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Cain and Abel, Peter and Jesus, Vengeance and Forgiveness: Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Exodus 14:19-31
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Partway through the first season of the show Sandman on Netflix (which is based on a famous comic book), we meet two brothers who live in that show’s Kingdom of Dreams. These brothers live together, they bicker like most roommates, and they have a cute, chubby living gargoyle as a pet. And everyday they get along… for a bit. Everyday they bicker… for a bit. And everyday the first brother, Cain, murders the second brother. But then everyday the second brother, Abel, pulls himself out of the freshly-made grave, finding himself alive. And then each new day rolls out like the last: life; human interaction; murder; and then life again. It seems to be saying something about how, left to their own devices, these two siblings are stuck in this cycle of dysfunction and violence.

In the short Biblical account of Cain and Abel, Cain complains to God that the world is a dangerous place full of dangerous people (I mean, he should know!), and God reassures him, saying that if anyone kills him, there will result a “sevenfold vengeance” (things will not be good for them, or their family, or future generations). And then years later, a descendant of Cain named Lamech, the father of the famous Noah, boasts in a soliloquy: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, [I will be avenged] seventy-sevenfold.”

It’s this sad situation of bullying, violence, and revenge that Jesus addresses, and creatively plays with in the reading today. And his followers are starting to understand: in this remaking of the world that Jesus is introducing, many of our old, entrenched ways are going to change. Rather than Cain’s sevenfold vengeance, we are on the side of sevenfold forgiveness. And Jesus pushes him even farther: remember that boastful descendant of Cain, bragging of being avenged seventy-seven times. You are to boast not of pride and power, but of humility, as you forgive seventy-seven times.

Francis Spufford, a contemporary novelist and commentator has written: “If Christianity is anything, it’s a refusal to see human behaviour as ruled by the balance sheet. We’re not supposed to see the things we do as adding up into piles of good and evil we can subtract from each according to some kind of calculus to tell us how, on balance, we’re doing…. Cruelty cannot be cancelled by equal and opposite amounts of being nice. The weight of sorrow is not lightened by happiness elsewhere. The bad stuff cannot be averaged. It can only be confessed.”*

We would be right to approach this reading with discernment and caution, asking ‘are you telling me to be a floor mat, to be walked upon by, well, people like Cain?’ We might say: seven, let alone seventy-seven chances is too much. I’ll aim for two or three. Or maybe we can get around to that first seven, but admit that seventy-seven is just too idealistic and utopian. And let me assure you that honest wrestling with our scriptures is exactly the kind of thing we’re called to do. It’s part of having “an inquiring and discerning heart,” as we pray for the person that’s just been baptized. But it’s in our inquiring and discerning, and in our growing in faith, that we might recognize how Jesus is playing with, and subverting, the stories of Cain and Lamech, saying: our trust is not in revenge, but in reconciliation.

We might also see that Jesus goes on to tell a parable, as he so often does. And parables are usually pretty wacky. They exaggerate, like the size of the fish you caught, how it grows a bit with each retelling. I don’t think Jesus wants us to get caught up in the particular math. But through the extremity of the numbers, to explode our entrenched programming, so weighted toward revenge. And to get us out of the balance sheet game. “The bad stuff cannot be averaged. It can only be confessed.”* Jesus has come proclaiming God’s Rule “on earth as in heaven,” and this Kingdom (which is now imperfectly experienced, but one day, we trust, will come more fully) is going to be known not be violence, but by restored relationships. The story of the Cross is all about that. That in spite of our innate violence, God’s will and God’s way is going to be love, forgiveness, and life… not death.

A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela goes: “You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.” He also said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”** But forgiveness is often a deep and difficult business. It would be spiritually irresponsible for me to make light of it, or to push you where you are not ready to go. I’ll repeat something I said last week: “Even in situations of conflict, we can still say “peace be with you” to our neighbour. Not because everything is fixed or perfect; but because we are expressing our trust and our hope in God’s Reign in which, in the end, all will be healed, comforted, and reconciled. It’s an act of hope: opening up our broken present to God’s future.”

Difficulties in our relationships is something that St. Paul knew well. And we’ve eavesdropped into one particular issue today that was being experienced by the church in Rome. “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” (And I share this as a vegetarian.) “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.”

A bunch of the times when Jesus got in trouble with experts and authorities it had to do with food. Because in some circumstances food has to do with our culture, our values, our class or status, and our identity. (Food is at the centre of our Christian worship.) So no surprise that food was a triggering thing for the churches Paul knew. The issue sometimes having to do with food sacrificed to pagan idols. Other times having to do with what to keep or what to let go from Jewish regulations (in a church that now included Jews and pagans). On one hand some were wary of backsliding into pagan superstition. On the other hand, others were wary of backsliding into depending on the word of the law rather than on the Word made flesh as the source of our restored relationship with God (and each other). And into this tricky situation Paul gets us away from the the particulars of meat or no meat, and has his readers approach this hot issue from the starting point of the mercy and openness of God who has called everyone, no matter what their practice or identity. So whether one abstains or one indulges, that is a secondary issue. The question is whether one’s practice or one’s identity reflects their having been called by God. And then can we, in our difference, choose to live alongside the person different from us… even the person who chafes against us… recognizing that the basis of our relationship is not our likes and dislikes, but Jesus, through whom all things were made.

The readings this week paint a picture of a different world, and a different way of relating to the world. Of trusting not in our power or the power of our side, but in the mercy of God. Our entry point into this radical (and often challenging) life is through baptism. We are saved from our slavery to human divisiveness and cruelty by taking a one-way trip through water. Where we make commitments to resisting evil, and whenever we fail at that, repenting and returning to God (which might often involve returning to our neighbour). And seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourself. Forgiveness is possible in communities shaped by these ethics. We’ll struggle at it, but ultimately our trust is in Jesus, at the centre of our life. Always putting before us his dying and his rising. A message that is foolishness to much of the world that is stuck in the mode and mindset of Cain. A world (and individuals) groaning in pain. Jesus describes a different world. And some people and some moments are windows into it. We recall those words from Nelson Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 169.