[Genesis 4:1-15 / Ephesians 2:1-10 / Luke 18:9-14]
The mark of Cain is something we’ll likely never know. But the mark of the Pharisee is plain as day: “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” To be in the right so as to be able to look down your nose at those you hold to be in the wrong – that lands you in Pharisee country. Think of those whom you’ve disagreed of late. Think of how you’ve regarded them. Have you looked down on them? Have you thought yourself better because you knew you were in the right and they were in the wrong? Have you dared to whisper in your heart: “Thank God I’m not like THEM?”
To be right is a most dangerous position for a fallen human. I mean, think of the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. He was RIGHT to pray – Jesus had just told a parable to encourage us ALWAYS to pray and NEVER to give up. He was right not to want to be a sinner – notorious or otherwise. He was right to fast and go without food, for fasting pleases God as we read everywhere in Scripture. He was right to give his tithe, his tenth, and not to hold back from the Lord that which is His due. In doing all those things the Pharisee wasn’t in the wrong; they were all good things to do and to strive for.
But where he shot himself in the foot was in looking at what he did in such a way that he was able to despise others who weren’t like him, who weren’t in the right like him. If you’ve been convinced you’re right and others are dead wrong, and you’ve looked down on them in your heart and spoken evil of them, you know whom you are like.
But being a Pharisee is not the only option. There is also the tax-collector. The man who looks into his life with dismay and realizes how often his heart isn’t in the things the Lord commands and how often he fails, and how miserable and sorry his life truly is. This man has no way of looking down on ANYONE, because he realizes how greatly he himself has failed the Lord. He can only stand afar off and beat his breast and plead: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The tax collector is focused not on his rightness, or on the good things he’s done, or his noble intents. No, he’s focused squarely upon the sin, the shame, the failure, the sorrow of his life. He looks upon it without any Polaroid lenses to filter things – he looks at his life in the stark, unfiltered sunshine of God’s holy law. And so his constant plea, over and over again: “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The word he uses for mercy is not our usual. It’s not what we sing when we say Kyrie eleison! Rather, it’s more along these lines: O God, provide atonement for me; O God, provide a sacrifice to blot out my sins; O God, let the blood of Your sacrifice cover over my guilt and make we pure before You.
It’s the sort of prayer that Abel would have understood as the lamb’s blood spilled and an innocent animal died in his stead and for his sake. It’s the sort of prayer that Cain and his brother the Pharisee never get – because they never think THEY’RE as bad as all that.
It’s a prayer for bloody mercy, for sacrifice that substitutes for the sinner. And even as they ask for such an audacious thing, God in astonishing grace grants it.
Abel’s blood may have cried for vengeance to the skies. But there is another blood shed that cries for something entirely different; not judgment, but pardon; not vindication, but mercy. There is blood that speaks louder and more clearly than Abel’s lamb could ever voice. There is the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
It’s what the tax collector was asking for. And that’s why Jesus said that the fellow went home justified, rather than the man who didn’t think he needed all that blood. The tax collector, who humbled himself to plead for divine mercy in the blood of the Lamb slain for him – he in the end was exalted. And not he alone, but all who stand with him, pleading before God for mercy that they know they have not deserved, mercy written in blood, spilled to give life.
Have you been living in Pharisee territory? Have you been despising others? For you there is a Lamb whose blood pleads for your pardon, whose crimson stain can give you life. He does not want your destruction; as He was tender to Cain and sought to turn him from sin before judgment wiped him out, so He is tender to YOU, Pharisee, and seeks to turn you from all that despising and judging and putting down. He seeks to you show you that He has provided a better way for you than that. A way so that you too can go down to your house justified.
His body and blood that were on the tree to plead for forgiveness for your every sin –He reaches you today. He says: Let it go; you know you’re not in a position to look down on anyone. I know your heart. And even so, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Come, take of my body, let my blood stain your lips and your throat, and cleanse you from all sin, and from all the treating of your fellow sinners with contempt. Mercy is my gift to you, atoning mercy, bloody mercy, my life poured out for you. And so you will live with me forever. Forgiven. Amen.