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Stories of Jesus
Part Two: Easter Jesus in old stories
18. Cain and Abel
Cain and Able are Adam and Eve’s first children. Abel is a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the soil. Both of them decide to offer sacrifice to God, Cain an offering of the fruit of the ground and Abel the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions as the Bible clarifies, in other words, the best parts. God looks with favor upon Abel’s sacrifice but distains Cain’s offering.
I remember a picture of this event in a book called “Bible History,” from my childhood religion classes. The smoke from Abel’s sacrifice goes straight up to heaven, and Cain’s smoke meanders lazily along the ground. That’s not in the Bible, but it’s a story so I guess it’s fair to add our own details. Tradition interprets the distinction that God makes between the two sacrifices by saying Abel offered God the best that he had while Cain gave God something less than the best. The Bible doesn’t say that Cain gave less than the best, and one has to wonder, anyway, why God would require the best. No such command is reported in this story. Indeed, one might wonder why a giving God would require anything in return at all. Besides, it’s not as if God had given Cain and Abel the best that God had. In Christian belief the best is yet to come, with Jesus.
Cain goes off and sulks, and God gives Cain some fatherly advice: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Notice God doesn’t say Cain’s gift must match Abel’s, just that Cain should “do well.”) Soon Cain invites Abel out into the field, where he murders him.
I’d like to look in a new direction for motives in this story. When a human person gives a gift, it may be with no strings attached. That is, the person isn’t looking for anything in return. Still the recipient will often offer something in return, not out of a sense of obligation but simply because the original giving was a good thing and humans, being imitative creatures, will sometimes imitate the good that they see in another. Could it be that Abel’s gift was of that sort while Cain was thinking in terms of obligation or even rivalry with God—thinking that giving something back to God gets him out of a distasteful dependency relation with God? That’s another common way for a human to respond to someone’s gift. We don’t want to be “beholden.” We want to have accounts set right. We sometimes even get into a game of one-upmanship in the matter of giving gifts. A clue to Cain’s attitude about gifts is the murderous anger he feels toward Abel. He thinks of Abel (as well as God) as a rival and maybe one he can’t beat.
Thinking about the main point: What does this tell us about offering sacrifice to God? Clearly one thing is that it’s a religious practice that can go wrong. We can imagine we are paying off an obligation to God, either for things we have received or in reparation for sins we have committed. That makes us other Cains and most likely looking for the cheapest way out. For a long time Christian theology taught that that’s what Jesus did, except that he didn’t settle for the cheapest way. A drop of his precious blood would have been enough, I was told once, to satisfy God for all the sins humans had ever committed. That Jesus went overboard and gave not the minimum price but all he had, impresses us with the abundance of God’s love—so I was taught. Along the same line, I was taught that Jesus’ sacrifice was a continuation and a perfection of the temple sacrifices of the Older Testament. Those sacrifices hadn’t been able to accomplish the complete reconciliation of humanity with God, so they had to be repeated over and over. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice sufficed, once and for all, and didn’t need to be repeated.
But what if God doesn’t demand a price either for gifts given or for offenses taken? What if the gifts we give to God are truly gifts, not things God expects, but surprises for God, not obligations that we have to fulfill but our worry-free imitating of God’s overflowing goodness? I’m thinking God never expected Abel’s offering. I’m also thinking that it’s not taking anything away from God to imagine that God enjoys surprises.
Could God be a giver who doesn’t expect anything in return? And could God’s eternal blessedness include eternally being surprised?