Proper 11 (16), Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
19 July 2020
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
We have been spending a fair bit of time in the Book of Genesis. From the creation story we moved to the Abraham story, and last week we began to hear about Abraham’s grandchildren, Esau and Jacob.
A story we missed along the way is the story of Cain and Abel.
The story of Cain and Abel is not a pretty story which may be why we missed it, but there are many stories in the Bible that are not pretty.
Adam and Eve have two children, Cain is the first born, Abel is the second born. Cain worked the soil and Abel was a shepherd. Both of them brought sacrifice to God. The sacrifice of Abel was pleasing to the Lord, but the Lord had no regard for Cain’s sacrifice.
Anger welled up in Cain, God notices and speaks to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?”
Then God says that if we do not do well, sin is lurking at the door. “Its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Jackie and I went for a walk on Tuesday night. Along the way we came by a public garden, and spotting some tall weeds, Jackie began to pull them out. Of course, she does that in our allotment garden as well. I only do it as I am instructed, as I cannot always tell the weeds from what we planted, particularly when things have just begun to sprout.
Jesus tells another parable. It’s another agricultural parable, about wheat and weeds. The owner of the field is asked by his servants if there was something wrong with his seed and whether they should go and remove the weeds. The master points out that wheat and weeds are entangled and if you pull out one, you will also pull out the other. All will be sorted out at harvest time, he says.
It seems that the owner of the field pleads for patience. Eventually the good will be separated from the bad, eventually there will be justice, but be patient now.
It is good to be patient, you never know, weeds may still turn into wheat. After all God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Give it time, says the owner.
But the master also points out that the weeds are entangled with the wheat. The roots are intertwined. You can’t pull up one without pulling up the other.
Of course, the parable is not about agriculture, rather it is about judgment. People suffering injustice, or just being frustrated with politics may take comfort in the fact that even if not now, one day there will be a reckoning. The same pleasure I get when I watch a movie in which the bad guys receive their ‘just reward.’
And there is satisfaction in knowing that one day the world will be righted, and there will be no more suffering, pain, crying, or death.
But maybe this kind of relief in knowing that there will be judgment isn’t the main reason Jesus tells the story. And maybe Jesus also doesn’t only tell us the parable to tell us about the patience of God who will wait until harvest time.
But maybe, for us at least, it’s harder than we think to know who the bad guys and who the good guys are. Does the Apostle Paul not say that all have sinned and all have fallen short of God’s glory? (Rom 3:23) That makes it difficult to point at others.
I don’t mean to suggest that God exercises divine indifference toward sin. If anything, sin wounds the heart of God because it is a denial and rejection of relationship, which is why God has consistently and passionately sought to bring God’s people back into the covenant, through the prophets and in the last days through his son. (Hebrews 1:2)
But given how often Jesus warns against judging, could it be that Jesus knows that we are not very good at judging and that often we judge people not for being unjust but for being different, while at the same time we judge in others what we hate in us? Perhaps that is the meaning of Jesus’ command to take care of the beam in my eye and not worry about the speck in yours. We are the same in that we both have sinned but perhaps my sin is greater than my neighbour’s sin.
Erich Fried is a Jewish writer born in Vienna, who as a 17 year old, after the Nazis had murdered his father, emigrated to London. He became a writer and one of his pieces is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story. It is called ‘Preemptive Strike.’
Abel, the one whose sacrifice is accepted, worries and obsesses about his brother’s envy, hatred, and his plot. Abel’s entire perception is coloured by his anticipation of his brother’s attack. Every gesture and word he interprets through his fear. Finally, the moment his brother turns to maintaining his ‘pitiful fire’ is the moment he has been waiting for. He preempts what he had been expecting and strikes first, killing his brother with a single strike of his axe.
As in the Biblical story, God calls: as God always calls us, and calls us to answer. But as in the Biblical story, so here: God says, Cain, where is your brother Abel? And Abel replies, Lord, do not worry about me whose sacrifice you have accepted. It is I. But Cain is on the ground behind me, I have covered his face with leaves. But God continues to address Abel by his brother’s name. And Abel goes and looks at his brother Cain and sees that they have never looked more alike. And Abel goes to a pond to see his reflection in the water, only to find out that he has become his brother.
When I read the Cain and Abel story as a boy, I never understood why God had regard for the offering of one but not of the other. But I don’t think that that is what the story is about. The story is about what happens next. And Fried’s retelling of the story with Abel beset by fear and becoming the murderer shows that both brothers are not so different, not for us to sort into wheat and weeds, disposing of one while keeping the other. In the original story, Cain even receives God’s protection.
In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the master urges his servants to have patience and let both of them grow together, perhaps because they are not so different after all, and likely because God loves them both.
Perhaps we can be patient, not only in the church but in our society. We don’t understand everything and everyone. And to understand someone, it takes time to spend together and to listen; facebook posts, tweets, and slogans are no substitute. We do well to be patient with one another, for God is patient with us all.