What line are we in? That’s the haunting question here at the Last Judgment, the end of the Church Year, the end of Jesus’ teaching career, the end of one long lesson in Matthew that we’ve been reading for the past few weeks. I’ve pointed out how these segments at the end refer to the beginning of Jesus’ teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. Here at the very end we go to the very beginning, not the beginning of the Sermon, not the beginning of Jesus’ life, but the beginning, to Genesis. We go there because Matthew’s Last Judgment is a retelling of the ancient story of Genesis 4, Cain and Abel. Both stories have someone whose life is cut short, both have two different offerings to God—one adequate, one inadequate—and both leave hanging over us a question to which we are afraid we know the answer.
Adam and Eve have three sons. The second son is Abel. Abel is Scripture’s mythic representation of someone who has his life cut short, kind of like how Christ’s life will be cut short. All those who have something of life denied to them—food, water, health, house—resonate with Abel. Abel dies at the hand of his older brother, Cain. Cain grew crops, Abel was a shepherd. In the story, the time came to sacrifice to God, Cain brought grain, Abel brought lamb chops. God said, “No offense to vegetarians, but I specifically requested lamb.” Cain got mad that his sacrifice wasn’t good enough. God tried to get Cain to see how to make the next one good enough, told him, “You can do it.” But Cain chose instead to murder Abel. God found out right away, and told Cain his farming days were over, and that as punishment he would wander the earth. Cain said, “I’m doomed. Everyone will know I am a murderer, and someone will go vigilante on me.” God, amazingly, says, “No. No one will hurt you. I will avenge you sevenfold.” And God puts a mark on Cain, the mark of the Lord, so that anyone who thinks of messing with Cain will ask, “Is it worth sevenfold vengeance from the Lord?” Interestingly, in the early Church Christians thought of the mark of Cain as foreshadowing the mark of the cross we receive in baptism. Cain represents that part of us that denies life to others. If Abel is the one cut short, Cain is the one that cuts Abel short.
Adam and Eve have a third, largely overlooked son, to replace Abel. They name him Seth, which means something like, “God granted a replacement.” (This kid had no issues in his childhood.) Seth represents the human that presses on in the aftermath of life cut short. He symbolizes the hope that despite Cain, humans may yet live for God. The Bible traces humans back to Seth, though, interestingly, some of Seth’s descendants have the same name as Cain’s descendants. It’s as though we know Cain is there. Those who live on do so hoping to overcome that which would deny life. We all live carrying some of Cain in us.
Genesis 4 is the “first book.” John Steinbeck called it that when he tackled the subject in his masterpiece, East of Eden. The novel is a repeated retelling of the basic Cain and Abel story. I am admittedly biased in my assessment of the book—Steinbeck’s been my favorite author since I discovered him as a college freshman. Nonetheless, I’ll stake a Christ the King sermon on Steinbeck’s interpretation of Cain and Abel. A pivotal scene in East of Eden occurs halfway through as the chief male characters conduct an impromptu Bible study on Genesis 4. Lee—the cook, and the best theologian of the lot—reflects on the story: “The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there’s the story of mankind.” [Steinbeck, East of Eden, 270.] Maybe that is not the whole story of humankind, but I think it is a good interpretation of Genesis 4. I think it is why it resonates with us. Steinbeck writes, “No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.” The story of Cain is true of us.
It’s true of the characters in East of Eden. Years pass and the guys who were at the Bible study are together for another reason, and Lee admits, “the story bit into me deeply and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me.” Doesn’t that happen with a Bible passage that gets ahold of us!? Or a question about God or for God that won’t seem to let go of us!? Lee gets obsessed to the point that he hunts down Hebrew scholars. He keeps returning to God’s response to Cain’s sacrifice. God tells Cain, according to the KJV, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” You shall rule over sin: a promise, that does not seem to play out in real life. The American Standard Bible, which Lee consults also, has God say, “do thou rule over sin.” A command, a command that no one can keep. Lee’s Hebrew scholars tell him that the word in Hebrew is timshel, which translates “thou mayest,” or in contemporary English, “you may.” You may rule over sin. There is choice. There is freedom. There are still 300 pages of East of Eden to go at that point, but the possibility of freedom has been introduced, and this changes things.
This freedom is not free will as we popularly understand it, where by virtue of my human body and soul I can decide to do whatever I want, including believing in God. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize we fall far short of this and wind up feeling like failures. Cain—who fears rejection, who gets angry, who cuts short the lives of others—Cain is always a part of us, unable to do enough and eager to blame someone else for it. God offers freedom from Cain. God offers freedom from fear of rejection, freedom from anger at others, freedom from the impulse to cut short someone else’s life. God forgives the Cain that is in us, forgives in the sense of the Greek New Testament: God “sends away.” God sends away my Cain, sends my Cain to the goat line at the Last Judgment. That’s how I get to be in the sheep line.
In Matthew’s Last Judgment, Christ says to the sheep, “You fed me, you gave me a drink, you welcomed me, you clothed me, you visited me and tended to me when I was sick or in prison.” The sheep don’t deny doing those things; they merely didn’t realize Christ was the person they helped. They did those things because Christ had said to them, “You may.” Christ says to us, “You may feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, house the homeless, remember the forgotten, speak for the voiceless,” and so on. Without Christ’s “you may,” we won’t. Without Christ’s “you may,” we would be the goats, who don’t deny not feeding, housing, healing, or visiting, but rather deny having seen Jesus.
What line are we in at the Last Judgment? Christ says, “You may be sheep. You may. You have my permission. You have my volition. You have my faith. You have my mark of protection on your foreheads. You have my love for the world (I know, because I give it to you). You may be sheep.” Christ frees us from the goat line, where we were stuck, and tells us, “You may be in the sheep line, where you feed and clothe and house and welcome me in my many manifestations.” Christ—whose life was denied and cut short, like Abel’s—Christ forgives us. Christ forgives our Cain. Christ is, after all, our brother. He is Abel, and we come before Abel as Seth—the replacement brother. Seth, the one who presses on in hope. Abel sees Seth, but Seth bears a striking resemblance to Cain. Cain is our oldest brother, and we have a lot of Cain in us. It’s an anxious moment. Abel, miraculously, forgives. “Cain,” he says, “You don’t have to be afraid of your work not being good enough. You don’t have to be afraid of your life being inadequate. You don’t have to be afraid of God rejecting you. You don’t have to lash out at someone else, and cut them shorter than you are. You may be my brother, again.”
We come to the end: the Last Judgment, the end of Jesus’ teaching, the end of the Church Year. In one week, it’ll be Advent. We will sing and pray and hope for the coming of our savior. We will do it forgiven. We will do it having been freed to stand in the sheep line. We will do it knowing that when God comes, we will recognize God as the one who enabled us to give life rather than take it. We will serve God, where before we would not, because God has said to us, “you may.”