A woman was taking her time browsing through everything at a friend’s yard sale, and said to her, “My husband is going to be very angry I stopped at a yard sale.” “I’m sure he’ll understand when you tell him about the bargains you found,” her friend replied. “Normally, yes,” she said. “But he just broke his leg, and he’s waiting for me to take him to the hospital to have it set.”
We all must deal with anger, at least once in a while. Many of us do it well; others have yet to figure out how to put out a fire before it starts, and as James 3:5 says, a little spark can kindle a great fire. So don’t lash out. Keep your cool. Let things go. Chill out. Don’t walk around like a powder keg. Recognize when you’re about to blow or you’re all tensed up, and get to talking to the Lord, so the Spirit can get in there and do some spiritual triage on you.
Our scripture story starts out the way all things start out—everything is just fine until… until something happens to change it. But we might imagine a bit of back story, considering someone doesn’t usually get this mad and full of hatred because of one event. The truth is Cain had grown to loathe Abel. It had been building for years. No matter what, Abel always seemed to turn a situation to his advantage. Was there a conflict? Abel the humble loved to be the first to reconcile. Did anyone need help? Abel the servant loved to be the first to offer it. Was there an injury? Abel the compassionate loved to be the first to comfort. But then came the final straw: God rejected Cain’s offering but Abel’s was warmly accepted. Cain was stunned and humiliated by Abel again! Hatred exploded into action. By late afternoon Abel’s lifeless and bloody body lay in a remote field, abandoned in the hope that a beast’s hunger would conceal the fratricide.
Cain could have fooled Eve and Adam, the first parents. After all, they had no experience with such a murderous deed, the first of a countless number of times parents are caught blindsided by their children and realize they’ve been basically flying by the seat of their pants.
While Adam and Eve were fooled, the Lord wasn’t. Seriously there weren’t enough people around not to be able to keep track of each one. Abel was missing, and God wanted to know if Cain knew his whereabouts. Cain lied and then tried to outmaneuver God by answering a question with the now famous question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But the Lord would have none of it. Abel’s blood itself told him what had happened.
For many of us this is a familiar story, and that’s probably why it’s so easy to get diverted to side issues, which don’t feel at all like side issues.
They feel important. So, for example people wonder: Why didn’t God accept Cain’s sacrifice? If God cares so much about Abel, why didn’t God stop Cain from killing his brother? Why didn’t God kill Cain, like the Bible later teaches, a life for a life? Where did Cain go? Who were the other people Cain was afraid would kill him? It’s like the question about the Garden of Eden and the snake. Why is there a snake in the Garden? Why did God create a snake?
These are all interesting questions that scholars and Sunday school children and teachers have discussed and debated for centuries. The problem is we’re just going to keep discussing because the story doesn’t do what we want it to do. It does what it wants to do. Why? Because, well, the short answer is that the stories of Genesis chapters 1-11—creation, fall, murder, flood—belong closer to great stories that when they come from other cultures and religions that we call myths. Now I know it sounds like a put down to say they’re myths, but it’s not a put down—not really—because myths are the most powerful spoken and written tools that people have used since we were able to tell stories. We have always needed powerful stories to orient ourselves in this world.
The thing about myths that I want us to understand is that they point to a fundamental human condition that basically don’t change. This human condition is the same everywhere for everyone and it can’t really be explained. The story of the tempting snake in the garden doesn’t tell us why the snake is there or who put it there. It’s just there, just like temptation is just here, even though a very legitimate consternation about the way things are arises in the wish that God would have made creation without temptation, that is, without a snake. The human condition, the world, comes with snake included.
So, when it comes to our myth today, what is the fundamental human condition that’s being raised? Murder? You would think, right? Actually, it’s not murder. Think even more elementary, more fundamental than that. The way the world is, and it just doesn’t seem to be able to change, not completely at least. Perhaps, it’s what might “cause” someone to murder. The story of Cain and Abel focuses on how some people are more favored than others. Some people have life by the horns. They’re clearly favored it appears by God. There are princes and princesses in life, the ones for whom life is smooth-sailing. These are Abel’s blessed children. There are also Cain’s kids who experience life as difficult, and for many, many very difficult. Children grow up in homes where there is abuse, sometimes terrible and tragic, unspeakable abuse. Why? We don’t know why, and we will never
know why, but they do. Why is there such inequality? One child gets cancer, another child doesn’t. We don’t know why but this is what happens. Some people never get close to what they thought they would become while friends or relatives do great things. A terrible, out of the blue accident turns a healthy person into a paraplegic. Life is unfair—even though God exists. It’s unchangeable, and unavoidable fundamentally.
So, the portion of the story that gets the most activity and dialogue in the story is the conversation between God and Cain. After Cain realizes fully life isn’t fair and Abel once again gets more, the Lord God challenges Cain to deal with this reality. “Why are you angry?” God says, not kindly one might add. God really doesn’t know why Cain is angry?! “Why am I angry?!” Because you love my brother’s gifts but could care less about mine, that’s why?” God’s naïve question is the sort of response that makes most biblical scholars say that in the beginning God is very similar to a brand-new parent, ignorant of how words said, and actions taken affect the children. It takes time to learn to become a better parent, if one exhibits some growth in that department whatsoever. The same apparently went for God, the brunt being borne in this moment by poor Cain.
But no matter how poorly God is at this point with dealing with feelings and expectations, the Lord points out an unwavering reality that we all face, just like Cain. “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” God lays out for the first time the challenge, the question, of whether we will rise to the occasion, whether we will face the challenge, whether we will commit to the better action and not give in to despair, self-loathing, apathy, self-pity and defeatism. The Lord is saying what has been said by others—that while some have it easier, there is enough for everyone. While some don’t have to work very hard, others, when they do, have good things come their way. While some look like life is a rose garden, slower growing plants grow taller and stronger and last longer.
Cain could have been the patron saint of those whose life doesn’t go as planned, but they make lemonade out of lemons. He could have been the guiding light for those whose capacity for delayed gratification coupled with the capability to put in the tough work made something out of almost nothing. But Cain blows it, big time. He crumbles under the pressure. He is weak, self-pitying, incapable of seeing a bigger picture. He’s small-minded, and cold-hearted. He’s envious and ugly. There is no fruit of the Spirit in him because he let his spirit grow darker and darker. He didn’t fight the good fight but wallowed in self-loathing that turned to loathing of others, or in his case, of one other. All this led to Cain being the first one filled with hatred,
and when he acted on what he thought and believed was true, he became a killer, a murderer—the first of an almost endless number.
Lashing out is a way of life these days. Far too many people think it’s their divine or American right to be angry, get angry, and let it out. There’s no doubt today that many, many people are very angry at how life is not working out for them, as they think it should be. They’re angry because they think others are getting away with something while they’re paying the price. I’ve only been around for 57 years but I can’t help believing this is the angriest America has been. It’s different now also. It’s not just quantity-it’s their perception of it. Too many believe are betting everything on their anger. Their anger is the answer to their problems; it directs them to what’s true. Together, such anger is going to right the falsely perceived wrongs they are suffering. How foolish and dangerous this is. Anger and hatred toward others are incendiary emotions to play with and make for terrible actions as their outcome.
Perhaps the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables, Luke’s Good Samaritan is the antidote for so much. Too many are getting more callous toward others, more doubtful of the worth or value of another’s life, that if they encountered someone like the man in this story, would they be the good Samaritan or would they say that’s too bad?
We wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Jesus should have made the injured man into a Samaritan for his Jewish audience. Wouldn’t that be more like what we normally face? How do you care for someone who is someone you dislike, or you’re angry at, or you believe is ruining your country, or doesn’t belong to God like you do? Do you keep your anger and hatred and walk right by? Or do you get converted to feelings of humanity for others, for all, even for those?
Jesus lived in a different world to a significant degree than we do. His world was divided up much more than ours is and in ways we don’t think of. The issue was who you identified with in terms of your sense of who was righteous and good. That’s what mattered. It didn’t matter as much who was helped—at least not as much as it would today. If you could identify with a Samaritan, or a Samaritan was shown to be as good or better than a Levite and a priest, that was category-defying in their world, and would have the same effect on them as making the injured man an illegal immigrant or an LGBTQ person today would have for too many Christians.
Be a good Samaritan. Don’t let hate and anger rule your life.
We are Christians in the best sense of that powerful world. We are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper. We are also our own keeper. We’re
not haters. I like what someone said: “Hug a hater. They hate that.” We seek peace and justice. We are committed to acts of generosity and compassion to all, for all are like we are and we are as they.
Can the church say Amen?