Two men went up to an altar to offer a sacrifice. One is accepted the other isn’t. One comes from faith the other doesn’t. One comes from thanksgiving for the Lord’s provision the other doesn’t. Abel offers not just the first-fruits of his flock, but he offers his sacrifice from a humble and a contrite heart. He offers his sacrifice by faith, believing the promise given to Eve that by the blood of her descendant the serpent’s head would be crushed forever. Cain offers only a portion of his grain. His offering does not proceed from faith. His focus was only on his work, his performance, what he could give to God. He came before the Lord with pride in himself.
When Cain was born, his mother, Eve, rejoiced and said, “I have gotten the man, the Lord.” She thought that Cain’s birth was the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise, that through Cain, the serpent’s head would be crushed. Cain was the first born. He was the hope of his parents. He received the inheritance of his father, the working of the ground.
Then came Abel. His name means vapor, vanity. He was seen to be born in vain. He would never amount to anything much because the promise was to be fulfilled in Cain. Or so his mother thought. Abel lived constantly in the shadow of his older, gifted brother.
One can see why Abel came to his sacrifice with faith, with humility, without pretense and offered the best of his flock to the Lord. Abel knew he was nothing unless the Lord made something of him. He knew he was vanity for he heard it every time he heard his name. Also, one can see why Cain came without faith in the Lord, but with faith rather in himself. He offered his sacrifice with pride in his own works, being conceited in his own mind and heart, thinking and believing that His work was enough to please the Lord.
And so it is "Two men went up into the temple to pray." In English, we mostly use the word "pray" to refer to private devotion and the word "worship" to refer to what a community does together. In the Jewish mind, however, the word "pray" was used for both. Here a the place of worship, the temple, is mentioned and two men are on their way to this place at the same time. What type of worship service—public and communal or private and individual—does this language then indicate?
The only daily service in the temple were the atonement offerings that took place at dawn and again at three in the afternoon. Each service began outside the sanctuary at the great high altar with the sacrifice for the sins of Israel of an unblemished lamb whose blood was sprinkled on the altar, following a precise ritual. In the middle of the prayers there would be the sound of silver trumpets, the clanging of cymbals and the reading of a psalm. The priest would then enter the outer part of the sanctuary where he would offer incense along with the prayers that the sacrifice would be pleasing in the Lord’s sight. At that point, when the priest entered the building, those in attendance could offer their private prayers to God (see Luke 1:8). It is here when our two men make their prayers.
While the Pharisee thanks the Lord that he is acceptable because of who he is and what he has done, the tax collector implores "O Lord, have mercy on me, that is, make atonement for me, THE sinner." Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are standing in front of the great high altar on which a lamb without blemish has been sacrificed for the sins of Israel. The tax collector stands far off, apart from the others gathered, and watches the sacrifice of the lamb. He listens to the blowing of the trumpets and the clashing of the cymbals, hears the reading of the psalm and watches the blood splashed on the sides of the altar. And when the priest offers the incense, the prayers of the people wafting up to heaven, the tax collector, beating his chest, cries out, "O Lord, make atonement for me, the sinner." And when the priest returns, He announces that the sacrifice has been accepted and pronounces the Aaronic Benediction over them. Israel's sins are washed away by the atoning blood of the sacrificial lamb.
It is not that the Pharisee's prayer was wrong period. We are thankful to the Lord that we are not like others all the time. What was wrong was the context. It is as if the Pharisee attended the chief service of Good Friday and during the reproaches said: "I thank you Lord that I am not sinful like these others around me." The service was a service of atonement not of first fruits, not of a thank offering, but of atonement. Like Cain, the Pharisee came with pride and trusted in his own works. And like Abel, the tax collector, knowing he and his works were but vanity, trusted not in himself but rather in the blood of the sacrificial lamb that the Lord provided. The Pharisee compared himself to the others. The tax collector compared himself to the holy Law of God. The Pharisee saw only sinners around him. The tax collector saw only one sinner, THE sinner, himself.
This parable was spoken to some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous and so they despised others. But those who would find mercy, whose relationship to God would be restored in love, who would be welcomed in the gracious presence of God, must despise themselves. For of ourselves, we are unrighteous. We must trust in Him, who is righteous, for mercy, for atonement. We must trust in him who is righteous to make atonement for us.
And here we see the irony of Christianity: those who are without sin, those who have been Baptized, Named by God, belong to Him as HIs children by grace, such as you and the believing tax-collector, feel their sin. It hurts. It is shameful and awkward and you struggle with it. But those who are in sin, who embrace it and seek to justify themselves, like the pharisee, they are satisfied and comfortable. The devil doesn't bother them because he already has them.
That is how it is in the Kingdom of God. It is a Kingdom of reversals and irony. God became Man. Life became Death. He who knew no sin became sin. And the instrument of execution, the cross, made from the dead limbs of a dead tree to put what is living to death has become for those who believe the Tree of Life. He exchanges His life for yours. This God, this merciful, long-suffering Lover of mankind, makes something from nothing. But this happens through reversal, through Grace. For it is only the blind who are given sight, the sick healing, and the dead life. It is only the repentant who are forgiven. It is only sinners who become saints and go to their homes justified.
And so come, then. Be a sinner that feasting upon that which is holy you may be made saints. Come and feast on Christ the Lamb to become His sheep. Come like the tax-collector, with your pain, your fear, your worries, your shame, your loneliness, your failures and disgrace. Come to where God promises to be, where He extends His mercy, where His atonement is applied to you, in the sprinkling of His blood, which cries out a better word than the blood of Abel. Come to the Temple made without hands, torn down by men, but rebuilt by God on the third day. Receive in your mouths the embodiment of the temple, and in that Holy Communion become the Temple of His Holy Spirit and go home justified.