The text is Genesis 4:1-16.
Imagine with me, if you will, that you’ve got three kids. (Maybe you really do have three kids, but if not, then just imagine with me.) Two of your three hypothetical kids are doing just fine: they get good grades, make lots of friends, and generally enjoy life. But then there’s your third. This one comes home with cuts and bruises on a regular basis. Nobody ever comes over to play with this kid. Then you get a phone call from the teacher, letting you know that your child’s grades are slipping so badly that she might not be able to advance next year with the rest of the class.
What do you think a good parent should do in a situation like this? What would you do? Let’s look at some options.
First of all, you could cut your losses. This kid had just as much opportunity to succeed as the other two. If she can’t compete on a level playing field, it’s no one’s fault but her own. You could take the time, energy, and resources that you would otherwise spend on that child and use them instead to improve the lives of the other two, who seem to be doing a better job of managing their own affairs. Besides, raising kids is labor-intensive! When you look at the situation statistically, two out of three ain’t bad! So that’s one option.
The next option is to look at the playing field itself. You can carefully divvy up your parenting effort between the three kids. Make sure that each one has an equal share of your time and energy. Why not create a schedule? How about a menu of parental services offered? This way, you can be sure that everything gets done in a way that is totally fair. Everybody gets something from you. We’ll call it “Equal-Opportunity Parenting”. That’s another option.
There is a third option, but it’s completely ridiculous and totally unfair. You could meet your kid with a hug at the door as she gets off the school bus. You could bandage cuts and nurse bruises while you ask what happened at school. You could give hugs while you get tears and snot all over your good work clothes. You could take time out of your busy day for conferences with teachers and guidance counselors. You could make phone calls to other parents. You could help with homework, even if it means missing NCIS. Like I said, this option is totally ridiculous.
Who in their right mind would sign up for something like that? Who? Wait, you would? Seriously?
But what if it’s a waste of time? It doesn’t make sense to waste that effort on someone who’s not going to be a neurosurgeon or movie star!
“It doesn’t matter when it’s your kid,” you say? Well then, that certainly says something about you all as parents! You would go out on a limb for this kid, just because she is your own. While you love all your children, you would give this one special attention simply because she needs it more at the moment. Her potential productivity does matter to you, does it? She’s precious to you, just for being alive!
Well, did you know that God loves God’s kids in the same way? God loves us all, but some of us need God more than others. God has a special place in God’s heart for those who are poor, oppressed, or discriminated against in this world. God cares most about those who matter least.
We can see this truth depicted beautifully (but also brutally) in today’s scripture reading from Genesis 4.
It’s the famous story of Cain and Abel. We learn a lot about these two brothers by looking carefully at the first few verses of the text. Cain is the firstborn son of Adam and Eve. A lot of celebration surrounds the story of his birth. Eve announces to the world, “I’ve gotten a man, with Yahweh’s help!” She doesn’t even call him a “baby”, he’s her “man”. Likewise, the name “Cain” comes from the Hebrew word for “gotten”. Her statement about Yahweh helping comes almost as an afterthought. In addition to being the firstborn, we also learn that Cain was a farmer, which was considered to be a more “civilized” and “powerful” profession in the ancient world.
Abel, on the other hand, doesn’t receive much attention at all. He’s just “another baby”. In the original text, Abel is referred to as “Cain’s brother” before we even learn his name! The name “Abel” means “vapor” or “breath”. It signifies something that is fleeting or meaningless. We get the idea early on that Abel doesn’t seem to matter much as a person. He’s kind of an underdog who probably grew up in the shadow of his big brother, Cain. As an adult, we learn that he became a shepherd. As wanderers, shepherds were treated like despised, working-class people in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. They were considered to be “backward rednecks” who wandered from place to place with the sheep. They depended on the kindness of farmers (like Cain) for the sustenance of their flocks. Most of the time, people spread all kinds of nasty rumors about nomadic shepherds.
Cain was the star of this family while Abel was little more than an afterthought. Cain got all the attention. Cain won his parents’ favor. Cain did well for himself, while Abel seemed to struggle in his brother’s shadow.
All of a sudden, it seems significant that Yahweh deliberately chose to favor Abel’s offering over Cain’s. Many theologians have offered potential explanations of why it is that the God Yahweh showed such favoritism. Some say that Abel’s offering was better of quality, being from the “choice cuts of meat”. Others suggest that Cain was somehow morally inferior to Abel. Personally, I like the idea that God was showing affirmation to Abel the underdog.
Reading the story this way helps to shed some light on Cain himself. If he’s used to being the top dog, then it makes sense that he would be upset about having to take second place to such a “loser” as Abel. It would have felt insulting to him, as God’s amazing grace often does to those who seem to “have their act together”.
Even so, Yahweh does not abandon Cain in this critical moment. We can see God acting as Cain’s pastoral counselor, warning him about the impending danger of uncontrolled rage and telling him, in effect, “Cain, you’re better than that.”
Unfortunately, we know how the story goes. Cain doesn’t listen. We get to see this “favorite son” at his worst. Even after the ghastly deed is done, Cain’s lingering bitterness shows through in his sarcasm: “How should I know [where my brother is]? Am I his babysitter?”
Cain has been thoroughly (and permanently) knocked off his pedestal as the family hero. How the mighty have fallen! He loses his status as a “civilized farmer” and is forced to become a “homeless wanderer on Earth” (much like his brother Abel once was). He settles in the land of Nod, which means “wandering” in Hebrew. Eugene Peterson calls it “No-Man’s-Land”. Through his murderous actions, Cain has become what he once despised.
But, even in “No-Man’s-Land”, Yahweh is not absent. In fact, Cain’s newfound status as an exiled and struggling underdog puts him in an ideal position for a divine encounter. In Cain’s moment of deepest helplessness and hopelessness, God intervenes with a word of grace. It is here that Yahweh imposes the famous “Mark of Cain”.
We often associate Cain’s mark as a sign of shame or punishment, much like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous “Scarlet Letter”. However, if we look at what’s actually happening in this story, God puts the mark on Cain “to protect him”. It’s an act of loving care and grace!
For the first time in his life, Cain is in the uncomfortable position of having to rely on someone other than himself. God graciously steps in to fill that void. Cain has now become the troubled child and God will continue to reach out in tender compassion, even for this murderer.
God cares most about those who matter least.
That’s what this passage is all about. It doesn’t matter that Cain shows promise and Abel doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that Abel deserves it and Cain doesn’t. God is Love and Love loves because that’s just who God is. It has nothing to do with the worthiness of the object.
The same is true for each one of you in relation to God. You are loved no matter who you are or what you’ve done. You can’t earn God’s love. You can’t stop it. You can’t sin it away. It just is.
Maybe, like Abel, you’ve been an underdog all your life. Maybe, like Cain, your own bad decisions have earned you a place in “No-Man’s-Land”. Either way, God is with you. God loves you. Nothing can change that. Ever.