In the Old Testament reading we have Cain and Abel. Of course, we know how it ends. Cain kills Abel, Cain is marked in some way – we don’t know how – and wanders the earth as punishment. But the initial problem is that Abel’s sacrifice – his worship – is acceptable to God, and Cain’s is not. It couldn’t just be that God likes sheep more than vegetables. In Leviticus, when God sets up the Tabernacle with its sacrifices, the high priest and priests and Levites, he has not only animal sacrifices, but grain sacrifices. Meat and plants. Both acceptable. So what was it about Cain’s Sacrifice that was no good.
We do know that Abel gave of the firstborn and the fat portions. Cain, it makes no mention. You could infer that Abel gave a higher quality sacrifice. But that’s not certain. We know God had no regard for Cain’s offering. And God talks to Cain. He says, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted because Cain did not do well. His sacrifice may have been perfectly fine. The problem was the heart that offered it. Cain’s heart was not in the right place. “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Sin begins in the heart. It is an evil will that gives birth to sin. We are sinners, because our hearts are corrupted. So also, for Cain. He was not giving the sacrifice out of love for God, but out of obligation. As we often hear – our worship doesn’t earn us anything before God.
And that brings us to the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The two go up to the temple. The Pharisee recounts all that he has done for God – fast twice a week, give tithes of all he has. The tax collector just looks at the dirt, and says “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” Now, the interesting thing about this reading is that the tax collector says, “Be merciful to be THE sinner.” But no English translation says that. They all say “a sinner.” But the tax collector isn’t identifying himself as just A sinner. He is THE sinner. This is a lot like the saying “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” It’s not just that I am a sinner. As far as it matters for salvation, THE sinner. The only one. Because if you’re being condemned to hell, it really doesn’t matter what the guy next to you is getting. And if you’ve been freed from that punishment by the blood of Jesus, then it really doesn’t matter what the guy next to you is doing or getting. You don’t need to compare your conduct to his. You don’t need to make him into a bigger sinner to make yourself feel better. You’ve been forgiven – totally free of charge. So much has been forgiven, that you don’t even really have time to consider anything that anyone has done against you. The debt you have been forgiven is infinitely greater.
So, when scripture says, “Love covers a multitude of sins”, what it means is that not only have your sins been forgiven by the love of God through Christ Jesus. it means that the sins other commit against you – they are no more as well. The love of God that he shows through you covers those sins. So, you aren’t really concerned with what others are doing, just what God has done for you. And the love you have in Christ covers over your neighbors sin – you don’t even see it. You just consider your own place according to the ten commandments. And there is plenty of sin there.
That’s what the Tax Collector knew – his sins were great. They were overwhelming. They were so fantastically huge that nothing else mattered to him. He was THE sinner.
And so, Jesus pronounces the judgment – the sinner is forgiven, the righteous man goes away unforgiven.
But then, part of the reason for that is that the righteous man never asked for forgiveness. You can look as closely as you want to. The prayer of the Pharisee attracts attention, it shows how good he is. But it never asks for forgiveness. At no point does he say that he is in need of anything from God.
And so, God gives him exactly what he asks for – which is nothing. He believes his own works can save him.
The idolatry of works – Luther says it’s the greatest idolatry. And of course, it’s true. The desire to be like God. The need to feel ourselves somehow helping, somehow making it on our own – or at least making some small part of it. We want to know that we can do something.
But the truth is, there is nothing we can do. It’s all Jesus all the time. And we can’t even begin to earn anything before God. And if it were somehow possible for us not only to keep the law, but to go above and beyond to show our Love toward our neighbor in everything we do always, for ever, all we’re really trying to prove is that we don’t need Jesus.
There is no “without Jesus”. It’s him or nothing. And we can’t keep the law. We begin by turning away from God and his word. Turning toward the things of this world.