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We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers
So there’s this powerful and insightful (and I think somewhat overlooked) story from Jesus’ Jewish Tradition that Kyle and I, the pastors here at Brown Line Vineyard, can’t stop talking about lately:
::The story of Cain and Abel.::
It’s one of the stories from the first 11 chapters of Genesis (the first book of the Jewish Bible, or Old Testament) — these particular stories are sort of the prologue to the rest of the book of Genesis and to the whole Bible, and their purpose was to pose big questions about the origins of life:
- Who are we?
- Where did we come from?
- What does it mean to be human?
The basic story may be familiar to you: Cain and Abel are brothers. Cain becomes resentful of Abel and murders him in his anger. And from the resulting interaction between God and Cain we get a famous phrase, still used quite a bit in pop culture today though this story is millennia old:
God asks Cain, ”Where is your brother?” And Cain bitterly responds, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And, of course, the implication is: Yes. You can not wipe your hands clean of responsibility to another just because you’re mad at them. Murder is not an okay way to deal with resentment.
But the story’s application runs so much deeper than just “don’t murder”.
This is why Kyle and I can’t stop talking about the story lately — because it feels like it applies to everything.
You can talk about this on an interpersonal level — like when we are resentful of our spouses or partners or peers or siblings or parents… So like everyday.
Or we can talk about this on a societal or political level — like when people groups are resentful of other people groups… So like every society ever.
And because of this, we actually want to spend a few weeks looking at the story of Cain and Abel here on Sundays at Brown Line Vineyard.
::What does it mean that we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers?::
As fellow human beings, what does it mean to be accountable to each other? How do we operate with a level of responsibility for and to each other, and each other’s good will and flourishing?
Because this is like the definition of “easier said than done”.
It is so easy, especially in the age of social media and curated online personas, to be about something in theory or in word. To say the right things, or stand for the right things, or present ourselves as “one of the good guys” according to our social circle.
But to actually live out responsibility for and to each other… to weekly, daily, moment-to-moment make choices beyond self-centeredness... to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of another... especially when faced with our own resentments, entitlements, hurt feelings, or unmet needs... that is not easy.
That doesn’t make us bad! This is just what it means to be human!
And this is where the story of Cain and Abel takes on even more significance.
::Let’s take a look at the story…::
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain… Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.
And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”
Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod [which means “wandering”], east of Eden.
Here’s the first thing I note from the story:
It is not exactly clear why Abel’s offering was regarded by God, and Cain’s offering wasn’t. And this lack of clarity is really important to what we make of the meaning of the story, I think.
- Some scholars have suggested that, to ancient audiences, it would have been understood that Abel’s offering of “fat portions from the first of his flock” showed more devotion than Cain’s offering of “fruit of the ground”, and that’s why Abel’s offering was preferred
- But other scholars say that the descriptions of the brothers’ offerings are really just about what they did for a living, not that one would have been of higher quality — Cain was just a farmer and Abel was just herder of sheep
- Another interpretation from some scholars is that God’s preference for Abel is part of a theme throughout the Jewish Bible of God upending human conventions like patriarchy and primogeniture (the belief that the first born son is rightfully due the most power and status and favor). So here we see God prefer the offering of the younger son.
- But, then again, other scholars think that is reading something into the story that isn’t there.
- Really, there is no consensus among historians and scholars on why God regarded Abel’s offering, but didn’t regard Cain’s
Now I don’t think this lack of clarity is because the story wants to suggest that God is arbitrary (God seems to have quite a consistent ethic here, focused on non-violence).
Rather, I think there is a lack of clarity on the reasons for God’s regard or disregard of the brothers’ offerings , because that is not the point of the story. The point is found in the story’s emphasis on Cain’s response to his brother’s offering being favored.
It’s as if the story is saying: an inevitable part of life is disappointment and resentment. Sometimes we are favored and sometimes we are not, and it’s not always clear why. The potential reasons for that are innumerable — just fill in the blank. The real question is: ::how will you respond when that happens?::
And, along the lines of that question, there are two different ways that Biblical Scholars have looked at the story of Cain and Abel that are both really rich, I think. I want to pass on both.
::The first is a societal and political reading of the story.:: This school of thought points to the fact that, historically speaking, Cain’s vocation of farming largely supplanted Abel’s vocation of nomadic herding life. So we might read the two brothers as symbols for this societal change. Like all big societal changes, the transition can be rivalrous and violent — with the powerful, new way of life tempted to sacrifice the less-powerful, old way of life in order to fully take over.
And, according to this interpretation, when God favors the less-powerful Abel, that upsets the powerful Cain, who is left with a choice in how to respond: (1) come to terms with God’s preference for the less-powerful by sacrificing something of his ego or power, or (2) leverage his power to force the less-powerful to have to be sacrificed instead. And the consequence for Cain’s choice to sacrifice Abel instead himself is a life of “wandering” — The land of Nod (which means “wandering”) is not so much a place as it is a state of being.
In this way, the story of Cain and Abel is the story of humanity. Again and again, throughout history, we have powerful Cains failing to respond well to their resentments and anger and looking for less-powerful Abels to blame for their problems, to scapegoat, and to murder and call it justified. (Doesn’t just feel like “ancient” history at all, does it?)
And this sets the stage for the incredible act that was Jesus’ death on the Cross. When, once again, we have Cains — in the form of the powerful and violent Roman Empire and the complicit Jewish religious elite — looking for Abels to blame for their problems, to scapegoat, and to murder and call it justified. And Jesus, incredibly, steps in to willingly be the scapegoat so no one else has to — showing us the purest-ever picture of the character of God: self-sacrifice instead of others-sacrifice.
::A second reading of Cain and Abel says: perhaps this isn’t a discussion of society and power, it’s just a discussion of any interpersonal relationship.:: Rivalry and comparison and resentment, and therefore the capacity to blame and scapegoat and commit violence, is in us all. BUT also in us is the capacity to choose self-sacrifice over others-sacrifice, to choose to be our brothers' and sisters' keepers, rather than their rivals.
This reading also sets the stage for Jesus, particularly his teachings about caring for the poor and powerless, loving our enemies, and removing the logs in our own eyes before we look to remove the specks in others’ eyes.
Bringing it home
From either the societal or the peer-relationships interpretation, the hinge is, again, this question: ::how will you respond when faced with disappointment and resentment?::
And in that light, God’s words to Cain, which initially feel kind of punitive to me — ::“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”:: — they read a totally different way.
I don’t see God saying to Cain here: “You didn’t do well with this offering, so next time do better and then you won’t be a sinner anymore.” Because God doesn’t start talking about needing to master sin until after Cain is angry and resentful. An imperfect offering isn’t Cain’s sin. And feeling angry and resentful isn’t Cain’s sin. He is not a bad person for those things.
Cain’s sin is his response to all of that: taking his anger and resentment out on another instead of healthily dealing with it, choosing others-sacrifice over self-sacrifice.
What I do see God saying to Cain here is: “The biggest opportunities of your life will be when you don’t “do well” — your disappointments, your failures, your imperfect offerings, your second-place finishes. Those are NOT by any means sin to feel ashamed of; they just are an inevitable part of life. BUT the moment they happen you will be tempted to think they are sins to be ashamed of, and that temptation is what is actually sin. It will be crouching at your door, telling you you’ll feel better about yourself if you blame-shift or if you take your negative emotions out on so-and-so.
That message doesn’t feel punitive. That feels helpful. And I read the last line “but you must master sin” not as a stern warning from God, but as an encouragement from God, like: “but you are capable; you can do this!”
I love that. Because Cain is not an un-relatable villain. He is a reminder to us all that to consistently live in a way that embraces that we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers is far more easier said than done.
When we are faced with disappointments, failures, resentments, second-place finishes, it is SO hard not to transmit that to others.
It is a wonderful thing that, as a whole, we are not as physically violent a society as ancient societies, like those that were the backdrop of the Cain and Abel story. But we are still violent to each other emotionally and psychologically and socially.
::On the societal side,:: now more than ever, I — a white middle class man who’s almost always experienced favor and privilege — experience those “sin crouching at my door” opportunities, because the “offerings“ and voices of women and people of color are being elevated in a long overdue way and the “offerings” and voices of people like me are being called into question.
Like, part of my job is control over a microphone, like literally control over who speaks on this microphone here — and I have a lot of opinions and feelings about how I like things to be said or not said on this microphone. I’m not a bad person for that, but it is very important that I understand that, because I’m a white man in this position of power with control over this microphone, I have the privilege to choose to sacrifice other people’s voices instead of my own. I can say to myself: it’s too risky to give up this microphone, someone may not say things the way I want them to. I’ll just keep it.
For basically all of history, if white men with control over who gets heard (like me) haven’t consciously chosen to be a keeper of their sisters or of their sisters and brothers of color, the consequences of that were never felt by them, their voices kept being heard, the consequences were always felt by all of the women and people of color who weren’t being heard.
But this is something that is changing in society. White men in power like me are finally being called out and are feeling the consequences. And that can come with disappointment and anger and resentment for many white men, because even as we may see the elevation of non-white-male voices as good, for white men that necessarily means some loss, some loss in opportunities to speak, some loss in their unchallenged place of power.
And so it poses the Cain question to us as a collective: How will we respond? Will we be willing to sacrifice some of our position, sacrifice some of our voice Or will we say “well, it’s not on me”, and try to wipe our hands clean of our responsibility to our sisters, and to our brothers and sisters of color?
::On the interpersonal-relationships side,:: I resonate with the story of Cain and Abel even more.
One experience I think of happened a while back within one of the circles of other pastors Kyle and I are a part of to help with our own pastoral care and for our professional development.
In one of these circles, I am considerably younger than most of the other pastors, but I’d always felt really valued, like they would ask for my opinions and talents.
Well, as time went on, for various reasons, I was kind of drifting apart from these pastors. And eventually there was another younger pastor who joined the group. And I started to notice how much the other pastors started looking to their opinion and talents. Although at the time I wouldn’t have been able to say it, I felt replaced by this new pastor, and I began to resent them.
The best thing for me to have done at that point would have been to process those feelings of disappointment and resentment with people I trust -- my wife, Kyle, my men’s group, close friends or family members, a therapist -- safe containers to show those negative feelings with no fear of being judged.
BUT rather than face up to the death to my ego that that would have felt like, I chose to try to shift the negative feelings off of me and on to this fellow pastor.
I was cold and stand-off-ish to them. I didn’t treat them like a peer, like a brother or sister to whom I had responsibility as a fellow pastor.
And I remember vividly they called me out on this one day after a meeting of our group.
“What is your problem with me?” they asked. “I’ve never done anything to you.”
And they were right. They hadn’t.
As hard as it was to be asked that question, I felt like God spoke to me in it — in the sort of way I think he speaks to Cain.
I felt like God said: you are not a bad person for feeling resentful. This is an opportunity. Sin is crouching at your door, but you can master this.
So I didn’t defend myself; I apologized. And I tried to start making a conscious effort going forward to encourage and welcome this other younger pastor.
And I still sometimes feel that twinge of resentment when I see them celebrated in front of me, but now when this happens I try to catch myself and do that thing where I process those negative feelings with safe people I trust.
Closing & Prayer
::I think the truth is we all need help outside of ourselves to truly live consistently as our brother’s and sister’s keepers... We just can't do this on good intentions alone.::
So maybe what I want to hit on the most this morning is the loving and empathetic help that, in my experience, God has offered me in this.
Disappointment and resentment hit me hard. It is really easy for me to talk the talk of “I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper” but then wipe my hands clean of that responsibility in a moment of feeling hurt or passed over.
But, in all of my experiences praying about those moments, processing them with God or asking God for help, the stakes have ~never~ felt like “if I do this wrong, I’ll go to hell” or “I’ll be a phony” or anything crippling or shaming. Those sorts of crippling high stakes messages are what God always seems to set himself up against in my prayer life. Again, I think that’s what God in the Cain and Abel story seems to set himself up against in his words to Cain about what sin truly is and how he believes in us to master it.
So a big part of my hope today is for us to get a chance to experience God bringing this sort of loving and empathetic help to us. Yes, so that we can be a part of the transformation that being our brother’s and sister’s keepers can bring to our communities and neighborhoods and workplaces and families, BUT also so that we can feel close to a God who believes in us in the process -- That is what will transform us, so sacrificing ourselves instead of another comes naturally, not through exhausting efforts of will power.
That is what we see in Jesus — not a reluctant yet resolved self-sacrifice, a full-hearted and loving self-sacrifice, and that is what can rub off on us as we spend time with Jesus. What a gift to feel that naturally flow out of us!
Let me pray for us...
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