Of all the passages of the Bible I’ve talked about over the years, Cain and Able is one story I haven’t spent a lot of time on. It’s not hard to see why. The story is pretty troubling isn’t it. Able was a shepherd.
Cain was a farmer. They went about their business until the time came to make an offering to God from what they had produced. God, it seems, liked Abel’s offering better than Cain’s, which threw Cain into a jealous rage, in which he killed his brother. And when God comes asking where Able has gotten off to, Cain replies with a line that has since become famous. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain, of course, was being flippant. Back when I was in the Coast Guard, I remember we used to talk that way all the time. If someone came up to you and asked if you knew where seaman Jones was, you would most likely say, “I don’t have the Jones watch.” Or “Yeah. He’s in the Jones locker. Look under “L” for locker.” We were forever making sarcastic comments like that. It could be hard at times to get a straight answer out of anyone.
But Cain wasn’t joking. Cain was both hostile and sarcastic, and he seems to have felt fully justified in his anger. For no apparent reason, Cain’s offering from his fields was rejected, while, also for no apparent reason, his brother’s offering from the flock was welcomed and approved. Back then, in the best of times, there was no love lost between farmers and shepherds, and this certainly didn’t help matters. But, at least from Cain’s perspective, God seemed to be playing favorites. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. The story gives us no explanation for this. All we can say is that, God being God, we aren’t necessarily entitled to one.
I’m reminded of the line from Exodus when God says to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:19) Apparently, God does not owe us an explanation for the very unequal distribution of His blessings. We run into the same thing in the book of Job. After all of his suffering, Job finally has a chance to ask God why. God’s response is basically this, “What makes you think you have a right to question my judgement? Where were you when I was creating the universe?” (Job 38) Now, that kind of answer doesn’t sit very well, does it. Clearly, it didn’t sit very well with Cain. It’s like a father saying to a child, “Because I said so!” It may put an end to the argument, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. Cain’s response is to take his brother out in a field and kill him. His message to God is, “You may have withheld your approval from me, but I have taken away from you the one of whom you did approve.”
God, of course, knows what Cain has done, and gives him a chance to come clean. “Where is your brother Abel?” “What have you done?” Obviously, Cain doesn’t know what’s coming, and is still wrapped up in his own self-righteousness. When he asks his impertinent question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” that’s when the hammer falls. God confronts Cain with his crime, banishes him from the soil he loves, and sends him off to a life as a fugitive and wanderer, “in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” It is, essentially, a life sentence without parole, and he puts a mark on his head so that no one will shorten that sentence.
As I said, this is a very troubling story. In this life, those things which we take to be God’s blessings are, in fact, distributed very unevenly. The story makes it sound like God is capricious; that God approves of some and rejects others without rhyme or reason. But the larger message is that there are and always have been very real differences among people: the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, the talented and the untalented, the successful and the unsuccessful. We can understand Cain’s frustration very well. We can understand his feeling that maybe God is playing favorites. The problem is, once we start thinking like that, we can easily begin to burn with envy at the attention, the skills and the possessions that we think others are blessed with and we are not. We easily compare our own lives to the lives of those who have, or seem to have more than we do, and those feelings can and do sometimes lead to violence.
So, what’s the lesson here? That life is unfair? No, that wouldn’t be much of a lesson would it. Of course life is unfair. We’ve known that since we were little kids, and despite all our efforts to even things out, life never will be fair, not completely. The lesson is not that life is unfair. The lesson is that in the face of the unfairness of life, we have some choices to make. How do we respond? How do we behave when we come face to face with just how unfair life really is? The story of Cain and Abel is a great illustration of what not to do. There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, when we fan the flames of our jealousy and anger.
Ultimately, the problem with Cain was not that his brother had received a greater blessing, but that in light of his brother’s blessing, Cain stopped being able to see any value in his own blessings. The problem was not that God rejected Cain, but that Cain felt rejected when God paid attention to his brother. This kind of thing happens all the time with children. In our tradition, Cain and Abel is the original sibling rivalry story. I well remember, after our daughter Corinne was born, nearly every time I got down on the floor to play with her, her sister, Sarah, would try to drag my attention away. “Me! Me! Play with me!” Do I love one of my daughter’s more than the other? No, I don’t. But if you had asked Sarah that question back then, she might very well have thought so. She might have said, “My father has regard for my sister’s offering of playing on the floor with blocks, but when I offer the picture I just drew I am not regarded at all.” It’s easy to feel rejected when it seems like God is paying more attention to someone else.
So how could Cain have responded differently? That’s was the question we always asked our kids after some kind of a conflict. How could you have responded differently in that situation? In Cain’s case, I keep returning to the question he asked. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I find myself wondering, what if, instead of being sarcastic, Cain had asked this as a serious question, before he killed his brother of course. Am I my brother’s keeper? As a serious question, the meaning is altogether different. Is my brother someone who has been entrusted into my care? Do I have a responsibility for my brother’s wellbeing? Is my brother someone about whom I need to be concerned, even if, in some way or other, he may appear to better off than I am?
I think God’s answer would be, “Yes.” We are called to be our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s, our neighbor’s, and, if Jesus is to be believed, even our enemy’s. We are called to be keepers of one another’s welfare. I know we like to think of ourselves as individuals. I know that we live in a culture that encourages us to believe that we all have a right to look out for number one. Lots of people are convinced that there is not enough to go around and they are fully justified in getting all they can by whatever means necessary before it’s too late.
But God would say, has in fact said in many ways, that we have all been entrusted into the care of one another. If you don’t do well, I don’t do well. When people suffer famine in Yemen because of the conflict there, it negatively impacts the human spirit we all share. When young girls are prevented from getting an education because of religious fundamentalism, it affects us. If immigrants are mistreated on our borders, we are diminished. That’s why we make dresses for girls in Zimbabwe. That’s why we gather food as a Religious Response to Hunger. It’s why we take it seriously when people in the South Pacific see the waters rising around their islands and appeal to us for help. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, of course. But our success or failure as human beings cannot be measured only on a personal basis. It must be seen in light of the whole human family, and indeed all of creation.
That’s one of the most important reasons for celebrating World Communion Sunday; to reinforce our understanding that we are all in this together; that people in Sri Lanka, Budapest, Hong Kong, and Des Moines, Iowa really are the brothers and sisters we are meant to be keeping. When we break bread this morning, I invite you to hold all of these, your brothers and sisters, in your minds and hearts, just as they are encouraged to keep us in their minds and hearts as well. It is not just that we are responsible for everyone else. It is that we all have a human responsibility to one another.
When we truly begin to see that, when we open our eyes to the welfare of the whole human family, suddenly we have a chance, not only to meet the needs of others, but to celebrate their successes as well. Perhaps we would be less jealous if they seem to be more blessed in some ways. Perhaps there would be less anger and violence, more inclination to share. We might even recognize that, when it comes right down to it, we actually are pretty richly blessed, even if we don’t have it all.
In the Jewish tradition, there is a legend of two brothers that paints a very different picture than Cain and Abel. These brothers lived on neighboring farms. One was married and had children while the other lived alone. They loved each other deeply. One day the bachelor brother began to worry about his married brother. He thought, “My brother has many mouths to feed, while I have more than I need.” So, he came up with a plan. Each night he delivered a basket load of grain from his barn to his brother’s barn.
Meanwhile, the married brother thought to himself, “See how fortunate I am, with a fine family to care for me. Yet my brother is all alone. I would like to help him.” So, the married brother decided that each night he would deliver a basket load of grain from his barn to his brother’s. Of course, one night when the moon was full, the two brothers met near the boundary of their farms, each one carrying a basket load of grain towards the other’s barn. Instantly, they understood what the other was up to. They put down the baskets, laughed, and embraced. According to the Jewish legend, that very spot, where the loving brothers met, was the place that wise King Solomon selected as the site for his great temple to the glory of God.
Are we one another’s keepers? Yes. Yes, we are. We are called to be keepers of one another’s welfare. We can know this in many ways. But not least of these comes from the liturgy of our Worldwide Communion. The bread that is broken brings us to wholeness. The wine that is poured out, is the sacrifice, for the healing, of the whole human family, and indeed, all of creation.