- Pamela Jolicoeur
- Paul J. Dovre
- Anna Rhode â€™09
- Arland Jacobson
- Larry Papenfuss
- Polly Kloster
- Roger Degerman
- Stephanie Ahlfeldt
- Susan Oâ€™Shaughnessy
- Kristi Rendahl
- Dr. Heidi Manning
- Roy Hammerling
- Pamela Jolicoeur
- Jan Pranger
- Nikoli Falenschek '11
- Bruce Vieweg
- Dr. Paul Dovre
- Whitney Myhra '11
- Bruce Houglum
- Dr. Lisa Sethre-Hofstad
- Dr. Paul Dovre, Interim President
- Nick Ellig
- Virginia Connell
- Per Anderson
- Vincent Reusch
- Larry Papenfuss
- Carl-Martin Nelson
- President William Craft
- Dr. Olin Storvick
- George Connell
- Robert Chabora
Dr. Paul Dovre, Interim President of Concordia College
March 15, 2011
At first glance the story of Cain and Abel may strike you as a morality tale on sibling rivalry. Anyone who has a sister or a brother will recall at least an occasional jealousy over what appeared to be discriminatory attention or reward from a parent. In honesty, I sometimes thought my brother, five years my elder, was the more favored one. Such memories may help us get inside Cain's skin.
But the stage here is much larger than familial sibling stirrings. This is a morality story on the grandest scale. It is a precursor to several other stories of sibling rivalry recorded in Genesis including the stories of Esau and Jacob, of Joseph and his brothers. And it is a story that has inspired dramatists and novelists, theologians and ethicists all through the ages.
For Lutherans the idea of original sin has always been fundamental in our theology and confessions and the early stories in Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden and this story of Cain and Abel, are foundational proof texts for us. Which, by the way, led me to Martin Luther's commentary on this text. But as we unpack the story we find more than an allegory on sin, we also find out about blessing-blessing for the storm of Cain's life and our own.
I begin unpacking this story in a strange place-the place of freedom. I observe in this text that out of the creative beneficence of God-Cain was given great freedom. He was free to work the land as God's co-creator. He was free to gather and offer to God an offering of his own choosing. He was free to quarrel with God about God's assessment of the offering. He was free to take the life of his brother Abel. He was free to either acknowledge or deny having done so. So, like his parents, he could choose between good and evil, between justice and injustice, between truth and falsehood, between following God or going it alone. This is not unlike our own freedom-it is both gift and unbearable burden and God would not have it otherwise. It is the essence of our self hood but it can lead us to stormy places and awesome summits.
And then there is the place of sin, or shall I say sins, in this story. First there was the sin of pride. While commentators don't agree about what may have disappointed God about Cain's thank offering, some commentators, including Martin Luther, think it was pride. While Abel brought his thank offering with humility, Luther opines that Cain brought his with pride: "look God, what a magnificent thing I have done!" God was not pleased.
Do you know anyone who resembles that attitude with respect to their achievements? And, said Luther, God is not pleased with corporate pride either whether it be church or nation. He remarked about the pride and arrogance of the Greeks and Romans. He concluded "the more each nation regarded itself as superior, the more overweening it became." He spoke of Greece in some detail: "The nation of the Greeks was most outstanding for they ranked high both because of their glorious history and because of their scientific pursuits. But to what disgraceful conditions did the country decline and how pitifully was it laid waste." There is fair warning here for any nation that claims to be the best and the most powerful of all nations.
Following pride, the text introduces us to the sin of arrogance. When God saw that Cain was angry at his critique of the offering he reached out to Cain-even encouraged him to do better. But Cain would have none of it. He responded in anger, anger directed to his sibling but aimed at God as well who was calling him up short, Cain the first born, the tiller of the fields, the gifted and chosen one. God save us all for we have each done it-been more impressed by what we have done than whom we have done it for. And if someone critiques us for our smugness or self righteousness-boom, off we go!
Admittedly, we don't commit the sin of physical murder as did Cain. Swiftly and brutally he felled the one he saw as the source of his earlier embarrassment at the foot of God. But there are other forms of murder as when we exercise our prejudice toward others, as we again and again exclude the less attractive, the less sophisticated, the less pious and the less wealthy. In so doing we deny others life giving respect, equality and opportunity.
Then to compound matters Cain denied his crime. Consider Luther's commentary on denial: "Such is the disposition of human beings that they believe their sin will remain secret so long as they escape the notice of the eyes of men." Having denied the sin, Cain then had the temerity to challenge God as he asked "am I my brother's keeper?" In the Old Testament God is the keeper-so Cain's response was not just a smart remark, it was a challenge to God's self. Are there any experiences that look like that today? For example, how about when God is treated as a convenient symbol for political cover rather than as the one to whom all things under heaven and earth are accountable? Or when women and men assume that they are the ultimate arbiters of their conduct, their fate. In all of these ways we, like Cain, deny God and challenge God's authority and power.
The story is about freedom and sin and it's also a story about consequences. Cain was called to account by God-clearly, forcefully. He was denied further access to paradise, the Garden of Eden. The ground was cursed and he was consigned to a life of wandering. These were the consequences of his sin, of his freedom choices. In our world there are consequences too-we speak of the sins of the fathers being visited upon coming generations. Surely the exploitation of our environment is one illustration as are other attempts we make to transcend the laws of science and the bonds of civility. In our own community academic sloth has its price as do harassment, dishonest academic conduct and irresponsible personal choices.
Thus far the reading and the reading is that the life of Cain, the life of sin, is consequential to our existence and to our very souls. Sin puts us in the eye of the storm to use the thematic figure around which we have organized these Lenten gatherings.
But this reading of the text would be incomplete without reference to the blessing. There is much evidence in this text of the graciousness of God. In the first instance, when Cain shows his distress following God's critique of his offering, God reaches out in saying 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." It was a grace opening which Cain, unfortunately, neglected-but there it was. And a second instance was when Cain showed up following Abel's disappearance. God gave Cain an opportunity for confession but Cain ignored it. But the point is, the opportunity was given.
Then God pronounced judgment on Cain-he would live, that was grace and not the customary eye for an eye law of retribution. But his life would be hard-cast out of God's presence, living like a Nomad on cursed ground. And then Cain cried out-for the first time-"My punishment is greater than I can bare." And then God ameliorates the punishment, promising safety, an end to recrimination and a mark that would assure safe passage. Cain the proud, arrogant, stiff-necked sibling finally made confession and God, after several unsuccessful efforts, was finally able to connect with him. Confession was made, Grace was offered, grace was received.
We are the brothers and sisters of Cain and, like him, we live with the unrequited reality of sin lurking at the edge of our lives and sometimes capturing us in the center. But as the writer of Hebrews assured us, we have a high priest, Jesus Christ, who has walked in our shoes and sympathizes with our weakness. And thus we are blessed for the storm.