Don't Be a Cain
I. One word is spelled across the newspaper: “Revenge.”
Spurned love, jealousy, humiliation…it doesn’t matter what it’s about. It grabs you. Something about the word, ‘revenge,’ is exhilarating. A neuroscientist once used brain-wave technology to study revenge. At the moment we’re insulted, a burst of activity happens in our prefrontal cortex, the same place triggered by hunger cravings. Revenge is like lust, as equally innate and biological. It’s rooted in our genes.
This is what we have to fight against as Christians.
But what does revenge have to do with us. We associate revenge with grand matters, of love or war. But in the scriptures, revenge usually has more to do with all our little interactions. How do we respond to our brothers and sisters? If someone slights us, will we get back? I don’t mean with a plan for murder, but by gossip or criticizing. If someone hurts us, do we get spiteful or indignant? At the risk of sounding a little too Californian, what energy are we pouring out to the people around us?
II. Our Gospel reading today is about healing.
Jesus Christ has just finished His Sermon on the Mount. Talk about a sermon! Our sermons are about 10 minutes long. His sermon took three chapters! Heaven knows how long that took. He laid out the whole Gospel to the crowds. Then he puts his preaching to the test.
“When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” Christ goes on and meets another man in need. “A centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’” The leper was Jew. He was one of his own, a comrade, a family member of a sort. The centurion was a Roman, an enemy of his people. Yet, to both, Jesus Christ extended his love and healing (Matthew 8:1-13).
So what do we do?
We’re here at Mass. We’ve ascended the mountain of holy worship and pious reverence. In a few minutes, Mass will be over. Then what? How will we act when we come down the mountain? We must follow our Lord’s example. Most likely, none of us are going to work any miracles. We may not be curing cancer or raising anyone from the dead. But we too have the same work to do: to heal one another with love.
III. We heard from the ‘harmony scriptures’ today.
“Live in harmony with one another. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:16-21).
There’s nothing abstract here. St. Paul isn’t writing to humanity in some vague way. He isn’t dishing our moral advice like you find in a Dear Abby column. He’s writing to specific people. He’s talking about parish community.
IV. Let’s return to revenge.
St. Paul understood all too well how rooted and sensual revenge is. It goes all the way back to the beginning.
Isn’t it ironic that blood was spilt between the very first two brothers?
“Eve gave birth to Cain…[and] to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil…The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry…Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (1-9).
It’s easy for us civilized people to condemn Cain. He was brutal and maybe a little stupid. We, on the other hand, have far more refined means of sugarcoating revenge. But it’s all the same. When we criticize someone in our thoughts or when we talk behind their backs, we too are Cain. When we are simply not loving – that is, a constant love, an undeserved love, a deliberate decision to heal – we are Cain.
V. Now Cain’s response to God was brilliant, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
‘Keeper’ comes from the Hebrew verb, ‘Sha-mâr,’ ‘to keep, watch or preserve.’ Cain was the first individualist. He said, “I’m my own man just minding my own business,” and he speaks for all of us.
Can you identify?
Sometimes that’s exactly how I feel about others. I see someone in need, but a little voice whispers, “I am not my brother’s keeper.”
But I am. We are.
“This is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that you should love one another, and not be like Cain…He who does not love abides in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren [for our fellow parishioners, co-workers, family members]. If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 4:13-17).
IV. So what do we do?
We are one another’s keepers. Each of us is the “Sha-mâr” of everyone in our communities, especially those who slight or hurt us. But this isn’t easy. We have a little Cain inside us. We want to choice our own. It isn’t easy to love.
So God gives us the solution.
“Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:16-21).
This is utterly unnatural and radical. It means we have to do the opposite that our gut tells us.
When we’re hurt, we need to love more fervently. When we’re insulted, we have to praise more genuinely. Does someone upset you? “Take thought for what is noble.” We want to go down into that safe place, that self-pity and pampering, to tease the idea of revenge however slight or civil. Instead, lift your thoughts up from the gutter. Look for the goodness and beauty in the person before you.
We don’t have to nurse our wounds. We’re free.
Go into your heart and pray. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on so-and-so. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on so-and-so.” You are your brother’s keeper. Don’t be a Cain.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.