Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Seminarian Brendan Harris, Vicar
St. Luke 18.9-14; Genesis 4.1-14
23 August 2020
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus ☩ Christ; Amen.
Here we have heard it again: the first crime drama, the primordial murder of brother against brother, the infamous tale of Cain and Abel. This is a horrifying account of bloodthirsty rage and the slaughter of an innocent, one that has echoed throughout the ages in infamy. Well, you might say, “big deal, we see this all the time.” You don’t have to have the news running for long to see the marquee crawl across the screen detailing some horrific murder or another, and there’s a new story every day. Out there right now, there’s a Cain raising his hand against an Abel, defying God and neighbor in one fell swoop. If Abel’s blood cried to God from the ground, one must shudder to consider the cacophony which cries out to God today, from those who are slain in the streets to the children who are cruelly murdered by their parents before they’re ever even able to raise their voices. Cain may be lost in history’s past, but his legacy is far from forgotten.
Yet for all of this violence, none of it is original. Cain shows us that there is nothing novel about his action, in fact, he was only taking what his father Adam did a step further. He was acting on his inheritance, the sin which originated in Adam, and it is this very same inheritance which we have all received. Through Adam, we are all spiritual descendants of Cain, sons and daughters born of bloody murderers. We are guilty as charged from the start.
Here enters the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus gives us a tale that, like the other, is really nothing new. Just as Cain and Abel made their offerings to God, here too we get a comparison of two brothers raising up their sacrifices of prayer. From the ground, from the sweat of his brow, the Pharisee renders unto God all sorts of offerings, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He might as well say too, “I keep the Law of Moses in its entirely, I go above and beyond, Lord I see nothing that stands to accuse me, I have given you nothing but my righteousness.” And yet all he has given God is dirt, useless muck, because his works were not sowed by the Spirit but were rather fertilized only in his self-righteousness and hatred. In his egocentric address, he betrays his true heritage, and raises his hand against his brother: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Indeed, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 Jn 3:15a), and through his contempt, this Pharisee has taken up the mantle of Cain and confirmed himself in his slaughter. He dares to mock God in asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” while his brother’s blood cries out from his heart.
But witness the Abel of the story, the lowly Tax Collector; he knows what he is: a worthless, completely guilty sinner covered in his brother’s blood. Yes, this Abel knows who his father is; His father is sin, death, and the devil. For the Tax Collector knew he was no better than Cain, for he had received the same inheritance as the first murderer through his father. In fact, in the eyes of most of his peers, this Tax Collector was far worse than even Cain. Although he was an Israelite, a son of the promise of Abraham, he was a traitor to the state. He was a pawn of the Romans, the Gentiles who had taken Israel’s God-given independence from them, the new Babylonians who were carrying back their slice of all the Hebrews’ goods, and they were doing this through the hands of the local, Hebrew tax collectors like this man. This man deserved death, he was an enemy of all that is holy. But he doesn’t run from his sentence, he doesn’t shy away, but readily admits it all: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He had no right to lift his eyes to heaven, in fact he had no right at all in the eyes of the world to enter that temple, and if it weren’t for the centurions outside, he would probably be killed on the spot. If there was anyone who should’ve been worried he would catch fire when he walked into church, or that he would be struck by lightning on his way out, it would be this guy. And yet his offering was accepted. The Tax Collector’s offering goes up to God like a sweet-smelling incense, a pleasant aroma before Him. Although his hands are covered in blood, he makes the good confession: he calls out to God for mercy, he recognizes he is nothing but a bleeding murderer, and he trusts in God, in His promises and covenant, to forgive him and wash him clean of it all; Truly, “This man went down to his house justified.”
And so you, sons and daughters of Cain, take note: you are indeed murderers, born of murderers. But if you are the Cain of this story, then who else is the true Abel but Christ Jesus? For your sins, for all your murdering of your brothers, Christ died in utter innocence. He willingly lays down His life like a lamb, like a sacrifice, a sweet-smelling aroma which pleases God in place of your works of dirt. The Blood of this Abel cries unto God not for vengeance, but for mercy, so that even as it is spilled and despised it pleads for you: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The mark of you new Cains is thus nothing other than the sign of the Cross emblazoned upon your foreheads, a mark of mercy you receive by being washed in your Brother’s Blood in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the blood that Cain spilled which marks his exile from his family, the Blood of the New Abel marks you as members of a new, holy family. And it is this Blood which you receive in the Eucharist, for as the ground opened its mouth to receive the old Abel’s blood, so now you, who were nothing but the dust of the ground, are able to open your mouths to drink the Blood of Jesus Christ in faith as new living members of His family. It is through this bloody sacrifice that Cain becomes Abel, that the Tax Collector becomes an apostle, that the persecutor Saul becomes Saint Paul, and that you become a child of God. For through this mercy, you are no longer truly sons of Cain, but are made unblemished sons of God. In this great sacrifice, Christ has made Himself truly your brother, and thus God has become Our Father, and no longer are you bound to the sins of Cain, nor death, nor the devil, but it is all washed away in His Blood.
And so now, you have a new identity. You are born again from above, and now you are set apart as an Abel, as a Christian, and there is entirely new blood flowing in your veins. The Mark of the Cross has been stamped on your foreheads, and it will keep you safe from the murderers of this world, for even though they may raise their hands against you, they cannot take away the Mark of your Baptism which luminates from your heads and hearts, from all of your tithes and offerings and prayers and fastings. So now, let every work you do be to the glory of God, for they are no longer deeds of dirt but works of light, and His mercy will shine forth from them and witness to the Cains which still wander the world without hope. For there is no one so evil or despised who cannot turn and please God with the good confession: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Although you too were once Cains, you are unblemished Abels in Christ, and are called to follow His manner of life, even if that means laying it down for your murderous brother. Be humble, turn the other cheek, and in your meekness your brother will be moved, he will be converted through the Spirit of God, and he who once hated you will fall down before you pleading for mercy. What a gift it will be when you utter the words, “I forgive you,” when you pronounce God’s forgiveness on him, for through him you will have great joy and have won back a brother. So rise now, brethren, for His Blood, the Blood in which we are all bound, is calling for you. From His piercèd side, it rings out: “Drink of it, all of you, this cup is the new testament in My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In Jesus’ ☩ Name; Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus; Amen.