Text: Genesis 4:1-5
Date: Pentecost XXIII + Proper 25 + 10/23/16
This day we entered into the gates of God’s presence singing, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Ps. 56:3), and in the Collect of the Day we prayed, “forgive us those things of which our conscience is afraid” (Collect). Afraid. Fear. It seems we never run out of things or occasions to be afraid of, to make us fear. To come here and sing and pray rightly we must first admit our fear and need of forgiveness and mercy. Some will not make such an admission but instead will put on a proud face, deny any such weakness as fear with the result of remaining deaf to God’s invitation of mercy and quite defenseless when troubles multiply. The Pharisee in today’s Gospel could not admit his need or even recognize it taking pride in his own self-righteousness. Only the penitent lowly tax collector was moved simply to plead for God’s mercy because he knew his need of forgiveness. The result says our Lord, only the tax collector was justified before God and not the other who exalted himself.
This was a shocking story when Jesus first told it for everyone knew that the Pharisee was the most religious guy and everyone despised tax collectors. But Jesus said, when it came to their relationship with God, repentance and faith, the reality is just the opposite.
It’s an old, old story. It began with two other characters way back in Genesis 4, two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Though sin had entered the world and was passed on to them through the disobedience of their parents, here we have the account of the first murder.
We are told that both brothers brought an offering to the Lord, the first record of sacrifices in the Bible. Since this was before God had given any command for sacrificial offerings we can assume these were offerings to express their felt need for fellowship with God and possibly thanks to God for the food and clothing these brothers produced from the ground and the flocks of God’s provision. Yet we are told that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Why was that? What went wrong? In the absence of any clear answer we can only surmise that Abel gave thanks from the depth of his heart, that is, out of faith, while Cain only desired to keep on good terms with God, that is, out of fear. And here is where Jesus’ parable and this story begin to differ greatly.
At God’s rejection of his offering Cain became very angry. How angry? Remember the words of St. James, saying, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). Death. In this case murder. St. John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, helps us when he wrote: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). In other words, it was not because of the particular gift they each offered to God but because of the disposition of their sinful hearts. Both were sinners as are all of us. The question is deeper, the depths of awareness of God, repentance of sin and seeking His grace.
Now comes the biggest difference, an addition really to today’s Gospel parable. It would seem that God’s curse of Cain would be the end of it all. And isn’t that what Cain was thinking as he said, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” He feared for his very life. But then the grace of God appears. “Not so!” says the Lord, for “if anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And God put a mark on Cain, whatever it was as a defense against anyone attacking him.
So we too, whatever the depth of our sin God’s grace does not disappear. In fact, when we are in our deepest need, the darkness of our road, that feeling of hopelessness God interrupts and says to us, “Not so!” You see, we’re not told anything about the future disposition of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. Did he ever repent? Did he ever humble himself under the mighty hand of God and plead for mercy as did the lowly tax collector? We don’t know. But the possibility was still there. The possibility is still there as it was for Cain, new each day, for all of us who still struggle in this life of shortcomings, fears and failure. It is still there because God has said “No” to death. He said “No” by means of His Son who faced death, no, even endured death, our death, for us, on our behalf. He did so because only He had the power to say “No” to death, “No” to the power of death over each of us. As God put a mark on His beloved sinner, Cain, as a defense against anyone, so has God marked you, marked you with the sign of the cross of Christ. That cross, that sign, is our sure defense because it proclaims the almighty power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Now as Abel’s blood was the first of all the innocent blood shed in this sinful world, whose blood continues to cry out to God as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “though he died, he still speaks” (Heb 11:4), the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24). Now those who have received the mark of dying with Christ in Holy Baptism daily receive the blood by which we live in this most sacred mystery.
The grace of God stands always ready and breaks through the darkness of our days, saving us not because of any merit or worthiness in ourselves but solely for the sake of the love of God for us and for all sinners for our salvation.
With Cain and Abel speaking to us through the centuries the Gospel of God says, “There is no unforgiveable sin.” Come, let us bring offerings of thanksgiving to God according to our vocations and our new life and confidence under the mighty hand of our saving God.