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Justice, Vengeance, and Mercy
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 2: The Source of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of January 2, 2022
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Genesis 4
Key Scripture (NIV):
“The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” Genesis 4:10
- To better grasp the breadth and depth of the human family.
- To better recognize the walls that divide and the consequences of hostility.
- To better understand the responsibility we have toward others and God.
- To better grasp the wonder of mercy and forgiveness.
In a theological manner, the entire Bible is anchored in Genesis. This ancient book presents us with the one thread that runs through every book: Covenant.
God initiated a relationship with us through covenant, and that covenant was fully expressed in Jesus Christ. Genesis offers us a repetitive pattern. The pattern is presented in this manner: A. God creates and blesses humankind. B. Humankind abuses and violates that creation and blessing. C. God restores humankind and creates a new beginning.
The creation hymns that open Genesis are placed there to remind the reader that the one who has established covenant with us, the one who forgives and renews, is the very same creator of all. The repetitive pattern cited above reaches a climatic point in Genesis as a covenant is initiated and established by God with Abraham and Sarah. The Lord has remained true to this covenant, even thou we have often treated the relationship with neglect, apathy, and even abuse.
This one thread of covenant not only runs throughout Scripture, it is also enlarged and enriched. For example, as Abraham and Sarah and their descendants are called to be God’s people, how are they to live out that calling? Thus, the Covenant is fleshed out in the Mosaic Law. Through the Law we are to understand how we live as God’s people before God and with one another. In the historical books we read of how Israel attempted to live in this Covenant in relationship with the rest of the world. In the prophets Israel is “measured” as to whether or not they are living as a covenant people or a rebellious people. Jeremiah is allowed to gaze into the future and see a coming day in which Covenant Law will no longer exist just on tablets or parchments, but also in the heart. It will be “written upon the heart.” Read Jer. 31:33. Christ then embodies this Covenant fully. He is the personification of the one law that fulfills every law: the Shema. The Shema is found in Deut. 6:4, and Jesus declares it the “law of laws.” It reads, “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Jesus adds, “And thy neighbor as thyself.” The Pauline letters and other writings in the New Testament reveal how this Covenant of the Shema is being embodied by the Church in the world. Thus, again, we can say every Biblical book is anchored in Genesis.
Our lesson today reveals how humankind’s earliest relationship with God was observed and lived. The story of Cain and Abel precede the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, and thus precedes Mosaic Law. This does not mean that our earliest ancestors were lawless. They possessed an “inner” understanding of right and wrong through God’s voice in their conscience. Someone once said our conscience is nothing more than the voices of others in our heads. They were speaking more truthfully than they imagined. As Christians, we believe the conscience is the instrument through which God speaks regarding our choices and actions. Cain and Abel knew murder to be wrong prior to the commandment in the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Covenant has everything to do with relationships. It begins with our relationship with God and is lived through our relationships with others. Today’s text reveals the relationship between two brothers and God. This old story asks some stirring questions as we live in the new covenant of Jesus.
This lesson is best understood as we examine its three questions. There are as follows:
- Where is your brother?
- Am I my brother’s keeper?
- What have you done?
Living in covenant possess both a vertical and horizontal dynamic. We live in relationship with God (the vertical) and in relationship with one another (the horizontal). However, there exists a third dynamic in covenant living. It involves the relationship we have with ourselves, with our own conscience.
Question 1: Where is your brother?
This question was asked of Cain who had murdered his brother. It is rhetorical in that God knows where Abel is, and so does Cain. However, the question itself allows us to consider its implications on a broader and even deeper level.
We were created into, and for community. God’s gift of Eve to Adam and vice versa was not to solely imply the marital relationship. Adam, Eve and their descendants would create the human family in Scripture. This is the family that emerges in Genesis and is the family implied in God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
We live in a large, interconnected community! From the outset, we are to understand that all of us are bound together. Our lives have been intertwined from the beginning. One of the great sins and failures of humanity has been our desire to diminish that community with the pronouns “us” and “them.” Certainly, there are cultural and ethnic distinctions in God’s creation. However, these distinctions were never intended to divide. They exist to enrich God’s creation. Nature is sated with so many different varieties of flowers. Each has its unique shape, color, aroma and characteristics. Together they create the beautiful panorama of color that touches our lives. Humanity is far more beautiful in togetherness and harmony than living in individual distinction. I once went on a men’s camping trip with five men. Two of them were strangers to me. I mentioned in the coming weeks I was conducting a mission on the Yucatan Peninsula. Immediately both bristled and asked, “Why do you want to help them?” “There are plenty of people right where you live.” To some degree, what they said was true. There were people in need all about me. However, the more time I spent with them led me to realize if I had said, “I am conducting a mission in this or that part of town” their response would have been the same. “Why do you want to help them?” If left to their desires I should only help those they thought worthy of helping, which was a very small group. These two men are not that different from many. Perhaps their perception of the “worthy” is far smaller than most. However, most of us have lines we draw when it comes to our human interactions. Eventually, all of us at some point or another are tempted to use the pronouns “us” and “them.”
Genesis calls us to remember we were created into and for the human community. Therefore, when asked the question, “Where is your brother?” I need to prayerfully consider how I truly answer that question. My words might say, “All are my family.” However, the question asks us to interrogate ourselves with another question, “Who do we really perceive as our family regarding the way we live and love?”
Human sin has isolated us from one another. Sin has created the lines, boundaries and walls that divide. Redemption involves the eradication of those boundaries. In Ephesians 2:14-16, Paul understands Jesus as breaking down the dividing wall of hostility. The wall that Paul addresses is the wall of legalism that impedes grace. However, it is evident in Christian teaching that all walls of hostility were confronted in Jesus. Through Christ they are to be abolished. Any wall that diminishes respect, appreciation, honor, and love is a wall of hostility.
Of course, not every boundary is evil or sinful. Some distinctions are made that draw attention to distinctive differences that enrich life. Yet, when those walls allow us to consider ourselves worthier, more important, and more loved than another, they are hostile. Christ’s life recognizes no such boundaries. There were no boundaries between male and female, Jew or Greek. Notice, all are present at the foot of the cross. There are women and men, immediate family and strangers, Jews and Romans, dignitaries and peasants, etc. Jesus’ sacrificial love represents the “equal ground” upon which the human family stands. In Galatians 3:28, Paul, the once proud Jewish Pharisee, declares the liberating power of Jesus by writing, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Consequently, we return to the question God asked of Cain, “Where is your brother?” Today we also ask, “Who is your brother, and sister?” Prior to knowing where they are I must first know who they are.
When is the last time you have personally asked, “Who is my brother and sister?” How does your faith in Christ inform your answer? Can you articulate some ways you can enlarge your interaction and appreciation of community? Can you articulate some ways and ministries that will help your church do the same? Are you currently engaged in studies or ministries that broaden your understanding of others as family? Can you identify the walls you witness in your personal life that destructively separate? Can you identify those walls in the world? Can you identify the consequences in today’s world of existing disconnects in God’s family? Of disconnects in your own life? What do you believe are the solutions to these disconnects?
Question 2: Am I my brother’s keeper?
Cain was asking what to him seemed a legitimate question. What is my responsibility to and for my brother? Am I to know the comings and goings in his life? Of course, for Cain, this was a question of deflection. He is guilty of murder. He has murdered his own brother and now stands before God. When studying the therapeutic process, we used to refer these types of questions as “head tripping.” That is, it is a question of deflection, a question tossed into the air without intent to answer. Pilate did the same while interrogating Jesus. He asked, “What is truth?” He wasn’t looking for an answer, he was seeking a way out. Cain knows full well that he is guilty, and his brother’s death is on his hands. He just doesn’t want to answer for it or deal with the reality of what he has done.
Real, and often deep, pain in inflicted when two members of God’s family injure each other. Thankfully, most of us have the opportunity to ask forgiveness, or to “make things right.” However, Cain cannot undo what he has done. He is totally dependent upon God’s mercy. It serves us well to consider that though we can receive forgiveness, we cannot undo what has been done. Even when the harmed parties are forgiving, a wrong has been committed and it carries consequences. For example, I can hurt a member of my church through gossip. I can truly be repentant and ask forgiveness. The person may forgive me. However, the trust level once enjoyed has now become damaged. That is the consequence of my behavior, even if I’ve been forgiven. Cain may receive mercy from the Lord, however, that will not bring Abel back from death.
This question prompts us to consider the serious nature of our sins against one another. Too often, the pain we cause others is taken too lightly. We use phrases like, “They will get over it.” “Over time it will be forgotten.” Or, “I can ask forgiveness.” Receiving mercy helps us move beyond the guilt we feel and move forward in life. However, we must ask, “What about the harm caused?”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked God. The answer is an emphatic “Yes!” We are responsible for those God has placed in our path. It is important to realize that this responsibility is not intended to create a burden. The privilege of caring for another is a blessing. Caring for one another is one of the greatest strengths we have as the community of faith. Not only do we have the privilege of loving another enough to care about their welfare, it also means others care about us in like manner. Paul described the Body of Christ, the Church, as those who rejoice together, and weep together. Read Romans 12:15.
As a clergyperson, I have witnessed the wonder and power of God’s people being responsible for one another. When we lose a loved one God’s people surround us with love and care. We do not walk through that pain alone. I have also witnessed such care on a level that has amazed me. The world rarely cares for another like the church. I knew a well-respected individual who was a vital member of the church. He met with other men every week for a Bible study. He succumbed to temptation. The guilt was overwhelming, and therefore, he stopped attending the study. He felt too unworthy. However, the Bible study group knocked on his door one morning. He asked, “Why are you here?” They answered, “To study God’s word with you brother.” They were not going to allow a member of their family to fall away and suffer in endless guilt. They brought him back into the family. If we asked them, “Are you your brother’s keeper?” they would have strongly answered, “Yes!”
Sadly, Cain knew he was his brother’s keeper and he had failed Abel. He understood there was little he could do but try to disconnect himself from his actions. Such attempts are never successful. Cain would walk in guilt all the days of his life. Though he could not undo his transgression, he could throw himself upon God’s mercy. Imagine Cain’s life if God had no mercy. Without God’s mercy Cain would have attempted to live with his sin, unsuccessfully. He could try to avoid answering to God, yet he would not have been able to avoid his own conscience.
Our text reveals that though God does not destroy Cain, the consequences remain. Cain is told his life will be difficult in the future. He will toil and often fail to receive what he would like. He will feel like a “restless wanderer on the earth.” This phrase perhaps best captures what we can feel after deeply hurting a member of God’s family. A restlessness will exist because our conscience remembers our actions. There will be moments in life that will remind us of our sin and thus rob us of joy.
Consequently, though God offers forgiveness readily in Christ, our actions have created a course of action that we are powerless to undo. However, we can create a new course of action. We can learn from the pain we’ve inflicted and minister to others with passionate determination. We can become intentional concerning being our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We can ensure that when we are asked “Where is your brother?” we will know exactly where they are in life. We can know the joy of being one of their “keepers.”
Can you recall a time when you have, through neglect or action, deeply hurt another? How did you feel afterward? Did you try to avoid the pain, or face it? Can you remember things said or thought that temporarily deflected the pain? What was the result of such deflection? Can you articulate the consequences of which you are aware after hurting another? What can be your response after failing to care for one or more God has placed in your path? What have you learned from past experiences of guilt and violation of conscience? How has God redeemed such moments in your life, allowing you to become your better self?
Question 3: What have you done?
On the surface it appears this question adds insult to injury. However, this is a teaching question. Such moments can either riddle us with guilt and shame, rendering us lifeless in our service to God and others, or educate and inspire us. These moments can teach us the value of another. Often, after hurting another, we grow to understand their feelings and pain. We feel sorrow for what they feel and experience. This moment can awaken new compassion in the soul. Compassion is often born in the soul when we are awakened to the pain of another, even if we caused it. What have I done? I have hurt another! What have I learned? I never want to hurt another!
Few dealt with the above question any more than the Apostle Paul. He had been a participant in the persecution of Christians. He had even held the cloaks of others so they could hurl the stones at Stephen with greater force, ending his life. It is obvious from reading the book of Acts that his moment with Stephen greatly bothered Paul. One of the reasons Jesus confronts Paul immediately afterward on the Damascus Road is because Paul’s heart is broken and fertile. He is ready to deal with the question, “What have you done?” Paul could not bring Stephen back to life or undo the persecutions he ordered. He doesn’t forget them. He mentions them in Philippians 3, calling himself most unworthy to be an apostle. Paul understands consequence. However, he is a new man. Dealing with the question, “What have you done?” has given Paul a desire to love and redeem. Once he hunted Christians to persecute them, now he hunts men and women to win them to Christ. Though he cannot undo his past, he has learned from it. What he has learned has empowered him to become the Paul we meet in the New Testament.
“Cain, what have you done?” Cain cannot escape the question. His feeble attempt to deflect the question is of no value. The consequences of his behavior will continue. However, God’s mercy ensures his life will continue to have value and meaning. A mark of protection is placed upon Cain, giving him a degree of serenity and hope that he will not suffer the same fate and his brother. In the Old Testament world, being given the opportunity to live was a gift. Remember, this was “an eye for an eye” world. Cain at least knows that God has not forsaken him. Cain went into the land of Nod and married. In the early Old Testament world, that was a great gift.
How often do we stop and prayerfully consider our actions? How often do we consider, not just what we have done in service to God, but what we have failed to do? What value do you see in dealing with the question, “What have you done?” Can you recall a time in which pain you caused another birthed a great compassion within you? Can you recall developing a new determination to love and care after hurting another? How has your prayer life enriched such self-examination?
Almighty God, thank you for the beauty of creation. Thank you for every man, woman, and child. Thank you for the opportunity to love and be loved. Teach me wisdom that I might cause no harm. Teach me wisdom that I might create good. Forgive me when I fail another. Forgive me for failing to be true to your love in Christ. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at email@example.com.