4Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced* a man with the help of the Lord.’ 2Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
When you read this, do you wonder what was wrong with Cain’s offering and what was right about Abel’s? If you do, you are in good company. Many commentary authors spend quite a bit of time wondering about that very question. What did Abel get right and Cain wrong? None of them get very far in their search for an answer, mostly because the text simply doesn’t tell us.
Our interest in what Abel got right and Cain wrong does say something interesting about us though, doesn’t it? We really want to know the answer to that question. And so we wonder; What will make God like us? What will make us look good in God’s eyes? What actions and behaviors will make God happy with us?
You can see the roots of our obsession with correct behavior and correct belief in this story. Our desperate longing for God to love us. And it exposes our worry that God only has so much love to go around. Therefore we must win God’s love with correct actions and beliefs. We usually don’t state it quite this explicitly, but I think this fear is real.
But this Biblical text doesn’t tell us what Abel did right and what Cain did wrong. It causes us to ask the question, to recognize our insecurity and fear, and then gives us this:
6The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’ Genesis 4:1-7 NRSV
God may well be pleased when we act in particular ways. In fact Jesus and the prophets have quite a bit to say on that very topic. Our actions matter. But it is also true that God’s love for us is not dependent on our actions. If it was, God would be spending time with Abel and not with Cain. But in the story, God is with Cain, the one who faltered. Not to chastise but to encourage.
It’s as if God says, “Try again Cain. You are more important than your actions, try again. Evil will try to convince you that your worth is the result of your actions. Evil will try to convince you that what you do is who you are. Be careful. Who you are is beloved of God. No matter what. Even when you fail.”
Actually God’s persistent love is found in the story of Cain and Able’s parents also. When Adam and Eve fail, God doesn’t abandon them. There are consequences for their actions, just as there are for Cain. But God doesn’t stop loving any of them. God doesn’t stop caring about them and God doesn’t stop caring for them. The story of God’s persistent love begins in Genesis and doesn’t end.
God is a God of second chances, and third chances and fourth chances, and dare we hope, infinite chances.
Good news, good news indeed.