Luke 18:9-14; Genesis 4:1-15
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
It’s interesting to ponder what life must have been like in the very first family after the fall. Right from the beginning the relationship between parents and children, between siblings, was deeply affected by the curse. And we are given insight into that already in the way Adam and Eve named their sons.
The name “Cain” means “acquired,” for Eve said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” It is likely that Eve believed Cain was the Savior-offspring promised in Genesis 3 who would crush the serpent’s head. For her words are more literally translated “I have gotten a man, the Lord.” In other words she thought this boy was the fulfillment of God’s Word, the Redeemer come to set things right again. So you can see how Cain certainly would have been the favored son. He was the one in whom the family had invested its hopes.
The name “Abel,” on the other hand, means “breath” or “vapor,” like the moisture of your breath on a cold day that just vanishes away. Ecclesiastes 1 uses this word to describe life in this world as mere “vanity.” And the Psalmist uses this word to describe our mortality as fallen human beings, saying, “Certainly every man at his best state is vapor” (Ps. 39:5). With that name, Abel must have certainly felt his second place status in the family. Cain was the man; he was just the younger brother. Perhaps this resonates with some of you and how things are or were in your family life in this fallen world.
And yet, with the Lord, the last are first and the first are last (Mt. 20:16). For it is written in the Old Testament reading that the Lord had regard for Abel’s offering, but not for Cain’s. With repentant lowliness Abel the shepherd offers His worship in humble faith, bringing the best of his flock. As the Lord had sacrificed an animal to clothe Adam and Eve and to cover their shame, Abel brings a choice and unblemished lamb as a sacrifice of blood for atonement. Abel knew he needed God’s mercy; he needed to be lifted out from under the curse. His worship was right, for his hope was in the Lord. It is written, “The Lord raises those who are bowed down” (Ps. 146:8). “Though the Lord is on high, yet He regards the lowly. But the proud He knows from afar” (Ps. 138:6).
That’s why it is that Cain’s worship was not well received. It is clear from the Lord’s response to Cain’s offering that his was offered faithlessly, as a mere work to be done to try to earn or keep God’s favor. Cain the farmer came with a prideful heart, full of faith in himself, not in the Lord. Cain was willing to go through the motions, offering some of the fruit of the ground which he had cultivated. But it was not pleasing to the Lord, because it was not offered in faith. Instead of repenting of this and seeking the Lord, Cain became angry both with God and the one to whom God showed favor. Cain killed Abel, spilling his brother’s blood on the ground.
However, even in death God has regard for Abel. For Abel is a picture of Christ, our Good Shepherd, who offers up the choicest sacrifice of His own life for us sinners. He is the Shepherd who is also the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The world is full of faithless Cains who despise Christ and His people and plot His death. And yet the very shedding of Jesus’ blood covers us who are made from the dust of the ground. It restores us to life and gives us a share in His resurrection. Abel points us to Christ our Brother, who was brutally killed and laid in the dust of death, but who was also vindicated in His resurrection. And as the ground opened its mouth to receive Abel’s blood, so we now open our mouths in the Sacrament to receive the blood of Christ which cleanses us of all sin (1 John 1:7), including the sins that have been done to us, sometimes violently. In Jesus the humble will be exalted (Lk 18:14). For He was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25) so that we, too, may be raised to share in His glory.
The Lord regards the lowly. He justifies the one who humbly relies on His mercy. He declares the penitent believer to be righteous. The difference between Cain and Abel, then, is precisely also the difference between the Pharisees and the tax collector. Both approach God in worship. But the way in which the Pharisee approaches is radically different from the tax collector.
Like Cain, the Pharisee is full of faith in Himself. He does reference God in his little praise service, but he’s really the star of his own show, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” The Pharisee, too, would wish his brother the tax collector dead, were it not for the fact that the tax collector makes him look so good by comparison. And please note here: the Pharisee’s problem was not his sense of right and wrong; that’s basically on target. It’s good not to be an extortioner or an adulterer. It’s good to fast and to give the 10% tithe of what you possess in offerings. “The Law of God is good and wise and sets His will before our eyes.” But, we use the Law lawlessly if we try to turn it into a way to justify ourselves in God’s presence, as if God owes us something now for our good living. “God, I thank you that I’m not like those people I see on TV and in the news–criminals and weirdos and perverts. I thank you that I’m much more ethical than those thieving, selfish politicians and corporations. I thank you that I was raised to be a good person and that I love my family and my country.” That’s not the worship of God but ourselves. Such faith is bent away from God back in on the worshiper. It is the idolatry of the self. And that sin, the sin of pride and self-righteousness is no better than any of the other sins the Pharisee lists.
In fact, in many ways the sin of pride is worse and more dangerous. For it deceives you into thinking that everything is good with you. However, it is written, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7), what the heart loves and trusts in. And if you think you’re doing fine spiritually, if your faith is in yourself, then why would you need and trust in a Savior like Jesus?
When all is said and done, the Pharisee and the tax collector are in the exact same condition. Though one looks good and impressive and the other doesn’t, both share the same heart disease called sin. Both of them are foul and unclean within. The tax collector is showing symptoms of his sin-disease, whereas the Pharisee seems to have his mostly under control. But both have the same root disorder; both are just a heartbeat away from death, as the Epistle says also to us, “You were dead in trespasses and sins.”
Learn, then, from the Pharisee and the tax collector. Believe the terminal diagnosis that the Law has made about you. Humble yourself before God in true repentance. Seek His healing, His cleansing, His righteousness.
For it is written, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart–these, O God, You will not despise.” The Lord certainly did not despise the tax collector as the Pharisee did. The tax collector comes not in pride but in lowly penitence and faith. This is not fake humility. The tax collector stands afar off from those praying in the temple; for he knows how his sin cuts him off from God and others. He does not raise his eyes to heaven; for he knows he deserves no heavenly blessing. He beats his chest when he prays, in token that he is worthy to be punished severely. He cries out his only hope, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”
The tax collector places his confidence and trust not in anything about himself but entirely in the Lord and His mercy. He despairs of his own merits and character and entrusts himself completely to the merits and character of God. He relies not on his own sacrifice but on God’s sacrifice. For remember where the tax collector is praying–in the temple, in the place where sacrifices take place! Therefore, at the very moment in which the tax collector cries out, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” his prayer is being answered right there in the sacrifice which the Lord provided to cover his sins. The tax collector trusted in the Lord’s sacrificial mercy, and he yearned for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all these things to their fulfillment.
In the end, it is the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, declared righteous in God’s sight. And so it is also for each of you who pray with humility and penitent faith, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” For the sacrifice has also been made for you–in the temple of Jesus’ body, on the cross. There Christ, the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all. By His shed blood your sins have been fully atoned for, and you have been put right with God. As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” You are justified before God, declared righteous in His sight through Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” It’s all yours because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We boast and brag not about ourselves but Him.
“He who humbles Himself will be exalted.” That statement is fulfilled in Jesus, who humbled Himself even unto death for you, and who is now exalted to the highest place at the Father’s right hand. God grant this also to be true of you in Christ. Like Abel, like the tax collector, let us offer up true worship, which is faith and hope in the Lord’s mercy. Humble yourselves before Him, confident that He will lift you up in due time. And you, too, will go down to your houses today justified and righteous.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠