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"Give Your Brother a Call"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 30, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Luke 19:1-10

I'm not sure which hurt my parents more, whether it was me pushing them away or me pushing my brother, their son, away. I was 16 years old and furious, furious because my older brother, Matt, had just wrecked our new car, and furious at my parents because it seemed they were more concerned for their son than they were about the car he had just totaled. And it seemed that way because they did in fact care more about my brother, my criminally negligent brother than they did about the poor, mistreated car. And it was my love for this car that was the source of our estrangement. Even though it wasn't my car, I didn't buy it; I didn't insure it; I didn't maintain it; but I did feel entitled to it. Matt, my brother, was driving it like a maniac, spun out of control, ran it off the road, and rolled it three times.

And by some mysterious intervention, he walked away from the wreck with barely a scratch. And my parents just kept going on and on about how grateful they were that he was alive. And it astounded me that parental affection could so easily blind a person to more practical concerns. So, I made up my mind that I was going to relish being furious at him and at them. And as for which hurt them more, I think I knew even at that time that the two are inseparable. I mean, how can you even ask that question which hurts the parents more, a son pushing them away, or a son pushing his brother away? Isn't that like asking, "What would hurt more, losing your left eye or your right eye? Or which is more important, inhaling or exhaling?" Questions that do less to reveal a person's priorities and more to reveal the questioner's ignorance, about how some things necessarily go together.

If you are a person who believes in God, what do you think is more important to God—how you as an individual relate to God or how you relate to other people? Which is more important? If you are a person who believes in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified and risen, ruling and returning for the salvation of the world, if you follow Jesus, what do you think is more important to Him, how you relate to Jesus or how you relate to other people? Which is more important? If you don't believe in God or you don't follow Jesus, you might ask the question like this, "Which is more important to you, how you relate to yourself or how you relate to others?"

And I'm guessing that you might answer, "Well, it depends. It depends because if I've been overworking, overly worried about making everyone else happy, then maybe I do need to put some self-care first." Just like how a flight attendant tells you to put your own oxygen mask on first. "Or maybe if I've been stuck in my head lately and I know that if I go and volunteer somewhere, if I help someone else out without expecting anything in return, I usually end up feeling better about myself." So, maybe in this season, I need to prioritize not self-care but care for others. So, it depends. And maybe that's because in this case too, asking which is more important, self-care or care for others is like trying to prioritize inhaling over exhaling. Some things are necessarily inseparable.

And maybe those of us who follow Jesus can learn something from this. Because God, as I read of Him in the Bible, is inseparably interested in both: how we relate to Him and how we relate to each other. Take for example Jesus' actions recorded in the Gospel according to Luke 19. Jesus is walking through Jericho, a town just outside of Jerusalem. And look, there's this man there named Zacchaeus who is a chief tax collector and is rich. In other words, this Zacchaeus was a Jewish man who sat near the top of a pyramid-scheme tax-collecting empire with other tax collectors under him. And with good reason, the people in his town saw him as a menace to society, as a political trader. They hated Zacchaeus for his involvement in the greedy politics of Rome.

Zacchaeus had wrecked his reputation. Any good standing that he had in the community was unsalvageable. But now, Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus. He heard He was passing through and he's seeking to see who Jesus is. But he was not able because of the crowd because he was small in stature. So he ran ahead, climbed up a sycamore tree so that he could see Him because He was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down because it is necessary that I stay at your house today." Zacchaeus hurried down and received Him into his house with joy. But when they saw it, they all grumbled saying, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner."

Then Zacchaeus stood and he said to the Lord, "Look, I give half of my wealth to the poor, Lord. And if I have cheated anyone, then I restore it four times over." Now, before we get to what Jesus said, let's pause the scene right there and ask ourselves, "Why does Zacchaeus say this?" Some people who read the Bible think one thing about what Zacchaeus said, and other people think something different. And I'm not sure how to decide between the two. Some people think Zacchaeus is making a pledge to Jesus, promising what he's going to do. He's saying, "Look, Jesus, because You've been so good to me to include me, I am going to change my ways. I repent. I'm going to stop collecting taxes and give away half my wealth to the poor. And with the other half, I'll pay back anybody that I have cheated." That's how some people take Zacchaeus's words here.

But other people hear him differently. They point out that Zacchaeus is speaking in the present tense. The verbs are in the present tense in the Greek text of Luke. So, maybe Zacchaeus is not saying what he will do, he's saying what he's already started doing. He's saying, "Look, Lord, I have already started and I am going to continue giving away half of all I get to the poor. And if I find out that I have treated anyone unfairly, I pay them back fourfold." And if this is the case, there's got to be some background to the story, and maybe it went like this.

Months ago, Zacchaeus heard the message of Jesus's forerunner, John the Baptist, the prophet God had sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, Jesus. The Gospel of Luke 3 tells us that John was preaching of Baptism of repentance, of turning back to God for the forgiveness of sins. And Luke tells us that some tax collectors came, listened to the message, and were baptized. And they asked John, "What should we do?" And John surprisingly doesn't tell them, "Stop being tax collectors." He tells them to be a different kind of tax collector, to be an honest, God-fearing tax collector. He tells them, "Don't collect more than you are authorized to collect."

So, maybe Zacchaeus months ago embraced this message. He heard the Good News of God's promise of forgiveness in the coming Messiah. He repented; he's thrown himself on the undeserved mercy of the God of Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people, and like Abraham, he trusts in God and is walking with God. And now, Zacchaeus more or less says to Jesus, "Look, Lord, here's what I'm trying to do to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. I know these taxes are a burden on my people. And so, I give away half of all I get to help the poor. And if I discover that some collection has come to me unfairly, I pay it back four times over."

And what does Jesus say? He doesn't talk about repentance. He doesn't talk about forgiveness in this moment, maybe because Zacchaeus has already started down that path. Instead, Jesus says, perhaps addressing the crowd, "Today, salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. Because the Son of Man, that is Jesus, the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.

So, what does salvation mean here? Is it Jesus restoring Zacchaeus to a right relationship with God or is it Jesus restoring the Zacchaeus household to a right relationship with the community of faith? Which is it? Was Zacchaeus lost because he was pushing God away in this moment or was he lost because his people were still pushing him away? I'm not sure which is the focus here. And maybe that's because Jesus keeps them together, like inhaling and exhaling, like seeing clearly with both eyes. This week marks the 505th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation led by the German pastor Martin Luther, after whom this program is named.

Among other things, Luther and the other reformers have helped Christians all over the world focus on the importance of individual faith, how each of us personally can be put right with God. Luther and others protested because they saw how the church of their youth was playing power games and had given their fellow Christians a spiritual astigmatism. The medieval church had distorted the Bible's picture of God, the simple truth that God has always been and always will be a good, and loving, forgiving Father. The church had obscured the message that God, to save us all from the eternal hell we would suffer if we kept pushing Him away, God the Father freely sent His Son, Jesus, into death and hell to save us from our sins.

And then God raised Jesus from the dead to bring us back to trust in Him. And this trust, this faith, it's not my work, it's not your work, it's the gift God gives you individually when you hear His promise that He will always be a good Father for you. And this promise comes to you through the water of Baptism, through Jesus's body and blood, given with the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper. And the promise comes to you through the witness of other Christians like I'm speaking with you today. God speaks this promise to you so that you would trust Him. And trusting Him, you're right with Him, you're good with Him, not because of what you have done, but because of what He has done for you in Jesus. Even if you've been pushing Him away, He's still committed to being a Father for you.

And if you've never had a dad to represent some of God's goodness to you, then you above all people know how good it would be to break down and let God be the Father your biological dad never could be. This focus on God's fatherly promise to sinners in distress is the best fruit of the Protestant Reformation. And yet, this Father wants to give us more. God wants us to breathe in the oxygen of His promise and also to breathe out in love for others. God wants both for us. He wants us to see clearly with two eyes. And if today we can see how the medieval church had distorted God's image, picturing Him as an angry, unforgiving Father, then we should also see how modern Protestantism has a distorted picture of God, picturing Him as a permissive, spoiling Father who doesn't care how we treat others, or picturing Him as an absent, distracted Father who leaves us to our own insecurities and our own attempts at failed self-care. But Jesus still shows us the truth about God as He defies the grumbling crowd and goes to stay in the house of Zacchaeus. God cares about both. He cares that we relate to Him, trusting with childlike faith. He cares that we relate to each other, forgiving with Christlike love.

My earthly parents are not perfect. But by God's grace, they've shown me and my brother, Matt, some of God's faithfulness. When Matt wrecked our car, we were staying at our aunt and uncle's house. They lived out in the country. And from where Matt was at the scene of the accident, off the side of the road in a plowed corn field, he could see our aunt and uncle's house about a mile off in the distance. An old memory flashes through his mind when he and I were younger.

Matt's only two and a half years older than I am but he is much bigger. He and I are arguing. I call him fat and throw a plastic GI Joe action figure at him. It hits him in the head, hard. He chases me through the house. He is bigger but I am faster, thank the Lord, or else I might not have made it out of childhood. Just before he can grab me by the back of the shirt, I weasel into my parents' bathroom and locked the door. Enraged, Matt punches the door, hard. He puts his fist through the door. And when dad gets home, I play innocent, and Matt's the one who gets yelled at. Matt looks over at the car he's just totaled. He looks back to the house on the horizon. "That's a long way to walk to get yelled at," he says to himself.

But like a penitent medieval monk, he hangs his head and begins what he thought would be a lonely pilgrimage to be judged by an angry father. And I, like an indulgence preacher, wanted to see my brother pay or else suffer a summer in purgatory to buy me a new car. That of course didn't happen. Six months later, my parents bought a $500 beater from a junkyard for Matt and I to share. Now, when Matt took dad to see the totaled car in the cornfield, dad was mad but calm. And when dad saw it, when he saw the passenger's side of the roof caved in flat on the passenger's seat and the driver's side roof perfectly preserved like a cocoon around where Matt had been sitting, I think my dad was scared at how close he'd come to losing his son.

And maybe that's when he decided that he wouldn't make Matt pay, that he would carry the total cost of the loss. And he never yelled at Matt. As for me, still playing innocent, unrepentant, I was a different case all together, because my father knew that my bad attitude could do deeper damage than Matt's bad driving ever could. He didn't yell at me, but he verbally disciplined me. And in that moment, I still have a picture of Hebrews 12:10 which says, "Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best. But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness, in His character."

And if my dad had not intervened, who knows what could have happened? I might have never called my brother to hear his side of the story. That could have been the beginning of an insidious schism between us, a schism that endures to this day. I might have pushed him away like too many Christians push away other Christians without so much as a phone call. He might have given up on me like so many so-called spiritual people have given up on gathering each week with a local congregation. All of that might have happened had my father not intervened. But I thank God that he did.

My brother and I live in different cities now, but we both thank God for the parents He's given us. They never tire of telling us how much they love us. And also, don't forget to give your brother a call.

Reflections for October 30, 2022

Title: Give Your Brother a Call

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For free online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to And we're back once again with our speaker, Dr. Michael Ziegler. Thinking about what we heard in today's message, it reminded me of something I've often heard where we used the cross itself as a visual representation of the vertical relationship between us and God, and then this horizontal relationship of us with others.

Michael Zeigler: Yes. The cross. It is a visual reminder of those two dimensions that you mentioned, and Martin Luther, in the Reformation, highlighted the biblical teaching that God has shaped human life according to those two dimensions. So there is this righteousness, or a right standing with God, in a vertical dimension, and a righteousness, or right standing with people, in a horizontal dimension. And one of the perennial temptations that Christian people face is to confuse those two dimensions. So Luther wanted to reform the church of his day because he saw how church teaching was confusing Christians, leading them to use their relationships with people to try to get in good with God.

Mark Eischer: How is that?

Michael Zeigler: Well my teacher, Bob Kolb, he's a Reformation specialist. He likes to use an analogy. So he says, "Well, I know God likes it when I do good things for people. So the other day, I wanted to get in good with God, and I went down to the corner and I helped a hundred old ladies to cross the street. Turns out only two of them wanted to go across the street, but I really wanted to earn some points with God." So you can see his point that the church in Luther's day was telling people that they had to do good works to get right with God. But the thing is, when we do that, we end up using people for our own agenda rather than actually helping them. She didn't want to go across the street.

Mark Eischer: But you're going.

Michael Zeigler: Yeah, yeah. So if we trust God, though, that He puts us right with Him without our works, by grace, through faith, through trust in Jesus Christ, then we can get busy serving our neighbor and actually helping them with what they need help with and not to try to save ourselves.

Mark Eischer: Now I also thought about that passage that says, "It's wrong to say how much you love God, whom you haven't seen, while you hate your brother, who's standing right in front of you."

Michael Zeigler: Yeah, great example. That's from 1 John 4:20, and we always need to hear that verse in light of 1 John 3:10, which says, "This is love. Not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to save us from our sins." So it's important to know how we have right relationships in each dimension. So with God, He takes all the initiative: He loves first. He does the saving. But with our neighbors, and even with our enemies, we take the initiative: we love first, even without expecting anything in return, because in God, we already have all that we need.

Music Selections for this program:

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

"A Mighty Fortress" arr. Paul Kretschmar. From Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice by the Concordia Seminary Chorus (© 1993 Concordia Seminary Chorus)

"Salvation Unto Us Has Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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