Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why has the expression of your face fallen? If you do well, won’t it be lifted up? If you don’t do well, sin crouches at the door. Its desire is for you, but you are to rule over it.’
Many parents struggled at the beginning of this school year with the requirements for classroom supplies. I read several articles and the comment sections about teachers who required certain items that would become the property of the classroom. The boxes of crayons would not have a child’s name, all the boxes of crayons would be put in a bin and pulled out when necessary; the children would get a box, not their box. Some parents were very upset about this. They thought it wasn’t fair if they bought their children expensive name brand crayons while the other parents bought the cheap generic kind. Several parents commented, “I’ll just buy the cheap ones, too.”
We can be incredibly generous, but most of us have to admit that we are sometimes cheaply generous. I have a favorite charity that collects stuffed animals to give to children in abusive relationships. I like to take a big bag full of stuffed animals each year, and I usually do my shopping in the days following Christmas when everything is on sale. I do this with a purpose: I can buy far more when it is on clearance than I can when it is first price. Isn’t it better to buy three for $10 rather than just one? This is good stewardship.
But sometimes, I have to admit, that I choose the cheap thing not to buy more but to save money. How many of us decide to buy a case of canned corn rather than a jar of peanut butter? We think it makes us look better because we are giving twelve cans rather than one. Did you know that the jar of peanut butter is actually the better choice, even if you are only giving one jar? See, most food banks get pallets of government subsidized food products like corn. It is good that the recipients get vegetables, but they really need food with more substance. Most food banks will recommend peanut butter, or other nut butters, rolled oats, canned fruit in juice not in light or heavy syrup, canned vegetables with no or low-sodium, low-sodium soups, canned tuna in water, canned beans, and dry beans. It is better to buy one can of the more expensive item than a whole case of the cheap stuff.
Did you know that many disaster relief donations actually end up in a warehouse, completely unusable because people have sent their second hand junk rather than items that can actually be used? One report showed that someone sent a pair of ice skates to Haiti. Pictures often show piles of used, stained, ripped clothing. We think that something is better than nothing, but is it? Most of those disaster relief organizations will tell you that a ten check or dollar gift card is significantly better than a bag full of rags.
We are generous, but are we generous with our best? Are will willing to buy the name brand crayons or a jar of peanut butter? Are we willing to give the first fruits of our work for the sake of others?
The Old Testament text from this week’s lectionary has often been misunderstood, putting the cattleman above the farmer. However, the difference between Cain and Abel has nothing to do with what they presented to God, but the attitude with which they presented it. Cain took an offering to God from the fruit of the ground. Abel took some of the firstborn of his flock and of its fat. Cain gave, but he gave out of his harvest; Abel gave God the best of his. God wants our first and our best, which is why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s rejected.
God is not fooled; He sees our hearts. He called out to Cain, “You can do better.” If he learned to be humble and thankful, he would experience the same regard, whatever the offering might be. “If you don’t do well, sin crouches at the door. Its desire is for you, but you are to rule over it.”
An old Native American Proverb reads, “There is a battle of two wolves inside us. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope humility, kindness, empathy and truth. The wolf that wins is the one you feed.” God was warning Cain that there was a battle within his heart and that if he didn’t change his attitude, he would sin. He could change and please God and be blessed.
Cain did not humble himself. Instead, he called Abel into the field and killed him. He rejected God’s warning and sin won in his heart. God knew what happened, but He asked Cain, “Where is Abel?” A humble heart would have recognized God’s test and would have confessed, but Cain continued in his arrogance and pride. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain suffered the consequences of his sin: he was left without a means of support or a home. He could no longer farm the land and he was sent into the world as a fugitive and a wanderer. He was afraid. His pride led to anger which led to fear. He never trusted God and the evil wolf inside him won.
Martin Luther writes about this text, “The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has looked at this passage with pure and clear eyes when he says (Heb. 11:4): ‘By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God bearing witness concerning his gifts.’ Cain also brings an offering, and indeed first; but when he brings his offering, he is puffed up by the glory which was his by birth, and he hopes that the sacrifice will please God because it is brought by the first-born. Thus he comes without faith, without any confession of sin, without any supplication for grace, without trust in God’s mercy, without any prayer for the forgiveness of his sins. He comes in the hope that he will please God by nothing else than that he is the first-born. All the work-righteous do the same thing even now. They are concerned only with their own work, and so they hope that they will please God because of it; they do not trust in God’s mercy, and they do not hope that God will pardon their sins because of Christ. Cain, too, was such a person, for he could not have displeased God if he had had faith. Abel, on the other hand, acknowledges that he is an unworthy and poor sinner. Therefore he takes refuge in God’s mercy and believes that God is gracious and willing to show compassion. And so God, who looks at the heart, judges between the two brothers who are bringing their offerings at the same time. He rejects Cain, not because his sacrifice was inferior (for if he had brought the shell of a nut in faith as a sacrifice, it would have been pleasing to God), but because his person was evil, without faith, and full of pride and conceit. By contrast, He has regard for Abel’s sacrifice because He is pleased with the person. Accordingly, the text distinctly adds that first He had regard for Abel and then for his sacrifice. For when a person pleases, the things he does also please, while, on the contrary, all things are displeasing if you dislike the person who does them.”
Isn’t that what we see happening in today’s Gospel lesson? We see a man puffed up by his position. He was a Pharisee, blessed by birth and by the community, honored for his work in the world. He believed in himself. He didn’t need God; he wasn’t praying. He used his time in the Temple to point out to God how great he was; he was there to show God how much better he was than the others.
Our Gospel lesson is preceded by the question, “Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” Today's Gospel lesson is the story of two men: one, a Pharisee, and the other, a tax collector. Each man approached the altar of God, desirous of being in the presence of the Most High. They approached with very different attitudes. The Pharisee thought he belonged there; he thought he deserved the grace of God. The tax collector approached God with a humble, repentant heart. He knew that he did not deserve God’s forgiveness, but he asked in faith knowing that God is merciful.
The tax collector was a man who was reviled not only for his vocation but also for his religious impurity. He was a sinner and as a sinner he had no right to stand in the presence of God. He was not even good enough to be in the presence of the righteous Pharisee. Jesus tells them, “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” It was the sinner that humbled himself before God that was found to have faith. It was he that was granted forgiveness and was justified before God. God is not fooled. He knows the heart. He knew the hearts of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Cain and Abel.
The Pharisee thought he was righteous and tried to justify himself; the tax collector knew he was a sinner and he left justified by God’s grace. The humble will be raised and the proud will be set low.
What does it mean to be humble? It means to have a child-like trust and faith in God. Jesus asked if the Son of Man would find faith on earth and then after the story He showed the disciples the kind of faith He would be seeking. The disciples wanted to send the children away, as if Jesus did not have time for them. Jesus rebuked them and said, “Allow the little children to come to me, and don’t hinder them, for God’s Kingdom belongs to such as these. Most certainly, I tell you, whoever doesn’t receive God’s Kingdom like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.” Children simply believe. They are not proud or arrogant. They love without question. They see the world through their innocence, trusting without fear or expectation. They don’t do things for show, but give with their whole hearts.
We’d like to think we are more like Abel and the tax collector, humble and pure or heart. I think, sadly, most of us have had moments when look more like Cain or the tax collector. We put on a show, but think we deserve God’s grace. We think we are righteous and try to justify ourselves. But God says, “If you do well, won’t it be lifted up? If you don’t do well, sin crouches at the door. Its desire is for you, but you are to rule over it.” We are reminded to change our attitude, to turn to God and trust in Him. We are reminded that our self-righteousness will lead us down the wrong path. We are reminded to feed the good wolf so that we will not be consumed by sin. God won’t love us any more or less, but we’ll find that in our humility we’ll experience God’s grace and forgiveness.
Today’s Epistle lesson skips a few verses. They aren’t important to the point that Paul is making; it is a list of tasks Paul wants Timothy to accomplish. However, it is interesting that in this list we see Paul addressing a difficult situation. Paul asked Timothy to hurry back to Rome to be his helper. Paul writes, “Be diligent to come to me soon, for Demas left me, having loved this present world, and went to Thessalonica.” The evil wolf won in Demas.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.” Taken out of context, Paul looks almost like that Pharisee in the Temple and those to whom Jesus addressed today’s parable: “certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others.” Yet, his writing was not a self-righteous attack on those who had left, for Paul confessed that it was the Lord who was his strength through the persecution. “And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me for his heavenly Kingdom; to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul continued to fight the good fight. He was at the end of his life when he wrote this letter; he knew it was time to pass the baton to the next racer. He felt abandoned in the end, by all his friends and co-workers. Despite all his hard work for the Gospel and his generosity to his Christian friends, they left him to face the end alone.
Yet, even then Paul knew he had not been totally abandoned. God was with him. God gave him the strength to go from grace to grace, to preach the Word even when it was dangerous. Paul was like the pilgrim going from spring to spring as he traveled through dangerous territory to get to the Temple, anxiously awaiting the chance to see it again and to worship God in His house. He gave the glory to God, never taking credit for the good that he did. He knew that faith meant trusting in God, not man, so even when he felt abandoned, he was never alone.
So, how do we feed the good wolf? We spend time with our Father. Devotional time is vital to feeding the faith that dwells in our hearts. I think we all can identify times in our lives when we were faithful to our devotional lives. During these times we pray regularly, are disciplined in our study practices. We manage to find the time even if we are overwhelmed by our schedule because it is a good habit we have developed. We can also identify times when we were not so faithful. We get caught up in the daily grind, think we don’t have even five minutes to give specifically to devotions. We pray on the run, eat the scriptures like we eat fast food. When we practice the daily routine of our devotional time, it is a natural extension of our being and we find our days go better. When we stop, for even a few days, it gets harder to keep up the practice and things in our life get out of control. Our devotional time, or lack of it, becomes visible to the world around us.
Ignace Jan Paderewski, a polish pianist, once said, “When I miss a day of practice, I can always tell it. If I miss two days, the critics will pick it up. If I miss three days, the audience will notice it.” The same is true about everything we do. Though our devotional time is private, our time spent with God is obvious to the world around us. We go forth in faith, with joy and love, to do all that God would have us do. When we stop spending that time with the Lord, we lose touch with the source of our strength and faith. It does not take long before it becomes difficult for us to even find a few moments alone with God. We claim a lack of time and we try to go at it on our own. We find, all too quickly, that it is only with God’s help that our world is really under control. It is not enough to cry out to God occasionally in passing. It takes practice to develop a good pattern of devotional time, but it is well worth the trouble. For our daily time with God will help us to live more closely in His heart and kingdom.
It is interesting that the psalm for today sounds much like the prayer of the Pharisee, a prayer that seeks God’s help against the wicked ones. Yet, the prayers were very different. The Pharisee cried out from his self-righteousness, the psalmist for God’s righteousness. The Pharisee lifted himself above others, the psalmist lifted God above all. The Pharisee thought he deserved God’s grace, the psalmist knew that it was only by God’s grace that he could even enter His house to pray and worship. The Pharisee took refuge in his own works, the psalmist knew that the only place where we can find true refuge is in God and that those who trust in Him will be blessed.
Sin crouches at the door, but we can rule over it. God calls us out of our pride and arrogance to trust in Him, to change our ways, to humble our hearts. God will bless those who have humble faith, who trust in Him as a child trusts in a father. He is our strength; He will deliver us from evil. Everyone who humbles themselves will be raised up and God will be glorified in all that they do.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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