read the book of Romans. What's the answer?

Mark Eischer: Trust in God's promises that gets credited to us as righteousness.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah. So it's neither the money or the lack of money that puts us in the right with God; it is trust in His promises and His grace, and what He's done for us and how He brings us to that trust in Him through His Word, through Jesus.

Mark Eischer: So faith is where God wants to start with us?

Mike Zeigler: Exactly. He wants to start there, but not finish. The work begins with faith, to turn us away from that false faith in "mammon," as Jesus calls it in some translations, in our wealth. Remember, He said before you can't serve both God and mammon. You can't serve one. You'll either hate the one or love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. So He wants to call us towards singular faith in Him and then that changes how we see money. Faith does something in us.

Mark Eischer: It'll change the way we view wealth, what its purpose is.

Mike Zeigler: Exactly. So for you, maybe that change is, if you have very little wealth, maybe it's simply the good work that faith is doing in you is to be content with what God has given you and to be grateful for it, to give thanks for it. If you have a lot and have been blessed with much wealth, maybe the good work in you is to see how you can use that, not for yourself, but for the good of your neighbor in need.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

Lord, Let at Last Thine Angels Come" setting by Henry Gerike. From Agnus Dei by the Concordia Seminary Chorus (© 1996 Concordia Seminary Chorus)

"Son of God, Eternal Savior" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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