Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis relates the story of Cain and Abel. The New Jerusalem Bible introduces this story with this explanation:
This narrative presupposes a developed civilization, an established form of worship, the existence of other people who might kill Cain, the existence of a clan that would rally to him. It may be that the narrative originally referred not to the children of the first Man but to the eponymous ancestor of the Cainites (see Numbers 24:21). The Yahwistic tradition has moved the story back to the period of the beginning, thus giving it a universal significance: after the revolt against God we now have fratricidal strife; against these two evils is directed the double command that sums up the whole Law – the love of God and of neighbor, Matt 22:40.
The story of Cain and Abel is the second story in the line that shows the deterioration of the human race following almost immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve. The human race continues its free fall from the glory of creation to the man who will signal the beginning of our salvation history, Abram.
This story is the also the first of many in which the younger will be preferred over the older. God seems to play favorites here showing appreciation for the sacrifice of the shepherd while ignoring the sacrifice of the farmer. Actually, the story of the sacrifices also introduces a theme which will be developed much later in the Scriptures; namely, God only favors the sacrifice that is accompanied by concern for our brothers and sisters. The ritual alone is not enough; it must be accompanied by a contrite heart and with a love of neighbor. This theme will become a favorite of the Prophets later in Israel’s history and still holds a potent lesson for us today. All the sacrifices in the world will not appeal to God if they come from hearts that are stony.
The story also shows us a touch of God’s mercy as he acts to protect the murderous Cain while at the same time punishing him. Cain is marked so that others will not presume to kill him.
For the author of Genesis, Cain’s murder of Abel is but the first in a string of murders that continues until the present day as a very present reality. The taking of life is so prevalent in today’s world that we seem to have been hardened by it so that our sensitivities to this sin are somewhat dulled.
Our culture does not seem to value life. Human life is constantly threatened. More often than not, such contempt for human life seems to be rooted in human greed and fascination for the material things of life. The willingness to kill in order to secure wealth, natural resources, and even social position is completely contrary to God’s creative impulse. If we wish to be God’s people, we must put this sin far behind us and continue to pray for a return to God’s respect for life itself.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator