24th February 2013, 8am, St. Peter’s
Envy: Seven Deadly Sins, Genesis 4.1-12
Envy is different from any of the other deadly sins because there is no pleasure in it. There is nothing great about envy, whereas the other sins might seem enjoyable for a short period of time, envy makes you miserable all the time. There is nothing fun about, in secret, desiring things that others have. Envy is a type of self-harm – seeing happiness and satisfaction in others – then making yourself miserable because of what they have.
Envy is most obviously the damaging sin. When someone smashes the windows of the church again even I can see the attraction of anger, but envy is most obviously wrong.
Envy is the dominant force behind advertising, and advertising is the driving force behind pretty much all of our media. One could argue that almost everything we know about the world, is fuelled by envy in one way or another. Money makes the world go round, and it has long been recognised that the emotion of envy makes money go round.
Of course it is possible to buy something with no influence of envy, but when you think about the things that we do buy, luxury items in particular, things we don’t need, then envy either prompted our buying of them (we felt we need them to keep up with the pace of modern living) or else we bought them in the hope that others would look at us and wish they had a TV as big as ours, dress as well as we do, drive as nice a car, have as good a phone. Mark Twain once said that,
‘man will do many things to get himself loved, he will do all things to get himself envied.’
Cain and Abel story
The one story in the Bible that most smacks of envy is that of Cain and Able. It is a story that most of us know, but there are a few twists and turns in there that we may not have noticed or been aware of.
If we look at the story we see that there is a lot of detail in the story of the birth of Cain, but much less detail involved in the birth of Abel.
We perhaps ought not be surprised: Cain is the story of the first born male – they are always given a more important position in this society. But more than that, this is the story of the first ever human to be born! Eve speaks about the birth of Cain, she says that his birth is due to the help of the Lord, and that she has bought forth a son. In contrast Abel is just born – no description, no words, no fame, no status really. Any status Abel has is because of his brother – we are told that Abel is brother to Cain, the only bit of description about Abel relates to his brother. Abel’s name means vapour or breath, something transitory or even something unsatisfactory. It is the root of the word used by the author or Ecclesiastes when he declares that life is meaningless – the word meaningless is hebel, linked to the name Abel.
The story tells us the facts; Cain is favoured by his family, Abel less so.
When the story continues we are faced with a question that is notoriously difficult to answer: Why did God prefer Abel’s offering to Cain’s?
The answer that is normally assumed is that Abel gave from the best of his flock, and that Cain perhaps didn’t give his best to God.
Later on the story tells us that Cain has done something wrong – this might be connected to his offering – perhaps he did not give his best, or did not offer it with the right attitude. However, it may be that Cain has done something wrong which is not connected to his offering. Because of the wrong he has done elsewhere his sacrifice is not accepted.
Cain is the first to bring an offering. We are told that Cain works the land – this is the land that the Lord has cursed as a result of the sin in the Garden of Eden. The ground that produced food to eat with no effort will now require sweat and toil to bring forth produce. Cain does this, and brings forth plants of the field, and then, unprompted by God, he makes an offering of what he has done to God.
Perhaps Cain is trying to win God’s favour over, to offer God a gift in order to ingratiate himself to God.
Either way it is Abel’s sacrifice that is accepted, the one who is called ‘meaningless’ is accepted by God, God has chosen the under dog over the favoured son.
It reminds me of 1. Cor 1.26-31 when Paul writes to new Christians in the church in Corinth:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’
When we consider the story of Cain and Abel, we can see Cain’s efforts as him trying to work his way back in to God’s favour and, ultimately back into the Garden of Eden, a place of God’s grace.
The story is one of envy. Cain is envious that the ground needs to be worked in order for there to be food to eat – he wants to buy back a position in the garden with a favourable offering. Cain then becomes envious because his offering has failed and yet that of his younger brother Abel – the meaningless, vapour child, has been accepted.
We are prompted to wonder about what we are envious of, and then to put it into context of being in the place of God’s grace. What could be better than being back in the Garden of Eden? The answer is nothing. Yet, and here is something that if we pray about and think about should crush any envy in us, being in the place of God’s grace is not anything that we can earn, but, work for, bribe our way in to. Nor does it depend on our social standing, our education, what we know, who we are, the reputation we have.
In fact the Bible suggest that those who have nothing and are nothing will find it easier to be in the place of God’s grace. This is exampled for us in Jesus Christ, he poured himself out, became a servant, humbled himself. He had no home, no status, he died the death of a criminal. God loves the under dog. That is why Lent is a great time of year – it reminds us that, before we were called, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.
One final thing on the story of Cain and Abel. God speaks to Cain when he is angry. Sin is crouching at Cain’s door, and yet God comes to him and offers him a chance to confess. God is with the underdog, but God is also with the sinner. God is with each of us, if only we will respond to his gentle questioning. Amen.