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In our text Abraham had a chance to show hospitality to persons from out of this world, to have a real close encounter. Did he know who they were? Not at first. Abraham did not ask questions like, "Are these important persons?" How could he know? Was Lazarus in today's Gospel an important person? He was a beggar, a bum. Few people would have called him deserving. We might have found him disgusting, but in heaven he had a reserved place in the executive parking lot. The last shall be first, as long as Jesus has anything to say about it. Abraham didn't speculate about His visitors. At that moment what counted was that they needed hospitality, so they were important to him. He invited them inside immediately. There were three of them. They were men - no halos, no wings, no shining faces or clothes. But Abraham ran out to meet them, persuaded them to stay, told Sarah to make three beds, washed their feet, and told his cook to kill the fatted calf. There would be company for dinner. In both the Old and New Testaments, one thing you don't want to be is a fatted calf. For all we know, Abraham had plans for that calf, but these travelers were at hand, so Abraham was willing to go back to the drawing board. Later he learned more about them. When they prophesied that Isaac would be born, Abraham could see that he had entertained the Lord.
There is no hint in the story that these travelers had experienced any evil. There was no reason to pity them. Lazarus, on the other hand, was a beggar. Abraham was rich, but he had come to the holy land as a pioneer. The rich man in the Gospel had grown up in it, enjoyed its fruits all his life, so his sense of duty had grown dull. Lazarus was suffering, but that did not move him to pity. His heart was like a rock. All he could see was that he was an important person and Lazarus was not. How different from his ancestor!
Now after he was consigned to hell, this descendant of Abraham looked up at the patriarch of his ethnic group who was enjoying the company of Lazarus. This time the one who had refused pity found none from Abraham. The two men both had close encounters, of different kinds. Lazarus was no angel, but if he had been the rich man he would not have acted differently. He did not listen to the Law of Moses or the preaching of the Prophets. Those spokesmen for Israel tell us again and again to take pity on the poor. Can anyone plead ignorance of God's will here? Abraham said that if they don't believe the Scriptures, signs and wonders wouldn't help either.
So how are we doing with this? We all know plainly what our duty is to the victims of evil. But that inner conflict takes so much of our energy. We are frozen into apathy. If the evil is bad enough we might complain that somebody should do something about it, but to give up our roast beef and TV, to have an adventure of our own, why that's out of the question. God still has ways of awakening our sense of pity, but we can trump Him by institutionalizing as many victims as we can, then we can comfort our consciences in the confidence that something is being done for the unfortunate, and thank heaven, we don’t have to get involved with it.
That describes a cold heart. How did it get so cold? The coldness is born in all of us. It is original sin. Sin makes us consider ourselves the most important people in the world, followed by people we have an interest in. When we have a close encounter with a bum, we hardly expect that we may be interacting with an angel. We just don't think in those terms. We know our duty, but we all draw that line before we become too uncomfortable. And we're stuck with ourselves like that.
Jesus alone was free from this coldness, so He alone can warm us, by taking away our sins. He knows the real trouble. We have put ourselves in God's place, we have arranged our lives around ourselves instead of around Him. In the Atonement Jesus made He sets us free. He opens our self-made prison of pride, sets us free to forgive our enemies, free to love our neighbors, and those with whom we have close encounters, as ourselves. He forgives us by telling us that He forgives us, that by the Atonement He made He has that authority and is willing to use it. He calls us to believe in Him, which means letting the self-sufficiency go, finding our sufficiency in Him.
What Jesus does works. The conflict might still be raging within us, but forgiveness is a powerful new ally. Neither duty nor pity could give us such power. The close encounters are no longer occasions for judgment, but chances to take up the cross of Jesus. Since He has bought us we no longer belong to ourselves. God's pity moved Him to do this for us. We do not have to win God's love, for it is Jesus' gift. If we lose our creature comforts, we have a far greater comfort that cannot be taken from us. Abraham's Great Descendant has died for us and risen again. He has retrieved us from coldness of heart, from apathy, from self-importance, and by the Holy Spirit, Jesus has given us a new heart in likeness to His own. The inevitable close encounters come to test us. As they do, the Spirit will not let us fail.
Every day, in some way, Jesus is trying to make you more holy. It is never a straight line. There are false starts and back steps, but the attack is launched, Jesus against Satan's stronghold in your heart. He attacks the weakness of the flesh, the stubbornness of our attitudes, and the importance we place on ourselves. Instead He gives us the cross, for which the resurrection is always Act II. Meanwhile do not forget what He did for us, or why He did it. By His grace we can be as generous as Abraham, and stoop to conquer the Lazaruses lying helpless at our gates. As long as He keeps pouring love into us by His Word and Sacraments, it will overflow to others. And who knows, one of those others might be more than he seems to be. AMEN.
~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross