It’s interesting how the rivalry between brothers can become legendary. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of myths and the ancient world, and have recently enjoyed watching Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome on the BBC – the first episode harked back to the foundation of Rome, and the two famous brothers, Romulus and Remus, who vied to found the city. In English legend, we have the tale of Robin Hood, set against the backdrop of Evil King John usurping the kingdom of England from his brother, Good King Richard the Lionheart. Even more recently, the British public were caught up in the tensions between the Milliband brothers as they fought – politically if not physically – to lead the Labour party, and the media still love to speculate on the effect of the result on their relationship afterwards.
And this evening, we have heard about the original sibling rivalry. It must be; they were the original siblings after all: Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve.
Perhaps it’s because I’m an older sibling myself, but I’ve always identified with Cain. I don’t know if you do too? Even though he’s a murderer – the first murderer, he still manages to gain my sympathy, and I’m left with feeling very little for Abel at all, I’m afraid.
|I think this is the wrong Cain|
I wonder if that’s not entirely unintentional, though? Abel is mentioned only nine times in the Old Testament. We heard them all in our reading today. The New Testament is overwhelmingly positive of him, in the four meagre times it mentions him, that is.
Cain, however gets 16 mentions in Genesis (but only two in the New Testament). Cain speaks (whereas Abel doesn’t), and Cain acts, whereas, apart from offering a sacrifice, Abel is acted upon. We are told a meaning for Cain’s name – Eve says “I have produced a son”, and ‘Cain’, apparently sounds like the Hebrew world for ‘produced’. No reason is given for Abel’s name. Cain is clearly the protagonist of the story; Abel’s role is, unfortunately, merely to act as the subject who Cain murders.
The way the story is told, we’re bound to feel more for Cain. He’s a three-dimensional character. It’s a bit of a surprise, then, that the tale leaves us knowing God rejected Cain’s sacrifice, but doesn’t tell us why.
Have you ever wondered that too? Cain is the first person to make a sacrifice to God, and God rejects it. Abel sacrifices too, and his is accepted. It feels arbitrary. Is this what God is like? Picking one over another for no reason – or no given reason?
My guess is that we’re not told what the reason for the rejection is, because we’re supposed to question it; to try to work out why God refused that first sacrifice – to wonder what God’s response to Cain – “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” – means in this context, for Cain, and for us, who identify with him.
I’d like to add an interpretation of the story into the mix. It’s one that’s suggested by the text, rather than implicit in it. This view says that to understand God’s reasons, we should try to look at Cain’s reason for sacrificing.
Cain, as we know, was the first-born son of Adam and Eve, who stole the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and were then banished from Eden; their home, the only place they ever knew. Cain was born outside of this paradise, but must have grown up hearing stories of it from his father and mother; of how they used to walk freely in that garden with their God, but had now been cursed, and could not return. “Maybe,” Cain thought, “just maybe, he could fix it.”
Cain knew his parents had stolen fruit, and so he grows fruit to give back to God. “Here – we’re even now” he seems to be saying. An eye for an eye, and fruit for fruit. Perhaps now, he will be allowed into paradise?
Cain is trying to start a relationship of reciprocity with God.
I think we can relate. It seems our natural state, doesn’t it, to bargain and barter with God? “Lord, help me find my keys, and I promise I’ll put some money in that Christian Aid envelope!”, “God, please let there have been no film in that speed camera and I’ll go to church every Sunday for a month!”, “Lord, help me get through this situation, and I’ll try to believe in you a bit more.”
God rejects the sacrifice, though. “No deal”, he says. “Your ways are not my ways” says the Lord. This isn’t about bargaining and bartering. If Cain wants to be right with God, he won’t get there with fruit. If Cain wants to be accepted by God, there is nothing for him to do – “Take your sacrifice away,” says God. It is not required.
That’s hard for us to understand. We feel the need to earn God’s acceptance, but, as God shows Cain, He does not work like that. We are already accepted. We are already loved. No sacrifice could increase that love, or change God’s opinion of us. No fruit, no extra money in the Christian Aid envelope, no additional church attendance, no deeper belief in Him.
Cain, as we know, couldn’t accept that. We’ve heard the extreme consequences of that failure to accept God for him.
What about us? Can we accept that there is no deal to be done? Can we accept that there is no offer of us scratching God’s back, so he will scratch ours that will ever be accepted by God? That no sacrifice of time, or money or penance will have any effect on the way God feels about us? That there is only ever the freely offered meeting of our own needs, with no requirement to do anything in return? The author, Philip Yancey sums it up – “There is nothing that you can do to make God love you more. And there is nothing that you can do to make God love you less.”
Grace is free, and unconditional. It is offered to all – we need only knock, and the door will be opened.