Two brothers provide sacrifices for God – one is acceptable the other is not. Two men pray in the Temple – one is justified while God has no regard for the other. Why not? Why does God pay attention to one man but not the other? Why does He delight in one gift but not the other? Could it happen here? Could God look upon your worship and your prayers and your offerings with no regard – no delight? Is He really that capricious? Of course not. And both our Old Testament and Gospel readings show this very same truth at work.
3In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. Understand this right from the beginning, Abel’s gift is not inherently superior to Cain’s. Both offerings are proper thank offerings in the Old Testament. God regarded Abel’s offering because it was given in true faith. Faith was the weight that added value to Abel’s offering. He believed that God was merciful and good. But Cain put his trust in himself, his gift, his own worthiness. This is why he gets so angry when God doesn’t accept it. Because in his mind God is not rejecting his offering but Cain, himself!
So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” The problem lay in Cain, not in his offering. Cain trusted in himself. He had no real regard for God! It is at heart the very same arrogance and pride that caused his parent’s fall in the garden. “He had no mind to pray to God but to laud himself” St. Augustine said.1 The bigger and better the offering the more God would be moved by it, and the more he in turn would gain by it.
And us? Is that not how we so often approach our own relationship with God and others? You are a good person, you go to church, you give your tithe. And that makes you better than those others, doesn’t it? Up here you may deny it, but in here you know it’s how you feel. Just look at things when they go wrong. Pagans, unbelievers and evil people deserve to suffer, but not us, right? It just isn’t fair, that they should be happy and wicked, that we should be justified and still suffer. God should be giving us something better than them for all we have sacrificed for Him.
But God is not influenced by means of our offerings. He will be gracious to whom He will be gracious and will show mercy to whom He will show mercy. As St. Ireneus said: “God is not appeased by sacrifice … He who thus cherishes secret sin does not deceive God by the at sacrifice which is offered correctly as to outward appearance.”2 This is what Cain, the Pharisee, and we ourselves don’t fully understand or appreciate. God can’t be bought and to think that He can is to have no regard for Him at all.
We teach and confess that a person rather than his work is accepted by God and that a person does not become righteous as a result of a righteous work, but that a work becomes righteous and good as a result of a righteous and good person. Because God had regard for Abel, He has regard also for his offering; and because He has no regard for Cain, He has no regard for his offering either.3
It is exactly the same attitude we see at work in the Gospel reading when: 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ This is not the prayer of someone who has true regard for God – only for himself. He who prays for grace in this way does not rely upon God’s mercy and treats Christ with disrespect.4
And what happens when someone has no regard for God? They have no regard for others either. And so we read the tragic consequences of our story: 8Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And so we, like the Pharisee and Cain before him, are ever tempted to have little or no regard for those who do not measure up to us. Those who think they are better than us. Those who are just too different from us. And so we leave them to their sin, abandon them in their needs, ignore them in their peril. Are we to be the whole world’s keeper?
Yet here is the astounding part of our readings for today … God has mercy for even the worst sinners. And that is really very good news for you and me. He has mercy on the likes of the tax collector who went away justified. And He has mercy on Cain who even in his deplorable sin was given undeserved protection from God! 13Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear … I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! … And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him
God’s mercy is that He would send another son of Adam, sent from heaven, to be brother to not just Abel but to Cain! And to all the Cains that populate the world, ourselves included. Incredibly, the same thing happened to him as to Abel, and he knew it was coming. The difference is that when his blood cries out to heaven, it cries not to seek vengeance but for forgiveness and mercy, to make of us children of Cain children of the Father and, therefore sisters and brothers again.
As God touched Cain with a “mark,” so we are marked with the mark of the cross. God has enough regard for us poor sinners to mark us with the seal of His Holy Baptism placed upon our hearts and heads, showing that our life is safe in His, for He has redeemed us in Christ, and we are now under His eternal protection! Divinely marked, we are sent into a Cainic world to bring what he has given us: love, grace, and reconciliation. We are marked to have regard for others, to be our brothers’ keepers, because God is our keeper. And keeps us in highest regard in Christ.
1 NPNF1 6:455
2 ANF 1:485
3 Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, vol 1: 257. St. Louis, 1958
4 Ap V 211