You could call it one of my earliest experiences of scripture study—Sister James recounting the story of Cain and Abel for our third grade religion class.
Admittedly, it’s a dangerous thing to trust a 50-year-old memory; but in my recollection Sister pretty much pitched the tale as an object lesson in currying God’s favor. Abel sacrificed the best from his fold, and therefore earned God’s goodwill; Cain grudgingly returned a few sloppy seconds from his vegetable garden…and merited only God’s disdain.
It’s an image (and probably a borderline heretical one) that I carried as my spiritual companion for many years. Simply put, the fair-haired Abel got things right: There’s a price to be paid for enjoying God’s affection. (And it certainly fits in a culture like ours. We’re brought up to earn our keep…and to rely on flattery when necessary if our wits and talents alone aren’t enough to get ahead.)
When I heard the story proclaimed in the first reading at Mass today, though, I realized there’s nuance in it I’d never noticed before. The author of Genesis describes the Lord as being rather protective of Cain. The Holy One doesn’t reject Cain’s offering, but rather seeks to touch (and heal) the brokenness it reveals in the human heart.
So the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: His urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.’
There’s a lot of wisdom in this passage, it seems to me. God wants to show us exactly how sinful patterns often emerge in our lives. They might begin as petty resentments or discouragements, but the more we nurse ’em, the more we open the door to choices that ultimately may rob us of the ability to become all that God desires us to be.
God’s interest, in other words, is in raising Cain—not in beating him down. (Remarkably, the Holy One’s concern for Cain seems to continue even as he becomes the Bible’s first murderer a few verses later in the passage: When Cain complains that the punishment for killing his brother is too much to bear, God promises to protect him from earthly adversaries.)
That’s not the sort of deal I remember being taught in my third grade religion class all those many years ago—a God who seeks to nurture us, even (and especially) in our sinfulness. Still, I’d say it’s a promise worth waiting for…
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.