By Paul Koch –
One of life’s great lessons is that words are powerful things. Words can impact the emotions, aspiration and confidence of a man. Words can lift us up and inspire us to great things. But words can also bring us down. There are certain words that you just don’t want to hear; words that can crush you in a single blow. The words, “I don’t love you” on the lips of someone, for whom you would have moved mountains, can make you feel sick and confused. The words, “I’m disappointed in you” on the lips of a parent, who has always been there to support and forgive and love you, can shake a person’s foundation. And it is something like that, something that devastating, when the almighty God says to Cain, “What have you done?”
That simple question reveals the fact that something has gone very wrong. Paradise has been torn and distorted to grotesque degrees and it can no longer be hidden. God, of course, knows what Cain has done and he says as much. He declares, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood form your hand.” Murder, deceit, jealousy, hatred: these things reveal how wrong things have become. Imagine Eve, the mother of all the living, holding the lifeless body of her son, Abel. Imagine the horror as creation sees human death for the first time.
Of course we know full well that things are not right; things are deeply broken and twisted upon this glorious creation of God. We don’t need to be shocked by a brother killing his own brother; all we need to do is turn on the nightly news and all that is wrong in our world flows freely into our living rooms. Murder, hatred, riots, lies, slander and blasphemy lurk on every channel on the dial. We also see the brokenness in our friends and families. Alzheimer’s steals the memories of those we love, cancer attacks the strong and the weak alike. Even in our own bodies, we fight an invisible war where we fail to do the things that we know we ought to do and we keep on doing the things we know that God has commanded us not to do. Just as violence flows from our TV’s, so shame and guilt flows from our hearts. It turns out that we, too, hear that haunting question, “What have you done?”
Now, we will go to great lengths not to endure those words. I suppose on the one hand, we can just pretend like God does not exist, that his eye is not upon us. After all, this is what our world has done. Shame and guilt seem to be a receding trait as the world indulges in her desires, without any regard for the things of God. But we, who have been given faith and have received His Word and Sacraments, will have a difficult time doing that. No, for the believer the most common response to God’s hard judgment is to try and make it better, to elevate above the sinfulness that clings so easily. Just as the jilted lover or the disciplined child will try and fix what they did wrong, so we also attempt our own form of damage control.
However, even this turns out ugly. At its worse, I suppose it looks a lot like the Pharisee in Luke 18. This man has clearly worked hard to live as he should. He has separated himself out from the masses by his good deeds and he knows it. He’s the type of guy that would describe his greatest strength in a job interview something like, “Well my greatest strength is my humility.” And so he stands there in the temple and prays out loud, so all can hear, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” He knows he’s different and he knows why. He says, “I fast twice a week and I give tithes of all that I get.”
Now this man may seem like some sort of bizarre caricature to us, but I don’t think he’s all that unusual. In fact, he’s not all that different from us. When we come face to face with our brokenness, when we begin to seek out ways to make it better, to fix what is wrong, to elevate our lives: we must turn inward to do it. We must examine our hearts, our own desires, our motivations. Somewhere in there, we hope to find the strength and courage to make changes and to be better than we have been. But turning inward is a dangerous move. It come with risks; the greatest is when we turn in, we can become lost. Lost in the confusing world of our own making; a world where our lies become truth and truth becomes a fiction.
It is this inward world that caused a Pharisee to stand boldly before all others and believe that he was indeed more holy, more worthy, more deserving of the blessings of God. And it is this same inward world of a bent and fallen mankind that consumed Cain. His brothers offering of the first and best of his flock was regarded by God but Cain’s offering was not. For a solution he turned inward; he turned to his own efforts in comparison with those of his brother. He began to construct a workable fiction fueled by jealousy and hatred where the only solution to regain his prominence meant that he must pull down his brother. Like the Pharisee, love, compassion and mercy fled from him as he sought to elevate himself. And what was the result? The result was the first mother to weep over the loss of her child; the first grave where man would return to the ground from which he was taken.
We hear our Lord ask, “What have you done?” and all of our sins, all of our guilt and shame come flooding back into our midst. Our brokenness is exposed; we know what we have done. We know of jealousy, we know of hatred, we know of lust and passions that spiral out of control. We know that the good that we want to do we do not do and that the evil things we do not want to do we end up doing over and over again. The temptation is to turn in, to go diving into our own depths, to find the answer, to turn it around – but not this day! No, today we have been reminded of the story of Cain. Today we are reminded of the Pharisee who goes home from the temple without being justified.
Thanks be to God that today we have met another man in our readings: that lowly and despised tax collector. We don’t notice him, at first, because he stands in the background; he takes his guilt seriously and he seems to know that there is no answer to his shame from within himself. No, he lays it all out hoping, pleading, for an answer that comes from outside of himself. He beats his heart in disgrace and says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Thank God for this man, for he points to the one true hope through all the lies and deception.
Our only hope is in the mercy of God. Our only chance has nothing to do with what we find within, nothing to do with our effort or our cleverness. No, the solution to brokenness lies in the heart of God himself.
So God declares, “What have you done?” Trusting in his mercy we say, “I have sinned against you, in my thoughts, my words and my deeds. There are so many that I have hurt, so many I have failed to help. Because I have not let your love have its way with me my love for others has failed. In fact my thoughts and my desires are soiled with sin. I cannot make it better, I cannot fix it.”
And your Lord says, “Oh my child, I know. Which is why I have done it all for you.” I, then, declare to you this day that in Christ you are forgiven. You are free from these sins; you are heirs of eternal life. So go, now, in true peace.