Tantalized or Satisfied?
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text is from the gospel—Luke chapter sixteen.
In Greek mythology, there was a special place called Tartaros reserved for particularly wicked people. Some of the inhabitants and their punishments are famous. There is Ixion, eternally attached to a spinning, flaming wheel. There is the giant Tityos, who is forever stretched out on a rack while two vultures feed on his liver, which regenerates every day so they can keep going day after day. Then there's Sisyphus, who is forced to roll a boulder up a mountainside, but when he almost reaches the crest, Zeus forces the boulder back down the hill, only to start the process all over again.
My personal favorite is Tantalos, whose name gives us the word "tantalize," which means "to tempt without satisfaction." Tantalos tried to trick the gods into eating human flesh, specifically the flesh of his own son Pelops, whom he had boiled and served to the gods for dinner. They were not fooled, but the goddess Demeter, who was grieving over the abduction of her daughter Persephone, absentmindedly took a bite of Pelops's shoulder. Fortunately for Pelops, the gods brought him back to life, but since his shoulder had been eaten, they had to give him an ivory one to replace it—perhaps the first instance of joint replacement surgery.
The gods were outraged at Tantalos's behavior, so they banished him to Tartaros to undergo a punishment that fits the crime. His punishment is to stand forever in a river of water with fruit trees over his head; he is eternally hungry and thirsty, but when he tries to drink, the water flows away, and when he tries to eat, the fruit blows out of his reach. So he is eternally tantalized.
While this story is certainly a myth, I think it's helpful for thinking about the torments of the real hell. The Greeks made up stories about the afterlife, but in the Bible God reveals that hell is very real, and yes, some people go there. In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells the tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus, showing that there is indeed a place of being tantalized and tormented forever.
God's Word describes hell in various ways. Jesus says that on Judgment Day, He will "say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.' … And these will go away into eternal punishment" (Matthew 25: 41, 46). The word "eternal" is hard to grasp; perhaps a more concrete translation here is "everlasting"—hell lasts forever. Hell means permanently dwelling under God's curse; hell is the never-ending experience of fire in prison with the devil and his demons; hell is forever-punishment with no chance of parole.The Scriptures give us a sampling of these permanent punishments. We saw that the rich man in our Gospel reading was suffering torment from unending thirst and was tantalized by the thought of a little drop of water to cool his tongue; of course, even if he had gotten that drop, it wouldn't have provided any real relief. St. Jude describes hell as a place of fire and darkness (Jude 7, 13). Jesus says it is a place of weeping and grinding of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30), which means that the sadness and anxiety is oppressive and unending. Ss. Peter and Paul say hell is filled with destruction (2 Thessalnians 1:7-9; 2 Peter 3:7; 1 Thessalonians. 5:3).
Doesn't hell sound utterly appalling and terrifying? It should. God reveals the horrors of hell as a warning against living without repentance and as a way of showing us by contrast how wonderful the gift of salvation in Christ is. We gaze at the bitterness of hell so that we can be tantalized, so to speak, by God's promise of heaven to believers, so that our hunger and thirst for God's righteousness and salvation may be satisfied.
Some people today think that they can put off repentance until the deathbed or even after death, but as the story of Lazarus and the rich man shows, death comes unexpectedly, and there are only two ways to go at the end. It's an up or down call by the Judge, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says: "It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). For those who die before Christ's return, their judgment actually occurs at the time of death. This truth is demonstrated by the rich man and Lazarus: "And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments" (Luke 16:22-23). There is no third way given. And this judgment is final and irreversible. When the rich man pleads for a drop of water to relieve his constant burning in hell, Abraham responds, "Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us" (Luke 16:26). At death it's one way or the other, with no second chances.
Yet the most pressing question after hearing this story is: why did these two men end up in these wildly different places? How was their final residence determined? The ultimate explanation for their permanent residences comes at the end of the story. After the rich man pleaded with Abraham that he send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the torments of hell, Abraham responded, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them." The rich man persisted, saying, "No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." To which Abraham said, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."
Abraham simply pointed the rich man to Moses and the Prophets, the Holy Scriptures, as the place to find the way to repentance and everlasting life. And what is it that Moses and the Prophets preach? They preach about the way of escape from hell in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
After Jesus had suffered the torments of hell on the cross and died for the sin of the whole world on Good Friday, He rose on Easter morn. That afternoon, He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus; St. Luke tells us that "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself." Jesus taught that He is at the center of all the Scriptures, and so He is the only path to everlasting life.
And then later on Easter Sunday, in the upper room with the apostles, Jesus said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:44-47).
There you have it: the message of Moses and the Prophets was always about Jesus, about the Gospel of His coming into the world to bear all of your sins, to descend into hell to defeat death the devil, and then to rise on the third day to earn everlasting life in heaven for you. And even before Jesus came, true believers of the Old Testament lived by faith in the coming Messiah, who would save them from their sins; they lived by faith in God's promises.
Lazarus was someone who believed in the coming Messiah and was saved by Him, while the rich man clearly had not listened to Moses and the Prophets and had died in impenitence, in unbelief. Abraham points to Moses and the Prophets as the only hope for the rich man's surviving five brothers, because only from hearing Moses and the Prophets in the Church could they be given repentance and faith in Christ, and everlasting life. It is the rejection of Moses and the Prophets that leads to hell. That is a shocker, since people usually assume that Lazarus went to heaven because he had it so bad in this life, while the rich man went to hell because he showed no mercy to Lazarus and lived decadently.
But according to Jesus, those things don't decide the case. Rather, it is the person's response to Moses and the Prophets that leads to heaven or hell: the one who believes the Word and repents has everlasting life; the one who ignores the Word and refuses to repent faces everlasting death. As Jesus said, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned." Another time He said, "Whoever believes in [God's Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:18). Yet another time Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24).
Notice how Jesus focuses us on hearing His Word in the Gospel. Only God's Word preached, taught, read, given out in the Sacraments, and heard with faith has the power to produce repentance and faith leading to everlasting life. By extolling the power of God's Word, Jesus tantalizes us to make use of it. He is "tempting" us to continue studying the Scriptures and hearing the Word in church, so that our faith may be strengthened and preserved by His power; so that our hunger and thirst for His righteousness may be satisfied.
We also observe in this story that the rich man had been given much in this life in order to make good use of it, but clearly he had not—he had used it only for himself. True faith will produce good fruits of repentance in our lives, which clearly the rich man did not have.
But at the same time, our good works aren't what earn heaven for us. Jesus presents to us Lazarus as an amazing example of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, received through faith alone. Lazarus was helpless. He lay tantalized at the rich man's door, just hungering for the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. He lay yearning for his sores to stop burning, for his pain to go away. He was pitiful. We are not able to see any fruits of Lazarus's faith—he was a poor beggar and apparently of no help to anyone. He had no good works to perform, no alms to give; He could do nothing but trust in God for forgiveness of sins and salvation.
And while Jesus tells us that the rich man needed no help getting to hell, Lazarus was helpless to get to heaven except by the angels taking his soul. Yet since Lazarus ended up in heaven, we can be certain that he believed the Gospel and clung to it, just like his Father Abraham, who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. He was down and out, recognized himself as a poor, miserable sinner, and simply trusted the Word of God that promised forgiveness of sins, life, salvation, and eternal satisfaction.
Likewise for you, my Christian friends. Even though all you can see in your heart is sin and death, and you recognize that you justly deserve hell for your sins, believe God's promise for you: Jesus Christ has died for your sins and risen to justify you, to declare you righteous and holy and saved. In your Baptism, God the Father made you a true child of Abraham by giving you the Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sins, and faith. As you continue to hear Moses and the Prophets and the apostles here in the Church, God's Word will continue to produce repentance and trust in Christ as your Savior. And as you gather here at the feast of Christ's true body and true blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus Himself promises you an eternal place in His banquet in heaven, which has no end.
While those in hell are tantalized and tormented forever, those in heaven are fed and comforted and satisfied forever by the Good Shepherd Himself. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it." Repent and believe the Gospel. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.