Reconciliation Lectionary: Genesis 4:1-15

mary-the-penitent.jpgI have never heard this passage from the early mythology of Genesis proclaimed and preached at a Reconciliation Liturgy. The tale of Cain and Abel is one of the saddest in the Bible. At least I find it so. In a mere nine chapters of the Bible, Genesis 3 through 11, humankind sinks desperately low. The acceleration picks up with the first murder:

The man had relations with his wife Eve,
and she conceived and bore Cain, saying,
“I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”
Next she bore his brother Abel.
Abel became a keeper of flocks,
and Cain a tiller of the ground.
In the course of time
Cain brought an offering to the Lord
from the fruit of the soil,
while Abel, for his part,
brought one of the best firstlings of his flock.
The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
but on Cain and his offering he did not.
So Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen.

The various commentaries on farmers versus ranchers do not interest me. Nor what seems to be the arbitrariness of God being pleased with one man’s offering and not the other’s. Likewise the curiosity that an infamous member of the second generation of human beings would need, somehow, to be identified with a mark. Are these the first people, or not?

What I do understand is the perception that God sometimes seems unfair and arbitrary. It seems natural to be angry or resentful. Note also that Cain was crestfallen–the NABRE says “dejected.” His inner tumult was not just directed at another, but consumed him in a particular mood. We can feel this way. God can also intervene then. Do we listen for the questions of life:

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.

It is a truth that sin lies in wait for us. It’s not some personalized other to blame, at least not all the time. But something to entrap us when we choose not to overcome it. The NABRE passage doesn’t mention a demon, only the impersonal “it” of sin. Make of that edit what you will.

Now comes the sadness: murder and cover-up.

Cain said to his brother Abel,
“Let us go out in the field.”
When they were in the field,
Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord asked Cain,
“Where is your brother Abel?”
He answered, “I do not know.
Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord then said: “What have you done!
Listen: your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil!
Therefore you shall be banned from the soil
that opened its mouth to receive
your brother’s blood from your hand.
If you till the soil,
it shall no longer give you its produce.
You shall become a restless wanderer on the earth.

So Cain loses his relationship with his ability, being able to be a productive farmer. Serious sin sometimes results in separating us from not only the people we love, but the work we love to do. This kind of alienation, either as a punishment from a human source, or a loss of internal verve, often accompanies serious sin. How does the Christian community leave a path open for a penitent without creating a situation in which the spiral of sin becomes all too easy? I don’t have the answer to that one.

Cain bargains with God, not unlike other Old Testament figures:

Cain said to the Lord:
“My punishment is too great to bear.
Since you have now banished me from the soil,
and I must avoid your presence
and become a restless wanderer on the earth,
anyone may kill me at sight.”
“Not so!” the Lord said to him.
“If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold. So the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone should kill him at sight.

The Lord’s punishments so often seem magnified, especially if we have been lured into sin from a sense of personal unfairness. As a parent, I have found this extremely difficult. How to exact consequences for bad choices without allowing my child to descend into a deeper resentment and bitterness?

I would applaud any preacher who manages to speak effectively and fruitfully on this point. Any experiences out there with this reading, or in your own personal reflection?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Rite of Penance, Scripture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Reconciliation Lectionary: Genesis 4:1-15

  1. John McGrath says:

    To accept God’s gift of human freedom and thereby become fully human, it was necessary for humans to take on the responsibility of discerning good and evil. Hence the allegory of Adam and Eve and their need to put aside the illusion that God would do everything for them as illustrated by the allegorical eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moral discernment is our responsibility. Or else we are not free. Eating the “forbidden” fruit was not an act of disobedience but a necessity. The fruit was not forbidden – our desire for moral irresponsibility makes us wish it were forbidden. Eating that fruit was ib fact an act of fidelity to our freedom and our obligation to discern good and evil and not siut back and expect God to do it for us.

    Whatever was going on with Cain and Able and God – a story which is most likely allegorical of a continuing misunderstanding of God. At any rate, for whatever reason, the allegorical Cain perceived that God favored the allegorical Able over him. This may be simply an allegory of one group seeing another group prosper more than they did. And from that reality reaching the conclusion that God favored the prospering group over them. We still have a big problem with the moral meaning of prosperity and poverty and how each comes about. But we can be sure that the decision is not made by God but results from a combination of environmental circumstances and human choices. God does not intervene to make some prosperous and other miserable.

    Nonetheless, however crestfallen and God rejected Cain felt, he had the obligation to discern good and evil. His feelings, and his perception of or misunderstanding of God, could not justify murder. He needed to look at the situation between him and his brother without making any presumptions about God. He should have been able to see how wrong it is for one human being to harm another, especially fatally.

    The story ends with Cain’s facing the fact that he chose evil. Nonetheless he survives, just as those who do harm, even murder, on others, in reality still survive and often thrive. This is a hard moral truth about human existence, and makes the discernment and the choice for good more difficult. But the choice for good, in the end, is the way to live our true freedom and dignity as human beings.

    The beginning of the Bible clearly sets the main themes for humanity: you are made in God’s image, you have been given free choice, you are charged with properly stewarding with respect that other great gift of God – the earth and nature – but you have the freedom to abuse these gifts as well. You are to have a love and regard for each other as made with love in God ‘s own image. But you have the freedom to do wrong and harm each other. But in the end you will find that doing evil limits your freedom and doing good and living with love is the highest expression of your freedom and humanity.

    In no way can you surrender your freedom to God and let him make all the decisions for you. In no way can you demand that God free you from dealing with the reality of Good and evil. In no way is “being good” going to exempt you from the struggle against human wrong doing, and from suffering some of the consequences of human wrong doing.

    The story of Creation, human stewardship, human freedom, human dignity, and the story of eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, are not simply parts of the Bible. They are the underlying and continuing themes of the Bible in its entirety.

    What I have said here reflects what I learned in Catholic grade school (from nuns earning their PHD’s) plus conversations with my parents plus my own thinking plus my high school Jesuit teachers. I was certainly influenced by my study of literature in how to see and follow a story about a complex theme, the most complex of which is human freedom and human morality.

    Perhaps some nuns, living close to the ground of our divided humanity, could give a better sermon on all if this than most priests of today.

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