1 John 3:11-13 | Cain’s Legacy

image by Nick in exsilio

image by Nick in exsilio

In a lamp-lit room after a ceremonial meal and a few glasses of wine, Jesus spilled his heart to his disciples. There was an awkward tension in the room. Jesus was troubled, and sent Judas away. The remaining eleven were not sure why he left, but they knew that something didn’t feel right. Jesus took this opportunity to share some final teaching with his disciples. Central in the teaching that followed that evening’s meal was the call to love each other:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. . . . I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:12-13, 17 NRSV)

Immediately after that, Jesus directed his disciples to a darker topic, but one that flowed naturally from the command to love:

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19 NRSV)

Decades later, near the end of John’s life, he remembered this teaching, and reminded his followers of it. You are commanded to love, and the world will hate you for it.

. . .

John used the example of Cain to make his point. For John, Cain was a prototype of the world. What do we know about Cain?

His story is told in Genesis 4. Cain was the firstborn, a simple gardener, while his little brother Abel was a shepherd. Both the brothers brought God an offering from their own trade: Cain brought produce and Abel brought some choice cuts of meat. For some reason, God favoured Abel’s meat, but rejected Cain’s produce.

Knowing Cain’s heart, God both encouraged and warned him: If you do what’s right you will be accepted; if you don’t do what’s right, sin’s ready to pounce on you. Cain made his decision. He convinced his younger brother to follow him into the field where he mercilessly slaughtered him. The word John used when recalling this event can be translated “butchered”. How ironic: the farmer butchers the shepherd.

There’s more to the story, but that’s enough for our purposes.

The Genesis text doesn’t say why Cain’s offering was rejected. Some people think it’s because he didn’t offer meat. However, at this time God had not given any explicit requirements for acceptable sacrifices. The text does mention that Abel brought the best of his flock—maybe Cain brought produce from the 50% off reduced-for-quick-sale rack.  We don’t know.

Other people think the tale serves an etiological function: Cain becomes the prototype of urban life who through agricultural advances enabled people to settle in close proximity, where Abel represented nomadic life with the flocks. In this interpretation, God rejected Cain’s offering because he didn’t want humanity to become urbanized.

Although the reason his offering was rejected is unknown, we do know that commentators throughout history have unanimously agreed that his his offering was evil. Cain appears three times in the New Testament as an example of evil:

  1. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s.” (Hebrews 11:4 NRSV)
  2. “Woe to them [false teachers]! For they go the way of Cain.” (Jude 11 NRSV)
  3. “We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (1 John 3:12-13 NRSV)

. . .

Cain is the archetype of the world. Cain’s crime was the ultimate injustice. Justice is a righteous person punishing the unrighteous. Cain’s crime flipped the equation: it was the evil in Cain that made him jealous of the goodness in Abel. John warns us not to be like Cain.

Most of us, after reading John’s words, put ourselves on the side of Abel: we’re the righteous believers whom the world hates. While there is an element of truth in that interpretation, John calls us to question whether or not we play the role of Cain ourselves! We know that since the Sermon on the Mount crimes like murder are radically reinterpreted. Do we harbor resentment against people who are successful in areas where we fail? Do we smugly label people “holier than thou” when in epithet really does fit?

The backlash against Bono comes to mind. Many people resent him for using his fame to try to influence world politics and to come to the aid of the poor. Is that a fair criticism, or does the backlash come from the convicted consciences of people who know they’re not doing what they should in the face of global poverty? It’s easier to criticize than to confess.

Jesus warned his followers that the world would hate them because they’re not of the world: they love each other. Does the world hate us anymore? Do we love?

< 1 John 3:8-10 | The Origin of Sin

1 John 3:14-16 | Let the Evidence Speak >

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