by Daniel Harrell
In this first utterance of the word sin in Scripture—the first utterance of the word door for that matter (our sermon theme for this fall)—two brothers come to grief over, of all things, an offering given to God. “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought the fattest the firstlings of his flock. The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry.” Why does God regard Abel and not Cain? This is the first of many occasions when the younger brother will enjoy preferred treatment by God: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his older brothers, David over his. Cain and Abel both offer freewill gifts, saying grace, in effect, for the food on their plate. Motivated by gratitude for his flock, Abel gives “fat firstlings,” which is the biggest and the best, a generous demonstration. Cain, on the other hand, gives some of his crops, leftovers by comparison, suggesting, perhaps, a begrudging gratefulness, which is not really gratefulness at all.
Scripture teaches that God loves a cheerful giver, not one compelled by obligation or guilt. Neither obligation nor guilt is in the issue here. No rules or commandments yet require people to give offerings to the Lord. There is no law or Torah to disobey. We like to say it’s not the gift, but the thought that counts—but that’s usually just to cover a lousy gift. As a frequently lousy gift-giver, I would know this. But was Cain’s gift that bad? Scholars insist his was just as legitimate as Abel’s, yet God finds it unacceptable. Clearly something was wrong on the inside. Something wrong with Cain’s heart. This is something only God could know, since only God sees our heart. He knows us better than we can ever know ourselves.
Cain is angry at being rejected. But there was darkness already present. Theological tradition almost universally consigns Cain’s dark heart to the bin of covetousness. Envy. One of the Top Ten Sins. The Lord will carve in stone tablets how, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ house, nor thy neighbors’ wife, nor his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbors’.” In addition to the making the Ten Commandments, envy also cracks the list of the Seven Deadlies—a list that does not include murder or stealing. In Scripture, to kill can be forgivable in ways that to covet cannot.
Envy longs for what it cannot have. It’s what leads a child to ruin another child’s toy, or a boss to frustrate a talented employee. Envy is distinct from jealousy. If you’re worried your wife may run off with Brad Pitt, you’re jealous. But if you want a wife who looks like Angelina Jolie, then you’re envious. Envy is for people who don’t have the self-esteem to be jealous. God describes himself as jealous for his people, but never envious. To the one who envies, it doesn’t matter whether the other has earned his blessing or simply enjoyed dumb luck; either way the other’s advantage is totally intolerable. Envy is the most useless of deadly sins: it is excruciating to experience, shameful to admit, bereft of any immediate pleasure or long-term benefits. While there may be a certain logic to seducing thy neighbor’s wife or stealing his goods, but what’s the point of merely coveting them?
Cain can do better, God says. We read “Cain was angry and his face fell down.” To which the Lord responds, “Do well and you can hold your head high.” Cain is free to make a choice. Yet as we have seen already this fall, freedom resides at the threshold of sin. We are free to bless, but we can also curse. We can help or hurt. We can raise up or bring down. We can make beautiful or ruin. God grants us freedom for the sake of relationship. Love cannot be coerced and still be called love. Our abuses of freedom never result in its removal. But God does hold us accountable. We are responsible for the choices we make, whether in act or attitude.
Complicating matters for Cain is a demon in his doorway. The Lord cautions Cain: “Sin is lurking and its desire is for you.” A closely related cognate for the word sin in this verse refers to Satan himself, whom Christian tradition casts as a green-eyed fallen angel who envied God his greatness. Cast out of heaven, Satan raises Cain on earth, first as a snake in the grass who entices Adam and Eve, Cain’s parents, to eat the forbidden fruit. Here Satan crouches at the door, luring Cain to ruin his life too. Sadly, the apple will not fall far from the tree. Still, God tells Cain he can master his demons. This is hard work, as any sinner knows, but it’s no harder than feeding our demons. A psychology study out of the University of Texas tempted a group of students by showing them bios and photos of wealthier, more successful and more attractive peers. This group was then compared to a control group not tempted to envy. Both groups were given puzzles to solve and plenty of time to do it, but the envy group gave up and couldn’t finish. They couldn’t concentrate. Researchers concluded the reason to be the envious students’ minds had been depleted by the hard work of resentment. Envy is exhausting.
An author I read this week wrote about house-and-dog-sitting for her sister in her sister’s big new house in Dallas: “Her house is beautiful,” she wrote, “a stroke of good fortune combined with a great deal of effort and a lot of sacrifice that enabled her and her husband to get it, and it is amazing. Great, quiet neighborhood, walking distance from a nice church, hardwood floors, brand-new appliances, big back yard, tons of windows and natural light, a kitchen that makes me weak in the knees, big gorgeous flat-screen TVs with cable, a Wii, Netflix streaming… in short, their house is my dream. Through another stroke of good luck, they just got this huge… huge… discount on a brand-new, very expensive, L-shaped sofa. It’s like heaven, right in the middle of their living room. I love my sister. She and her husband are wonderful, and they deserve their house. They’ve worked hard for it over the years, and they’ve made a lot of tough decisions to save money. She deserves her kitchen. They even deserve that ridiculous overpriced sofa! I love my sister. But I hate her for having the things that I want. And I hate that this is all I ever think about.”
For me, it was a new part of a job that I loved, a particular project at work that challenged me and sparked my creativity; that pulled out the best of my talents. I put in tons of time and loved every minute, producing results and satisfaction so rewarding that I would have done this project for free had I not needed to eat. Not only was the work gratifying, but the colleagues with whom I collaborated were fantastic, as was our boss, an amazing motivator and mentor. To top it off, I received a generous raise for my efforts, money that eliminated any financial concerns I had. I was blessed to enjoy one of those rare and treasured moments of contentment where vocation and occupation, heart and treasure all lined up together.
Unfortunately the moment was fleeting. One afternoon, on my way home, I stopped by the copy room to pick up something and right inside the doorway, sitting on top of the paper trash in the trashcan, sat an HR spreadsheet someone had mistakenly tossed. I saw the spreadsheet. And then I looked at it. I read my coworkers’ salaries. I stared at the names. Then I leered at the numbers. At its root, envy is a sin of the eye. It comes from the Latin meaning “to view maliciously.” I saw that my colleagues made more money than me. One made egregiously more.
In Jesus’ trenchant parable of some laborers in a vineyard, the first-to-arrive workers are tickled pink with the generous wages their master paid; until they learned that certain Johnny-come-latelys were being paid the same wages for less work. Jesus chastised the first-comers’ resentment. Could not the master do as he pleased with his own money? Were they envious because God is generous? Or as the King James translates, “Is thine eye evil because God is good?”
Nothing had changed in my own circumstances at work. I had the same job, the same opportunities, the same salary, the same raise, the same boss, the same colleagues who moments before I gladly and gratefully counted as my brothers and sisters. Nothing had changed, but now all my contentment soured and I hated my job, detested my responsibilities, despised a boss who played favorites and resented colleagues unduly compensated for talents and efforts that paled when compared to my own. My mind became consumed with plots of sabotage, ways to get even. Just wait until everybody hears what I have to say Sunday morning! Nobody does envy better than a minister.
Over and over in this morning’s passage, the word “brother” appears to heighten the heinousness of Cain’s deed. Bad enough that we envy. Worse that we do so as people blessed by God. Worse still that we envy the people we love. Worse most that we harm the people we envy. Recall last summer’s horrific account of the Wisconsin father who killed his three daughters to get back at his wife. The father tried to plead temporary insanity, but nobody bought it. Envy, while evil, is not crazy. It is focused and calculating and intentional. It takes a lot of work. The energy to envy—the wanting, the hating, the intent to ruin and spoil—derives first from the fact that the things we envy are inherently good things: the toy, the talent, the success, the beauty, the good job, the salary, the relationship, the wife, the children. Envy draws its energy from the goodness it perverts. It’s the same with all evil, which is why we use words like injustice and dishonesty and unfairness to describe it. It’s this embedded goodness that makes envy so hard to let go.
Cain can do better, God says. “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Cain is free to choose rightly. But instead he lures his brother, Abel, to a field and murders him. Unable, unwilling to restrain his resentment and bitterness, Cain vents his wrath on the only person he can blame. Now done with Abel, he’s left to deal with God. The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother? What have you done?” This is not a question but an accusation. God knows what happened. Cain responds first by lying: “I don’t know.” And then by making a joke: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” As the rest of the Bible will affirm, the answer is yes: We are each others’ keepers, commanded to love and to watch over each another, to bear one another’s burdens, we read, and thus fulfill the law of Christ.
“What have you done?” accuses the Lord. And then, “Listen; your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” Because blood is life and therefore sacred since life comes from God, shed blood is the most polluting of substances. God demands blood for atonement, payback for the life that was lost. In just a few more chapters Genesis will announce that, “Whoever sheds human blood, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” we’ll read in the New Testament too, and thus from Jesus, “this is new covenant in my blood shed for you.”
The same New Testament book of Hebrews describes Jesus as “mediator of a new covenant,” and “to the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” God required blood to be shed as atonement for sin, as reckoning for the life that was lost. But the endgame has always been reconciliation rather retribution. Therefore the New Covenant sheds the blood of Jesus. Abel’s blood from the ground cried for justice. Jesus’ blood from the cross cries for grace. The “better word” of Jesus speaks mercy.
It’s a better word that whispers even here in Genesis. Despite the heinousness of Cain’s crime, God does not execute a death penalty. Cain is banished from his land, condemned to wander the earth. He protests, bewailing his punishment to be “greater than I can bear!” But given how the Lord responds, Cain’s protest may be read more as remorse. As repentance. Listen: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground for revenge.” Listen again, Jesus’ blood cries out for mercy. So the Lord marked Cain to guard him from death, as the blood of a lamb would mark the doors of Passover and save God’s people from death; as the blood of Jesus marks us and saves us too.
Behind every instance of envy is an invitation to join in the outrage at life’s unfairness. Life is not fair, but neither is grace. It was while we were undeserving sinners and bitter enemies that Christ loved us and died for us and rose for us and poured out his spirit on us–extending blessing and forgiveness to the righteous and unrighteous alike. That is so outrageously unfair. How could you ever envy such generosity?