As we have been journeying through Genesis at our church, I recently had the opportunity to speak on the story of Cain and Abel, the first recorded children of Adam and Eve. The story is told in Genesis 4, and I have always felt like it is very sad. It jumps into the story by saying that Cain and Abel each bring an offering to God – Cain of fruit from the land and Abel, fat offerings from his animals. It then says that God “looked with favor” on Abel’s offering, but that on Abel’s he “did not look with favor.” Cain, seemingly blinded by his frustration with his brother, invites Abel into a field and murders him.
Later, God finds Cain and asks him what he has done. Cain plays dumb at first, but of course God knows what has happened. He tells Cain that he will now be banished from the region of Eden. He will lose God’s protection as a consequence of actions. He will now be a “restless wanderer.”
There’s a lot that I could write about this story, and a lot of questions we could consider. I could spend a lot of time analyzing the theories as to why Abel’s offering was accepted and not Cain’s. There are lots. I could also write about what it is in all of us that makes us take our frustration with our own failures out on others. After all, Abel did absolutely nothing to Cain. And God even told Cain “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” Yet, instead of changing his ways or trying again or repenting to God, he lashes out at Abel and four chapters into the Bible we’ve already got a murder on our hands.
But the thing that has really stuck with me in the week and half since I preached this sermon is something different that any of that. It is the question of what it looks like to live as people carrying a mark of grace. That is what I want to write about.
First, I need to finish the story.
After God tells Cain his punishment, Cain is overwrought. He pleads with God: “This punishment is too much for me!! If anyone sees me they will kill me!!” And God says to him: “No. Anyone who harms you will be punished.” Then it reads: Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. That’s what I call a mark of grace.
Cain deserved to be punished. Cain murdered his brother for no other reason than jealousy. He killed him in cold blood, and he didn’t repent – he lied when he was asked about it. There are right consequences to that kind of behaviour. Cain would be removed from relationships for destroying one of the ones closest to him. That is a logical consequence. That is justice.
And I like justice, I really do. I like the idea that there is a right consequence for hurtful behaviour. I long for justice in a world where so often there is no consequence for those that deserve it. I would want someone who harmed my child to go to jail. I would like the guy who cheats on my friend to get dumped by his next girlfriend. I’d like the person who speeds by me on the highway to get a speeding ticket.
God is a God of justice, and I like that too. We see it in this passage. Cain experiences it firsthand. But the story doesn’t stop at justice. As one author writes “God holds justice in one hand, and mercy in the other.” This story is a perfect example. Yes, Cain would have a just consequence for what he had done, but God didn’t stop there. He gave him a mark, so that no harm would come to him. He could have stopped at justice, but he added grace.
I have spent the last two weeks wrestling with the question: What would it look like for me to allow others to live with a “mark of grace,” in my life? What would it mean for me to live as one who gives justice and mercy?
As a parent, I get to consider this question every day. I think most parents are good at consequences. There have been a couple of incidents in recent days that made me totally infuriated with my children. They all deserved justice. In each case, I had to think of a consequence. “You can’t play on your tablet.” “You need to go in time-out.” “You don’t get to have that treat.” Justice – consequences for hurtful actions.
But then the questions come: “But what of grace Leanne? What of healing?”
Ah, that one is harder.
How will I also, after the discipline, help them to heal? How will I show them the mercy that they will not always walk around as ones who have committed wrong, but as ones who are
forgiven and loved and healed?
And how will I do that for others in my life?
Because if there is one thing of which I am absolutely certain it is this: in cases of deep hurt, loss or pain, no amount of justice makes everything better. I say this as a woman who has spent the last ten years listening to people waiting for justice to heal their relationships. Spouses who tell the same story again and again of the incident that hurt them, because they don’t think the other person “gets it” yet. Hurting people waiting for the friend who hurt them to finally “hurt like I hurt.” Victims waiting for justice for those who harmed them. All people who think that justice will make everything feel better. And I get it. It hurts to feel like someone has been consequence-free when they have caused you pain. People do need to understand the hurt they caused and look for ways to make things better.
On its own, justice will never be enough.
Because no one can ever truly undo what they have already done. No amount of “equal hurt” can negate the hurt you have already felt. Justice will only go so far. Justice may give us satisfaction, but healing comes with justice and mercy. It comes when we say “I give you grace, that you can walk among us.”
We don’t know too much of the rest of Cain’s story. We know he had children, and his life continued. We know he didn’t die. We don’t know if he was grateful for the mark of grace he carried.
And we don’t know what the mark looked like. What mark would he have to carry so that people knew not to kill him, that he had God’s divine protection? Once again I have no idea.
I do know what marks of grace have looked like in my life:
“I accept your apology”
“I still love you.”
“Of course we’re still friends!”
“It’s okay, Mommy.”
You can’t see them? Look closer….I walk around with them every day.