Leading Questions - Am I My Brother's Keeper?


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Genesis 4:1-12 Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.” 2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. 6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” 8 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. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

“What a bad man!” I thought to my young self, “I can’t believe he killed his brother.” Evil Cain was up there on the felt board once again taking out his brother. I thought about that for a minute before my eyes got a little blurry and I began to stare blankly out the classroom window. Suddenly my third grade Sunday School teacher broke in again on my thoughts. “God wants us to be our brother’s keeper,” she sincerely said. “Do you know what that means? It means we shouldn’t throw snowballs at each other (I grew up in Minnesota.). You could hurt somebody if there’s ice in them.” I spaced out again. I was thinking about that snow fort I had built with my brother the day before. We had built it specifically so that we could have a snowball war later that day. She broke into my thoughts again, “God wants us to be our brother’s keeper and God says everybody’s our brother.”

That’s the scene I thought about as I reencountered this story now in my early thirties. I thought about that Sunday School classroom. I thought about my earnest teacher. I thought about that clear, direct, and very moral teaching. And then I stared back at the story from which it came. The contrast between the two settings is sort of mindboggling. Here in Genesis there is only mess. Here in Genesis there is only murder and sin and heartbreak. Here in Genesis there is hardly even Abel. He’s offed unceremoniously and quickly in the story. Only Cain looms large. Only he among the humans is offering up any kind of moral vision at all – one so evil that honestly you can draw a straight line from Cain to Mussolini to Hitler without ever skipping a beat. Have you thought about that? That’s exactly the kind of moral vision Cain is offering up in our leading question for today. It’s the question that asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

That’s what struck me as I reencountered this question now in my early 30s. This question isn’t memorable for its moral clarity. It’s memorable for its total depravity. This question isn’t memorable for its solid teaching on Christian love. It’s memorable for its complete lack of it. This question isn’t memorable for its heartbeat of tender care, but because it’s so blood chilling and cold. In fact, it’s so blood chilling that the line continues to title books and movies even today. I Googled My Brother’s Keeper and found three movies without even trying. And for good reason too, have you ever thought about the fact that the question actually expects a negative answer? Seriously, every attempt to turn the question into something positive gets ruined when you look at when and how Cain actually asked the question. The Lord came to him after the murder of his brother and asked him, “Where is your brother Abel?” (v. 9) And Cain flippantly said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9)

Do you see what Cain really did there? You can see it in English, but you can see it even more clearly in Hebrew. He’s expecting a no answer. He’s expecting the Lord to say to him, “Oh. Yeah. You’re right. My bad. You’ve got your life. He’s got his. I guess I’ll just mosey on here and maybe I’ll find him around the bend or something.” And this happens immediately after cold, calculated, and premeditated murder. Did you hear me say that? This is premeditated – the worst kind of murder. Scripture makes that reality clear. Cain said, “Let’s go out to the field.” (v. 8) In other words, this was planned. This was no manslaughter that might happen in some accidental run in with Cain’s farming equipment. This wasn’t even negligent homicide that might happen in a bad hunting accident. This was a man said, “Hey bro, let’s go have some brother time,” while thinking to himself, “That’ll be the perfect time to off him.”

And, fortunately, as Moses writes here he spares us the awful details. We’re not sure if it was a knifing or a bludgeoning or something Cain did with own his hands. Fortunately, we’re not told. Fortunately, Moses understands that sensationalizing the story isn’t going to help us spiritually so all we get is the quick, clear, and succinct report of what happened out in that field, “Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” (v. 8) And seemingly immediately after the violence the Lord came to Cain and asked him, “Where is your brother Abel?” (v. 9) Just the perfect question to get it out of him. The Lord wants Cain picturing the scene - the where - of the crime and to picture his brother’s slain body so his conscience would scream and he’d confess and come clean on the spot. But what the Lord actually gets in response is not only a complete denial of any wrongdoing, but also a clear statement to butt out – that Abel was none of Cain’s concern or business. That’s what Cain meant when he asked today’s leading question: Am I my brother’s keeper?

There is just no way to rescue this question from the dark place to which it leads. There’s just no way to do it. You can’t make it only about not throwing snowballs with ice in them or being nice to homeless people or tamping down sibling rivalry. You just can’t. You can’t take it and sanitize it from its dark context and turn right back around and talk only about moral victory and doing right by others and so on and so forth. The only place this question leads to is a place of stunning moral failure. Cain was throwing off the murder of his own brother. Depressing, right? But understand the Spirit’s work here. This is the very first child born to the very first parents right after those parents had first become sinners. Moses made sure we knew that. It’s actually how he started the story. He told us, “Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.” (v. 1) And this is who this child grew up to be: the first child grew up to be the person who took inborn selfishness to its most horrifying conclusion: murder. And if that isn’t the Spirit teaching us something profound about the stock we come from I don’t know what is.

Why do you think he does that? Is it because the Spirit’s a spiritual sadist? That he enjoys whipping our consciences as we think about our most Cain-like moments in life –  like when we were incredibly mean to our sisters or treated our spouses as if they were less than human? Or is it because he’s accidently revealing to us through this story that he’s actually kinda mean – that he likes to watch us squirm as we think about a past abortion or enjoys seeing our shame as we think about how we stood by while people picked on the weird guy or harbored a nasty thought about our boss. No! In this story, the Spirit wants us to powerfully learn grace. Its first lesson is that it’s not deserved. For the moment, that’s what the Spirit wants to show us. And why? Because until I understand how unlikely grace was for me, I won’t celebrate it. Until I understand how undeserving I really am, I just won’t appreciate it. And so before the Spirit does anything else he first makes clear our need for a love that’s totally undeserved.

And then he delivers it. You know what happened after Cain killed Abel? “And a lightning bolt appeared in the sky over that field and immediately struck Cain, the killer, dead for his horrific sin. The Lord got immediate and perfect retribution for Cain’s murderous act.” I mean - no! - it doesn’t read anything like that. What you’ve clearly got here in the Scriptures is a cold hearted killer and a warm hearted Lord who comes to him trying every trick in his spiritual book to melt his heart. “Where’s your brother?” he asks. And even after Cain offers up his callous and even accusatory, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord keeps on keeping on. “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.” (v. 10) And, “by the way,” the Lord goes on to say, “I’m not going to quit on you. I’m going to dog you with this until you come running to my grace.” “When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” (v. 12) I’m telling you. That’s an amazing and searching grace.  

You know what the best part of God’s grace is? God’s amazing, searching grace comes at no one’s expense except his own. Not Abel’s. Not yours. Not even Cain’s. Not anybody’s expense, but his own. It might not seem like that at times. For years Abel’s killer continued to wander the same earth he had so tragically been cut short from. For centuries Abel’s death hung there as the very first example of a vicious miscarriage of justice. You know who that bugged the most? The Lord. Abel’s untimely death stuck in the Lord’s craw like nobody’s business. It niggled at his mind. Or if you want to use the Spirit’s much more powerful language it shouted to him, “from the ground.” (v. 10) You know how much it bugged him? It bugged him so much that roughly 6,000 years later Jesus was still talking about it like Abel’s murder had happened just yesterday. Check it out in Luke or Matthew if you’d like. Jesus just couldn’t let it go. It ended up bugging him so much that he even stopped talking about it and went and did something about it. At no one’s expense but his own.

He went and he got justice for Abel. Blood for blood. Life for life. Hurt for hurt. Even murder for murder. Have you thought about that? But he didn’t extract that price Cain. He extracted it from himself on the cross. And why? So that Abel’s blood could finally stop its shouting and his blood could start its shouting. And this shout? It’s different. Jesus’ blood doesn’t cry out for its own vindication. It cries out for ours. It’s blood that shouts to God, “Give these people grace. Give these people my forgiveness. Give these people my innocence.” And that’s what the Spirit’s been so intent to teach us. Grace. Undeserved, unmerited and freely given grace. He wants us believing that even the me who treated his sister or his spouse as less than human still has God’s favor. He wants us confident that even the totally underserving me who didn’t stand up for that guy at work or harbored a nasty thought about a co-worker is still loved. He wants us trusting that we’re God’s and he’s ours and that nothing – nothing! – is going to change that. Not a rap sheet a mile long. Not even a rap sheet that may include acts of violence against a fellow human being. The Spirit wants us believing grace.

It’s really interesting to think about it, isn’t it? You’d think that if the Spirit really wanted us to be our brother’s keepers he might handle us a little differently. You’d think that if he wanted us being nicer to our wives and more caring toward our siblings and more apt to help the poor and the needy that he’d inspire us to it. That he’d give us stories of soup kitchens galore and marriages amazing and sibling teamwork extravaganzas. That he’d give us lots of examples and clear instructions about what to do and how to do it. And then since we’d know exactly what to do and how to do it that everything would be hunky dory and we’d all be our brother’s keepers all the time. And what does the Spirit do instead? We hear about a tragic murder and a Lord whose heart broke so badly over both the victim and the killer that it’s still niggling at him – oh – roughly 6,000 years later so much so that finally he stopped talking about it and he acted. He did what had been in his heart to do since Abel’s blood first flowed. He died to give us grace.

Think of it. The Spirit of God loved me so much that he sent me my Sunday School teacher to teach me this story. And so little did I understand my own Cain-like tendencies that I sat there daydreaming about how I was going to let my twin have it in a vicious snowball fight. I’m amazed at that in retrospect. You know what’s even more amazing though? It’s that despite that truth, Cain’s question never came up in Jesus’ mind about me. Or you. Never. Not once did he stop to ask himself, “Am I his keeper?” “Am I hers?” He always just was. He always just will be. And that’s grace. And that grace? I think it’s enough for now to point out that it wrecks us to Cain’s question. It wrecks us so thoroughly and so completely that here the Spirit never even breathes a word here about what or how we can get busy being each other’s keepers. He just assumes we will be. Just like Jesus is for us. And for the record? I’m not sure that means I’m never going to throw a snowball at my twin again, but I’m pretty sure that when I do I’ll at least make sure there’s no ice in it. Amen.

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