The First Murder

The first reading today is from Genesis 4 and tells the well-known story of Cain and Abel. Did you notice that the whole idea of bringing an offering to God is Cain’s idea; Abel just follows along. Nonetheless, God’s reaction to Cain is unexpected, unexplained and negative: “The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not.” The most popular reason for God’s reaction is that Cain, even though he brought gifts first, brought just some of his harvest, whereas Abel “brought one of the best firstlings of his flock.” Given that other places in the Bible have expressions for bringing the best of the harvest, the assumption is that Cain held the best back for himself. Continue reading

Context and Continuity

This coming Sunday is the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Lectionary Cycle A. The gospel reading is from the discourse popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount which we began on the 4th Sunday. Last week we considered a number of preceding verses that were marked by “…you have heard it said…But I say to you…” Our gospel continues with the teaching under the same instruction framework which offers a succinct comparison of the current Jewish teaching (You have heard it said…) with a more complete understanding of what God intended (but I say to you…) as offered by Jesus. As we covered last week, the lesson is to make clear the personal responsibility of freely entering into the covenant relationship with God.  To answer the question, what does it mean to truly be God’s people?

There are some commentators who would group vv.33-37 with our gospel reading:

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’34 But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.36 Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.37 Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.

The reason for this is that these verses represent a transition from situations anticipated in the Law – e.g. murder, adultery, and divorce – to actions and locations not discussed in the OT. There is no precedent in the OT for the absolute prohibition of oaths. The Misnah has entire tractates on oaths (Shebuoth) and vows (Nedarim). Yet Jesus had provided a vision of discipleship and life that abolishes the distinction between words that must be true (oaths) and words that must be performed (vows). All speech is to be truthful. All promised action to be performed, not just the ones associated with oaths and vows.

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain