Sermon: Lost Sons: First Address - The Murdered Son
Preached on 6th April 2009
(Holy Week Address - Monday)
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
I want in these Holy Week addresses to explore with you the theme of fathers and sons, one of the truly archetypal relationships in human life. Within this theme I am going to focus on fathers who lose sons. There is no loss more heartbreaking than the loss of a child. It goes against nature that the son or daughter you conceived and brought into the world and nurtured should die before you do. But I am not only thinking of children who are lost through death. A couple I met recently spoke about their son. ‘How many children do you have?' I asked. ‘Only one, now' they said: ‘we once had two, but we lost a child'. It turned out that this lost child of the mother's first marriage had been taken back by his natural father. They had not seen him since. It was a real kind of death and a deeply felt bereavement.
A number of stories in the Book of Genesis tell of fathers whose sons are ‘lost' to them through ‘deaths' of various kinds. One is murdered. Another is abandoned. A third is supplanted. A fourth is betrayed. A fifth is taken for sacrifice. Only one of these is a physical death; the rest are symbolic. But in their different ways all these sons are lost to their fathers, some for a time, some for ever. In Holy Week the church tells just such a story of a son who is lost: Jesus the Son, ‘lost' to his Father through the crucifixion, and lost in all five ways: through murder, abandonment, being supplanted, betrayed and sacrificed. Easter tells of his being ‘found' again in the resurrection. Perhaps these ancient narratives from Genesis, so sensitively told with a wealth of insight into both the complexities of human nature and the mysterious ways of God can illuminate the passion narrative for us. I hope they will cast new light on the cross and resurrection that we proclaim once more this week.
Christian tradition has taken some of these Genesis stories as images, types, of the passion, most famously the sacrifice of Isaac which we shall hear on Good Friday. Others have not been consciously used in this way. Yet they all belong to the memory of Christian people as we come to the cross this week, the stock of images and symbols we bring to our understanding of the death of Jesus. And if it is important to say, as I believe it is, that the suffering of Jesus is a sign of how God suffers in every experience of human pain, then our meditations on different kinds of suffering and loss may help us to be more sensitised to those who suffer in today's world.
Our first story is one of the most ancient in the Bible, yet in the truth it uncovers about humanity, one of the most contemporary. It is the story of Cain and Abel, or as I prefer to say this week, Adam and his murdered child.
In ancient myth, the motif of the murdering brother is common in connection with the founding of a civilisation or dynasty: in Egypt, Set and Osiris; at Rome, Romulus and Remus. But in Genesis, why does Cain murder his younger brother? The traditional answer is that it was out of envy. If, as I believe, envy is the fountainhead of all other sin and wrongdoing, it is entirely believable. But envy of what? - that is the puzzle. The text says laconically that this first instance of sibling rivalry came down to a conflict about religion: one brother's offering was acceptable to God, the other's not. At the dawn of history, people are already killing in the name of religion: religious fanatics, like the poor, are always with us. But why should Abel's sacrifice of animals be privileged over Cain's offering of the fruit of the ground? Here the text does not help us. We have to conjecture.
One answer is to say that it comes down to motive: it is not the nature of the offering that counts, rather the inward attitude that motivates it. There is no arguing that principle: an offering is only a true sacrifice if it is freely given. But the text is silent on this point. Another approach is to say that the story is meant to legitimate animal sacrifice, defend this more demanding, costly practice against those in an ancient society who believed that the offering of the first fruits of the harvest was sufficient. Yet another reading sees it as upholding the older way of life that is semi-nomadic and animal-rearing, represented by Abel, while Cain's represented the sedentary existence of the crop-grower and tiller of the soil with the innovation it represents: the marshalling of nature, technological intervention with tools, the requirement to store and to accumulate. It is thought-provoking to make the connection between the development of technology that sustains life and the power it gives to human beings to end it. Cain's name is connected with a Hebrew word for a weapon. Did Cain murder Abel with one of the tools he had invented to till the ground?
The tale begins with the first biological conception, marked as a great event by Adam: when Cain is born he exclaims with surprise and joy, ‘I have created a man with the Lord!' fashioning life as God does, or in the name of God, or in the place of God - the Hebrew could mean any of these things, though probably not ‘with the help of'. But where is Adam after that? He is silent, has dropped out of view. He of course is the archetypal lost child himself, the fallen son banished from Eden, alone in the world where once he walked with God. In the story of Abel it's as if Yahweh takes back the role of the disappeared father who goes looking for the lost child, remonstrates with the brother who should know where he is, and finally passes judgment and sentence on him. The feel of the story is that just as Adam stands in for God in making another human being, so God stands in for Adam when things begin to go wrong. And if it were Adam who had said to Cain, ‘where is your bother Abel' and he had contemptuously replied to his father, ‘I do not know: am I my brother's keeper?', would not Adam have known that not only was Abel lost to him, but Cain too, gone eastward into a far country, but unlike the prodigal in the parable, destined never to return?
The fate of the younger brother is all the more poignant for the way the narrative links the first act of life-giving: conception and childbirth, with the first death. Death is ‘right' when it comes peacefully at the close of a life that has run its natural course; but not this one, for this death, so wrong, so outrageous, is not natural but is inflicted on an innocent man at the hands of his brother and fellow human being. We need to think about the death of Jesus in the same way, as an act of violence against an innocent victim, the more shocking because it is so calculated. For this victim was an innocent who had done no wrong, only had healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, and brought hope to the poor, whose entire life was one of sacrifice and service. The first three gospel writers all use the violent Greek verb apollumi of his death, a word that means to ‘ruin' or ‘destroy'. The leadership, say the evangelists, ‘went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him'. We must not allow our familiarity with the passion narrative to soften that barbarous word.
Traditional piety has meditated on the violence done to Jesus and seen in it the violence all humanity, we ourselves, have inflicted on him. Devotion to the wounds of Christ is a way of acknowledging how the brutality meted out on the suffering victim is emblematic of the propensity of human beings to abuse the weak and turn power to destructive ends. The Genesis story seems to say that there is a ‘mimetic' quality to this: there is a compulsion in human beings to imitate and replicate it in a thousand different ways, as the progressive corruption of Cain's descendants in the Genesis story spells out. The murder of Abel and the murder of Jesus stand not only for all the acts of bloodshed perpetrated by killers on individual human beings down the centuries, but also for the calculated genocides of history and in our own time where the true contempt in which life is so often held is laid bare. Jeremiah's lament likens his predicament to a lamb led silently to the slaughter, and this is how the passion pictures it. In his meekness, Jesus is the archetypal victim. In his suffering, we see how the fate of goodness is so often to be eclipsed. In the murder of Good Friday, the massacre of innocence, there is a real sense in which evil has triumphed.
Of course, the New Testament goes beyond that way of speaking about the cross, and we shall during the course of this week. But while the death of Jesus is more than simply a brutal murder, it is not less than that. So we need to stay with the tragedy of Abel the murdered son so that we can reflect on the tragedy of Golgotha. If we do no more tonight that meditate with empathy on the tragedies of those in our world who like Abel are lost through inhumanity and violence, that is an important insight of the passion narrative. If our reading helps us to be less cruel, more compassionate, to honour the weak rather than exploit them, to use our power for good ends rather than evil, all this matters greatly.
But in Holy Week, we ask where God is in all this. Where is he in the murder of Abel and the murder of Jesus and wherever life is cheap and victims' blood cries out from the ground? ‘God was in Christ' says St Paul. In other words, where Jesus goes, God goes, even into the dark places of pain, violence and bloodshed. The passion narrative is not simply the acting out of the plight of the lonely sufferer going to his death. The point is precisely that, though he does not know it yet, and imagines that God is far from him, God has not abandoned him. In the Genesis story, we are struck by how active God is in dealing with the consequences of Cain's violence. We could say, reading back from the passion narrative, that he is present to it from beginning to end; even that in its human victims, God is a victim too. Matthew says in the parable of the sheep and the goats: ‘in as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me'. Whether it is good or evil, what we do to one another we do to God as well.
The story of the lost son who was murdered touches us because we all glimpse what it is to invest love in people who fall prey to the cruelty or abuse of others. But here is where our faith rises beyond the brutal realities of a murder two thousand years ago. This great week tells how violence and murder against the innocent victim become the source of the world's redemption. The Good Friday collect puts it with disarming simplicity: ‘Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross'. This is all it asks: look upon this community whose identity comes from a meaningless act of violence that now carries the infinitely wonderful meaning contained in that word graciously. By receiving the enmity of his fellow human beings, the Son of Man turns foes into family. ‘While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son' says St Paul.
In the paschal mystery of the cross and resurrection lies our hope, our conviction, that the God of Abel and of Jesus will gather up the fragments of our living and dying so that nothing is lost. In his terrible but glorious wounds, we have the possibility of a transfigured life. It is not that tragedy is less painful or even more bearable because of that; rather that it is taken up into a new and larger realm. If as the New Testament says, ‘it was impossible that death should hold him', then it is impossible that tragedy should have the last word in any aspect of our living and dying. Lost though he was, Abel's blood was not forgotten by God. The resurrection is the sign that God remembers. This lost Son is found again at Easter. It is all we need to know. To him we are always alive, and loved to the end.