“Then God said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He replied, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (OSB)
The first instance of (ritual) sacrifice recorded in Scripture occurs outside the Garden. Even in exile, the priestly function of humanity continues, although now in an externalized form. Instead of their very lives being a continual self-offering to God in perfect communion, now “something” is missing, and this lack must be compensated for by an external offering.
Cain and Abel famously bring their respective offerings—from the fruit of the earth, and from the flock—and without explanation, God rejects Cain’s offering and accepts Abel’s. Echoing Christ’s words in Matthew 5:22-24, St. Irenaeus points us to the reason when he says:
God is not appeased by sacrifice. For if any one shall endeavour to offer a sacrifice merely to outward appearance, unexceptionably, in due order, and according to appointment, while in his soul he does not assign to his neighbour that fellowship with him which is right and proper, nor is under the fear of God;— he who thus cherishes secret sin does not deceive God by that sacrifice which is offered correctly as to outward appearance; nor will such an oblation profit him anything, but [only] the giving up of that evil which has been conceived within him, so that sin may not the more, by means of the hypocritical action, render him the destroyer of himself. (ANF 1.485)
We see, then, in the story of Cain and Abel a foundational principle that is played out through the rest of Scripture, that ritual piety—as an expression of our vertical relationship with God—is intimately connected with and is dependent upon 1) our own repentance, having a “crushed and humbled heart” (Psalm 50:17), and 2) our horizontal relationships, our love of brother/neighbor. This is what the priestly “Kiss of Peace” is to indicate in the Liturgy—it is “the sign that our souls are mingled together, and that we have banished all remembrance of wrongs” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures V.3).
In terms of the development of the Genesis story, we see the disintegration of humanity rapidly intensifying. What began as a transgression over a simple matter of not eating fruit has led, shockingly, to fratricide—the ultimate alienation between humans in brother killing brother. This and all that is to come in the plight of humanity, St. Paul tells us (Rom 1:22-25), is the “fruit” of idolatry—the fundamental disordering and perversion of human life that comes when humans worship creation rather than the Creator:
Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man-- and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
It is only with the Image of God restored in us that our worship and our responsibility to our brother can be rightly directed and blend seamlessly into one complete offering of ourselves, one another, and all of our life unto Christ our God, with His Father, and the Holy Spirit.
~ By Reader Justin Gohl