“Then [Jesus] said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24 NRSVACE)
Rivers of ink have flowed in the last twenty centuries and yet all the lessons contained in these two verses of the Gospel are not nearly extracted yet. One thing almost every man experiences, is the natural tendency to reject the “daily cross” that comes as a result of wanting to follow Christ. At first sight, the two verses seem to be disconnected. The first one involves a denial of self, and the taking up of the personal cross. The second verse seems to address a different problem: self preservation leads to loss of life. The connection is there, the cross is a source of wisdom and life and therefore, those who willingly accept it will save their lives. It is quite counter intuitive to accept an instrument of death as a means to save one’s life but that is the essence of the teaching contained in these two verses. The key is in the condition that Jesus lays out at the end: “for my sake” — the love of our Savior motivates us to follow Him. The condition is to take our cross and follow Him. We surrender our life to save it in Him because we have faith in His power over life and death.
We can be partners with Jesus in everything —up to our personal acceptance of the cross— or we can be his rivals by avariciously holding on to whatever life we can find away from the cross.
To become rivals of Jesus is in essence to select scarcity over abundance. If we truly believe that Jesus is our shepherd, our benefactor; if we believe that He wants to give life to his followers because He is inherently good and His promises are truthful; if we believe –really believe– that he is Truth itself … then we have faith in the abundant blessings, the eternal blessings Jesus can give us. But if we believe only in the measly lot we can accumulate by ourselves; if we fear to lose our possessions, our power, our lives if we get too close to Jesus and we walk away from our cross … then we are on our own: every man is our enemy and Jesus is our rival, a dangerous rival who wants to squander what we believe to be our treasure. Think of the consequences of that. I am sure that you know at least one Christian who likes the benefits of Christian life enough to be one of the faithful but has elements of that rejection of the cross: he (or she) angles for prominence, power, and is constantly looking for rivals to control and limit as much as possible. That territorial jealousy is not Christian at all. Don’t we declare in our Church to accept the daily sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity? How could we be in the same building with Him and be His rivals?
To be a participant with the cross of Christ is, in essence, to seek our reward by exercising good faith and excellence rather than create an artificial scarcity and become competitors with those around us. The Eucharist we consume never ends. In fact, it increases its goodness within ourselves and others. We will never run out of Christ. He is infinite and all can possess his infinity.
In this world we are forced to compete for things of temporary value. Those things often times produce addiction as a way to increase demand leading to scarcity that results in higher prices; whereas in the world of faith —a world that is wide open to anyone who wants to come in—- any sharing increases the product available to us. There are no market limits. I am giving these poor thoughts of mine to you in faith. I don’t know if even one of the thousands of people who read this article will stop to send me a red penny. I am not concerned with that at all and yet, I know that Christ is behind all my work, I am working for Him and He is inexhaustible! Imagine a loaf of bread that grows into a full loaf when you cut off and eat one half!
In Genesis 4:1-6 we read the familiar story of Cain and Abel. A few nice semiotic and semantic details. The word Abel (Hebr. Ab El) means “son of God” or “from God” while the word Cain comes from the noun (קין qyn), spear, from the verb (קין qyn), to fit together or forge. In classic Hebrew it is similar to the word “cane” and also to a word used to indicate bitterness against another. Some of that survives in the Spanish word inquina meaning “dislike, ill will” for someone. Primitive spears were made of cane and it is easy to associate one concept with the other. However, in Hebrew nothing seems to be simply coincidental. Many words are mysteriously associated with the very nature of the things described. A cane is light and yet strong, it is light because it is empty and yet is is something quite stiff in spite of its lightness. Those are ideal qualities to make a spear or dart like the “darts of the evil one” mentioned by St. Paul in Ephesians 6:16. One could construct an interesting parable playing with those words. Envy is like a lance or dart coming from a vacuous heart consumed, empty, devoid of substance.
We are returning to the story of Cain and Abel when we consider the matter of rivalry, envy and ill will from one human being for another. Cain and Abel were born fully within the realm of original sin. Their parents knew a human perfection in which their actions were aligned with logos, with reason. We have to consider very carefully how Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel are getting acquainted with these new conditions. The boys are learning how their own nature works, Adam and Eve are learning about this new thing, foreign to their original nature: living in a world disordered by sin.
Cain works the land while Abel is a shepherd. Cain is older than Abel. This is an important detail because there seems to be a rule in Scripture about a certain preference that God has for the second son. That is an echo of God’s preference for Jesus (the second perfect man, the one that perfectly obeyed God) over Adam (the first perfect man, the one that disobeyed God.) Remember the words of God to Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23) That pattern appears often in Scripture.
The profile of Abel the Shepherd is more heroic than that of the farmer Cain. Abel has a flock to keep and defend from wolves and lions. His riches multiply by themselves every time the lambing season comes but Cain cultivates the soil that was cursed by his father’s sin. Agriculture appears much more complicated, requires more effort, patient wait, and the fruits cannot be preserved easily. In that primitive world, the farmer seems a bit less of a “man of action” compared to the shepherd.
Cain is however, the son that will one day rule the clan in Adam’s stead but here we find a problem: Cain does not appear to have the “right stuff” but his brother, the defender of his flock seems to be a more capable candidate to be a ruler and protector. That is also a pattern that appears in Scripture a lot. Why? Because it represents the tension between the Adam of the flesh (Adam the gardener of Eden) and Christ, the Adam of the spirit. It is remarkable that Mary Magdalene believes that the Resurrected Christ is “the gardener” in John 20:15, that is a fantastic point to meditate upon on Resurrection Sunday because there we see the flesh of the Resurrected assuming the role of the first man as a keeper of a garden. The Passion begins in the garden of Gethsemane and poetically blooms in another garden, beyond death and sin with a new man who is both a gardener and a shepherd, but I digress. Cain, could have easily seen himself losing ground before his heroic little brother. Cain decided to follow the steps of Adam, working the land. Now his shepherd little brother was casting a shadow over his natural right to rule the clan when Adam was absent.
The time of the sacrifice came. Here is Cain, sacrificing what he had obtained with a lot of hard work. He knew he had to save as much as he could because winter was coming and then he had to have enough seeds to plant by Spring and then he had to wait! Perhaps Cain feared that one bad harvest could send him straight into oblivion, one miscalculation, one accident, and he could starve. Perhaps his sacrifice was tainted with fear, with lack of faith in God’s providence, with anxiety like the man described by Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet:
Un poco labrador, del cielo aguarda
Y al cielo teme, alguna vez suspira
Pensando en su olivar, al cielo mira
Con ojo inquieto si la lluvia tarda.
Just like a farmer he waits for Heaven’s gift
He fears Heaven and sometimes, he sighs
Guarding his olive field, looks up to Heaven
With anxious eyes when the rain delays.
Cain did not discern his cross, he did not accept his destiny. He lived at the edge of extinction, the land that kept him alive was cursed and stingy. God was strangely absent from his calculations, sin was growing slowly in his heart because he was too mindful of his meager possessions and definitely, too mindful of the growing danger that his little brother represented. Abel’s kindness and noble work made Cain more aware of his shortcomings. Perhaps, Cain’s lack of faith seeped into the quality or the quantity of his sacrifice and God received Abel’s pure sacrifice with more pleasure.
What was the spirit of that sacrifice? For that whole family, it was the practical expression of their trust in God. They had to trust in God as their Father, as their shepherd. This is a wounded family. Implicit in anything they believe is the certainty that Adam and Eve owed God a reparation for the terrible thing they had done to Him as their friend and father. Sacrificing the fruit of their work was an expression of trust; the incipient faith in God of the first family in history. The sacrifice implied a plea: “We are your children, we still trust you, we want to show you that we trust in your love, accept the penance you have justly imposed on us, we thank you for not killing us for our guilt as we justly deserved …”
It was envy and the temptation of the Serpent what made Eve take a bite of the forbidden fruit. And now that envy was again among them, like a slithering serpent envy had taken hold at Cain’s heart. Even if his sacrifice was of acceptable quality and quantity, the sacrifice of Abel was of a superior quality, it was flesh and blood, it was an object of tender love, it was animated life. The sacrifice of Abel resembled the sacrifice of Christ. Something had guided Abel to express God’s idea of the kind of sacrifice that would one day deliver Adam’s family from the grip of sin and death. Mysteriously enough, the envy of the enemies of God was going to perpetrate the unthinkable deed in Mount Calvary: a deicide.
When his offering is rejected, Cain does not turn to his fault, to his shortcomings to see how he can improve himself and gain God’s favor, no. Cain locks his mind in position to commit a great sin. In his heart he shouts “This is unfair!” and with that he trades positions with God. He feels is more fair than God. God has mistreated him and all began when that little shepherd was born with his pretensions and noble aspirations!
Cain has taken the place of God. He has already damned himself. The curse of the soil has entered his heart. He fills his cup with ill will against his brother, he is about to throw that murderous lance. He only needs a chance to be confirmed in sin. He has been emptied of love, he is nothing but a dart filled with hate and is already flying towards his objective. God tries to bring Cain back from his fruitless envy.
The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’ (Genesis 4:6-7)
See that Cain could have mastered his envious impulse and become the hero of the story, much more than his brother the shepherd. Because the man who masters sin is much more powerful than the greatest, most heroic commander that ever lived. Cain could have offered a real sacrifice there: “My God, I renounce to my innermost tendencies, I don’t care if my brother rules over me, I prefer to be your partner, teach me to be like you, let us break this awful curse in me. You know how. Please, show me how to kill this beast inside me, I want to be a son to you, a dear son.”
But that was not what Cain was thinking. He could not see the wrong in his actions. He proceed to kill the very thing he was supposed to be and did not have the guts to achieve. He goes and kills his brother, with intention, knowing full well that such act will void him forever from leading the tribe. He chose not to act like a prince but acted like a ruffian. Today we know that he was born with the right to be in the lineage of the Messiah, to be a Patriarch, to be remembered as a just man. All of that he sacrificed to himself to enjoy the evil pleasure of revenge, the bitter, bloody fruit of his envy. Cain killed that thing that he thought was most precious in the sight of God without knowing that he was killing his soul instead. Thus he inherited not the promise of liberation but he doubled upon himself the curse of the land. He turned out to be true to his father’s sin and false to God’s love. He could have been his brother’s keeper but he chose to be his brother’s murderer.
Rivalries are not for Christians. The real rival you are fighting is not your brother, it is always Christ. We have to fight the world, the flesh and the devil. When you defeat those three, you are allowed to seek the next rival, if you are up to it.