On reconciliation: a sermon on Gen. 4.1-16 and Matt. 5.21-26

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June 26, 2012 by jmar198013

an original sin

Cain was very angry. He spent hours and hours each day toiling under a scorching sun trying to coax a few turnips or some leeks from the cursed ground. It was not even his fault that the ground was cursed. His parents, Eve and Adam, were entirely to blame for this. Long ago, before he had even been thought of, they had abused what the earth brought forth. They had stupidly listened to a talking snake and ate from the one tree the LORD had forbidden. Because of their transgression, the earth would no longer freely share her fruits as she had before. The only plants that grew generously now were the thorns and thistles that cut Cain’s skin and choked away at the seeds he planted. Every time the thorns tore into his flesh and the rivulets of blood came, he would get very angry and curse them, and the cruel earth, and talking snakes, and his parents.

Every day Cain grew a little angrier. Especially when he thought of his younger brother Abel sitting on a hill somewhere, serenely watching his flocks grazing. Abel, Cain thought, that schmuck! That good for nothing! All he does is play with sheep all day while the rest of us have to work for a living! Cain secretly hated his brother; he did not yet know to call it “hate.” He knew only that every time he saw Abel, he began to boil inside. Whenever he saw his brother, under his breath he would curse him, his sheep, and their parents.

The day came when the brothers, Cain and Abel, were to make an offering to the LORD. Cain came with an armful of produce. He was so proud of it, for he had his own blood, sweat, and tears invested in it. He saw Abel coming with some of his flock, and noted with a hint of amusement that his brother was having no small difficulty herding some of them toward the site where the offering was to be made. He did not speak to his brother; his brother’s voice reminded him too much of the infernal bleating of those sheep. He hated the sheep, because they reminded him of his brother. What a schmuck that Abel is, thought Cain. What would the LORD want with a bunch of stupid sheep, anyway? He did not look at Abel; he tried to pretend that both he and the sheep were not there. Cain was very angry.

The LORD finally came to receive the gifts the brothers had brought him. Cain’s heart was pounding with anticipation. The LORD looked at his offering and nodded. Then he spent a long time looking at Abel’s gift. Cain was sure that the LORD was about to tell Abel that these sheep were worthless and how dare he bring these bleating little blighters before him? But that did not happen. The LORD was absolutely delighted with them. Cain was stunned. He began to pout; he hung his head. The LORD saw that Cain was offended. He asked him, “Why are you pouting like that? Why are you hanging your head? If you mean well, lift up your head. But if you do not mean well, sin is waiting at the door. It lusts for you, but you must control it.” Cain heard what the LORD told him, but it didn’t change anything. He went away even angrier at his brother than he had been before.

Cain no longer cursed his brother only under his breath. He took every opportunity he could to berate, taunt, and threaten Abel. His words were like bellows that only fanned the flames of his anger. Soon, just someone saying his brother’s name in front of him would tear something loose in his heart, and rivulets of scorn would pour from his lips. He spoke out against his brother Abel constantly. Then one day Cain saw Abel out in the field. He rose up against Abel, his brother, and killed him. Abel’s final cries melted into the bleating of his frightened sheep, as rivulets of his blood melted into the soil. Yet, even this did not satiate Cain’s anger.

He was still angry some time later when the LORD came and found him. The LORD asked him, “Cain, where is your brother Abel?” Cain snapped at him, “How should I know? What am I, his shepherd or something?” “What have you done?” the LORD gasped. “Listen—just there—it’s your brother’s blood crying out to me from the soil. So the soil curses you, Cain; the soil that opened its mouth to drink your brother’s blood. From now on, if you till the soil, it will not give you anything. You will wander the earth the rest of your days, alone with your anger.”

Cain said to the LORD: “My punishment is more than I can stand! You have taken the soil from me, and I must hide myself from you. Now I will be a lone wanderer on the earth. Anyone who finds me will kill me.” But the LORD told him, “That may be so, but anyone who kills Cain will suffer sevenfold vengeance.” So the LORD put a mark on Cain so that whoever found him would not kill him. Then Cain left the LORD’s presence, and settled down in the Land of the Wanderers, east of Eden.

unoriginal sins

The story of Cain’s murder of his brother is disturbing and tragic, but it is hardly exceptional. Still, it has the power to haunt our imaginations, perhaps because it is the first murder recorded in sacred history. Yet, I would argue that its status as the first murder makes the Cain and Abel saga not exceptional, but paradigmatic. It is reenacted numerous times a day in big and small ways.

The tension that fuels the plot of the Cain and Abel story is Cain’s anger. He is angry at Abel because Abel has taken what he wants, what he believes is rightfully his. We are angry when people cut us off in traffic, or when they glide smugly into that great parking space we have just noticed. We are angry when we are looked over for a promotion at work, and someone we believe less qualified gets the higher status and pay grade. We are angry at the rich because they have gained their wealth and status at the expense of everyone else. We are angry at the poor because they are lazy and shiftless and exist as parasites. We are angry at white people and minorities; at Republicans and Democrats; at the President and Congress; at gay people and straight people. We are angry at our parents and our children and our brothers and sisters, and our weird uncles who embarrass us. We are angry at the little old lady who just ran over our foot with her shopping cart and didn’t even acknowledge it or apologize. We are angry at people of other cultures and religions for being different than us—another paradigm established by the story of Cain and Abel, since Cain disfellowshipped his brother over a religious difference. Everyone is angry at someone; sometimes we are very angry.

Our anger can make us view others as less than human. We begin to speak about them and to them with words that do not take their humanity into account. We call those who cut us off in traffic fools and other words beginning with “f.” We characterize the one who got the promotion over us as a brownnoser, or some less polite way of putting it. We call both the idle rich and the idle poor “parasites.” We call those whose culture and religion are not like ours “towel heads” and “camel jockeys.” Whatever names we come up with, they always distance us from the objects of our anger. Whenever we begin to regard others as less human than we are, we have opened ourselves to the possibility of violence, and even killing. We instinctively recoil at the thought of killing a brother, or a neighbor, or human person. We might, however, be more inclined to do violence to a parasite, or a vermin, or a dog, if we believed that they were out to harm us, or disgrace us, or threaten our way of life. This is exactly the paradigm established by the Cain and Abel story: Cain became angry at his brother; he began to speak out against his brother; and then he killed his brother. Even the cheeky response he gave to the LORD, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” indicates that he no longer perceived his brother as a person. The word for “keeper” there most often indicated someone who looked after animals. But Cain had not failed at being his brother’s keeper; he was wrong because he had not been his brother’s brother.

Another way the Cain and Abel story establishes a paradigm about killing is the matter of judgment and consequences. Killing his brother has done nothing to abate his anger, nor the insecurity about his status in which it was rooted. He has placed himself outside of the protective presence of the LORD, the land, and his fellow humans. Now a fugitive, Cain fears that whoever finds him will take vengeance. The LORD recognizes that Cain is correct, and to stave off an endless cycle of killing and retaliation, marks Cain so that no one will take vengeance on him. Cain settles, ironically, in a land called “Wandering.” But the story doesn’t end there. Cain established a city there, and his family began setting up civilization. Some of his distant offspring developed animal husbandry, music, and metalwork. But Cain’s violence was woven into the fabric of civilization. Lamech, his great grandson many times removed bragged, “I have killed a man for striking me. Cain’s vengeance was sevenfold; mine is seventy-sevenfold!” And so it is that killing and retribution are in the warp and woof of society even until this day. In various ways, we are all socialized to mark and eliminate those with whom we are angry.

flipping the script

The ancients recognized that the violence woven through the fabric of civilization threatened to tear it to shreds. Thus, they sought to contain it. One expression of the desire to contain the violence was Moses’ law, which said, “You shall not murder,” and provided that whoever took the life of another should pay with their own life. Outlawing murder is, of course, just and wise. However, judging the murderer after the murder has already occurred is an afterthought. It’s sort of like closing the stable doors after the horses have already run away.

Jesus saw a need to short-circuit the violent impulse before it came to murder and judgment. He began to describe the empire of God, a society that would not be woven with threads of violence. He said that the justice of this society’s citizens would surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. Those religious and social authorities knew how to judge a murderer; they did not necessarily present options to prevent murder from happening in the first place. So Jesus told his audience, “You have all heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You will not murder,’ and whoever murders is liable to judgment.” Those who heard him nodded; they were all well aware of the ancient ordinance. But Jesus continued, “I have something else to say to you, too. If someone stays angry at his brother, that person is headed for judgment. Someone who calls his brother a schmuck is liable to end up on trial. Someone who calls his brother a good-for-nothing is on the highway to hell.” Murder and judgment, according to Jesus, are the outcome of a vicious cycle. You become trapped in this cycle by your anger toward your brother. The anger is reinforced when you begin to speak evil about him and toward him. And each turn of the cycle brings you closer to murder and judgment.

Jesus had begun with what the people already knew: “You will not murder.” Having diagnosed the vicious cycle of anger and aggressive speech that separates us from our neighbor and leads to murder, he returned to something his audience was already familiar with to teach them how to break that vicious cycle. He re-told the Cain and Abel story, but with a twist: he gave the story a happier ending. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and you get there knowing that there is strife between you and your brother, here’s what you do. Leave your gift at the altar, and go be reconciled to your brother first. Then, come back and offer your gift.” His audience would not have been offering their own sacrifices at altars—this was of course the duty of the priests. The setting of lay persons offering their own sacrifices hearkens back to an earlier time. Jesus was channeling the story of the first murder to make his point. Cain had gotten trapped in the vicious cycle of alienating anger and aggressive speech, and had murdered his brother. But what if Cain had been reconciled to his brother instead of destroying him? The story may well have ended quite differently.

transforming grace

By intentionally transforming the Cain and Abel story, Jesus was describing the transforming initiatives that are taken by citizens of God’s empire. Where there is anger and alienation, disciples take an initiative to be reconciled before violence erupts. Jesus reimagines the tale of Cain and Abel to teach us that conflict does not have to be an agent of violence; it can be a powerful agent for transformation. When Jesus supplied the Cain and Abel story with a positive resolution—Cain reconciles with Abel instead of attacking him—he gave us a new narrative to live by. In a world of anger, alienation, and attacking each other, Christians cannot imagine any other way to live but taking the initiative to be reconciled. After all, didn’t God take the initiative to be reconciled to us by means of the Cross of Christ? This was actually an essential facet of Paul’s theology of the Cross. The underlying message of passages such as Rom. 5.10, 2 Cor. 5.18-19, and Col. 1.19-22 is that the truth of our reconciliation to God through the Cross is told by our willingness to give ourselves to the process of reconciliation in the world.

If being reconciled to those with whom we are angry, rather than seeking to destroy them, is the paradigm established by Jesus’ reimagining of Cain and Abel, it seems to me that we should begin practicing reconciliation among our brothers and sisters in the church. Imagine how different the world might be today if Christians had decided long ago at least not to kill each other. I once heard a preacher joke that during the days of the Protestant Reformation, the only thing the Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists could all agree about was that the Anabaptists needed to die. But what if, instead, all had at least agreed that no one who wore the name of Christian had any business killing another Christian? The world is watching the church, for we are yet a city set on a hill. Why should they see only a mirror of their alienation and violence when they look at us?

We must begin our witness of reconciliation right here in this assembly. If, for instance, we are preparing to share in the Lord’s Supper, and recall that we are angry with or alienated from someone in this building, we ought to take an initiative to be reconciled with them before we take the body and blood of Christ. Is it not a sham to proclaim our common reconciliation with God through Christ while we are estranged from each other? I believe this is especially true if the reason we are estranged from someone else in the body of Christ is because of contradicting opinions about holiness codes, lifestyle choices, or personal politics. In Christ, there is no omnivore or vegan; no pacifist or just warrior; no liberal or conservative; no socialist or capitalist. There are only citizens of God’s empire, the poor in spirit, who understand that our only claim to God is his mercy. But when we begin to name distinctions between ourselves, we are trapped in the vicious cycle again. We have already made it easier to justify harming our brother or sister, because they are not like us. So whether we are angry at a brother because of some disagreement between us, or alienated from a sister because she will not see things our way, our first priority is to be reconciled to that person. Think of it as practice for some of the more difficult demands of discipleship, like turning the other cheek or loving our enemies. How will we come by the patience not to retaliate, or the courage to love those who seek our harm, if we will not even take the time to be reconciled to each other? Now, let us pray:

Heavenly Father, in a world where Cain kills Abel again and again each day, may we be a witness for reconciliation. Give us the courage and patience we need to be reconciled when we are angry, and to make peace instead of seeking to destroy one another. Teach us not to call each other by names that do not respect Your image, which we bear, but to know each other only as Your children, brothers and sisters. We claim Your mercy and Your grace as we bear witness to Your reconciliation in this body. Amen.

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One thought on “On reconciliation: a sermon on Gen. 4.1-16 and Matt. 5.21-26

  1. […] that Jesus said that violence begins with calling someone else insulting names (Matt. 5.21ff). He also insisted that his disciples tell […]

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