We live in a society that is severely lacking in the ability to show much mercy, if any at all. I won’t spend time trying to defend or explain it. I’m just sharing this observation up front because as a pastor, this is what I come with as I enter the text of Genesis 4:1-16.*
You likely know the story of Cain and Abel. It’s the first recorded account of murder in the Bible. Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel, who presented a more acceptable offering to the Lord, so Cain took his brother out.
Literally, Cain took his brother out. He murdered his very own brother and the way the text reads, it appears to be a very calculated and cold-blooded killing. But this is exactly where the story becomes real interesting. You see, after the Lord confronts Cain with his brother’s murder, the Lord notifies Cain that he has come under a curse. For Cain’s part, he believes this curse will end in other people (whoever those people are) hunting him down and killing him. That’s understandable because that’s how people often pursue justice… an eye for an eye and a pound of flesh for a pound of flesh.
But justice in the form of blood for blood is not how this story goes. Cain is still cursed and he will have to live with that fact, brought about by his own evil deed, for the rest of his life. Nobody is ever going to trust him anymore (who would?), so he’ll live his life as a wanderer without any place to call home. But the Lord will not allow anyone to avenge Abel’s death by killing Cain. Instead the text tells us in v. 15, “…The Lord put a sign on Cain so that no one who found him would assault him.”
With this sign or mark placed on Cain, the text introduces to a surprising form of justice. The sign expresses both guilt and mercy for Cain (Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 60). In other words, justice here means that Cain is still guilty which comes with consequences of not have a place to call home anymore. However, justice doesn’t mean Cain’s guilt requires vengeance either. Instead, with this sign, the Lord is extending mercy to Cain. This sign of justice includes mercy. In fact, throughout the Old Testaement justice, often closely tied with righteousness, isn’t just a forensic concept concerned with legal proceedings but is associated with kindness that is expressed in showing mercy (Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, pp. 35-36). So in this story, the Lord is not only showing mercy to Cain but also serving notice that he expects others to show such mercy too.
This means we must thing about what it means to show mercy. So consider Exodus 34:6 says, “The Lord! The Lord! a God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness” (cf. Num 14:18; Ps 103:7-14; Jer 32:18). This confession of faith was repeated throughout the Old Testament because it was fundamental to Israel’s core understanding of who the Lord is and how he deals with people. The Lord is a merciful God and deals with people in merciful ways. In fact, even the Law of Moses was a way of ensuring that Israel lived a righteous life that expressed mercy. Of course, like any law, application takes wisdom and some people didn’t get this. The Pharisees focused on keeping the letter or the law to the neglect of showing mercy and so, when they encountered Jesus settings aside the law in deference to mercy, they questioned Jesus. So Jesus responded in Matthew 9:13, quoting the prophet Hosea, saying “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice…”
Do we understand how important showing mercy is?
As I suggested earlier, we seem to live in a culture that severely lacks in the ability to show mercy and sadly, this sometimes includes Christians too. Now I’ll explain some more because people seem more preoccupied with upholding law and national boarders than showing mercy to foreigners and undocumented immigrants — even though scripture is full of passages calling for mercy upon such people. I don’t know what the answer is to illegal immigration in America and as a pastor, it’s not my job to have that answer but I do know that people are called to show mercy. Yet the rhetoric I so often encounter lacks any imagination for what it means to show mercy. And for Christians, this is the antithesis of who Jesus is and the life he has called us to live as his followers. Or are Christians still interested in following Jesus?
So Christians… Mercy is not a political issue for us to debate, it is a God-ordained virtue for us who follow Jesus to learn and live as an example of what the kingdom of God is like. When Jesus comes again, we will not be judged on whether we follow CNN, FOX, and MSNBC News and whether we support the President of the United States and other elected officials. But we will be judged on whether we have followed Jesus and Jesus went about showing mercy, even to the point of suffering death on the cross. That is the game-changer. us then, learning to be merciful means we must start with God’s word embodied in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and guided by the Holy Spirit in the community of other followers of Jesus where we can discern together what it means to show mercy and not sacrifice.
* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 4:1-16 called Surprise Justice, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.