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Cain and Abel, The Publican and the Pharisee: Accounts in Parallel

Cain and Abel, The Publican and the Pharisee: Accounts in Parallel

Upon an initial reading of the Genesis account of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-7), one would superficially conclude with the question of why God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice, which may seem to be undue preference of a petty and jealous God. Quite often Cain’s overreaction by killing his brother out of jealousy and envy, is often overlooked and explained away as a result of God’s undue favoritism. However these conclusions are an oversimplification which misses completely the text’s subtle, but poignant message to us as the audience.

That message revolves around questions that pertain to how we conduct ourselves towards our fellow man, as well as how we approach God and the health of our spiritual life, particularly our works of prayer and charity. Naturally there are many texts within Scripture that are devoted to these themes, but none are as succinctly and typologically paralleled than Christ’s parable of the Publican (Tax-collector) and the Pharisee (Lk. 18:10-14).

In that parable we have two men who have pursued two distinct paths with their spiritual life. On the one hand, we have the Pharisee who seemingly represents respectability, decency, purity and true spirituality. However, as the parable relates, this image was far from the truth, for the Pharisee “prayed with himself” and then boasted to God how he was unlike other men, even like the tax-collector who was present before him.

In the first instance, since God created each person as a unique being in His image, it is only natural that the Pharisee would of course differ from other men! Yet to boast about it and to disparage others, particularly the publican, as being of lesser account, while touting himself as a superior being displayed clearly his own arrogance and pride. In effect the Pharisee had missed the mark in responding to God’s call to holiness and unity with Him.

Hence, rather than judging others, the Pharisee needed to focus on his own journey towards God, to examine where he could make improvements and self-corrections, so that he could aspire to a higher level of spiritual existence and contemplation. Thus reflecting Christ’s call that to whom more is given, more is expected (Lk. 12:48).

In the case of the Pharisee, he was a teacher of the Law and an exponent of the Jewish Faith, so naturally his hands had not to be tainted by evil acts or engaged in unethical professions like tax-collecting. Therefore his boast of being unlike other men is a groundless one, in the sense that his vocation demanded these qualities as prerequisites, whereas people engaged in other pursuits strove to achieve these qualities as spiritual goals.

Nevertheless whatever the Pharisee may have seemingly achieved through his “own” merits, was ultimately a collaborative endeavour with God’s assistance. Furthermore, he does not utilise the blessings he has been given to assist others in their ethico-spiritual or existential struggles as evidenced by his condemnation of the Publican. This teacher of the faith and practitioner of the Law, instead of exhorting others to a higher level of being, chooses to pray and glorify himself, thus invalidating all his previous efforts. In effect his purity, respectability, and his ethico-moral standing within the Jewish community is mere ritual, without true substance and hollow.

This of course is a warning of the dangers posed for those wishing to answer God’s call to holiness and unity with Him. For it is written that God does not delight in whole-burnt offerings and sacrifices, unless one offers themselves in humble and contrite prayer first, for:

A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken and humbled heart God will not despise…[only]…Then You will be pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness, with offerings and whole-burnt offerings…” – Psalm 50: 19, 21 (Psalm 51 in western Bibles).

The danger we refer to here, is illustrated by the Pharisee’s pride and egoism which has consumed his whole being, and like any of the pathoi (negative passions) becomes an addiction which needs to be constantly fed. Therefore it is possible to follow the correct way towards God and still not arrive before His presence, for there are many distractions along the way which can test us and divert us. Unfortunately, as is the case with the human condition, the Pharisee lost sight of his purpose.

Whereas the Publican who belonged to one of the most hated professions of his era, sought to make amends within his vocation, and with humility and compunction approaches God seeking forgiveness and strength. To clarify why a tax-collector was hated, and why this man sought to make amends, one needs to understand the nature of his profession. For in the days of Christ’s ministry, a tax-collector was not paid wages by the state, rather, whatever monies were collected beyond the rate of taxation would serve as a publican’s income, in effect their commission.

Naturally this often led to many abuses by publicans extorting money well beyond the rate people were capable of paying, thus taxing them into poverty or worse. Yet publicans were virtually untouchable, since they were protected by the authorities, and thus had a free hand to do what they wished with impunity. In Jewish eyes they were both traitors to their brethren in their service to a foreign pagan oppressor, as well as parasites upon society whereby they lived comfortably at other peoples’ expense.

Yet in this parable of Christ, even this “detestable” figure displays the fruits of the spirit, to which the Pharisee with all his cultivation within Judaism lacked. Firstly the publican did not pray and glorify himself. Instead he approached God in all humility and sincere faith, offering fervent prayers petitioning God to forgive him, and to show him the way to making amends within his life and towards others he had exploited. In effect the publican recognises his failings as a person and a believer in God, while seeking to do something to correct these failings, rather than dwell on the point and remain inactive.

The tax-collector’s sincere proactive approach to his existential dilemma is what God seeks, in contrast to the Pharisee’s static mindset thinking that he is alright where he is, and should be commended as something above other men. Whereas the tax-collector does not suffer from such grand delusions, for he recognises that he is not above God, nor his fellow man. He does not labour under the misapprehension that what he has done is as easily expunged and forgotten, but that the process of healing and forgiveness is a life-long struggle which requires him to bear the fruits of repentance (like almsgiving, self-sacrifice, charity, prayer, fasting etc.).

The tax-collector in recognising the severity of his past actions does not even dare to raise his eyes towards Heaven. Instead his eye is solely focused upon regaining the blessing of communion with God, and from there ascend the heights of the divine ladder of angelic virtues towards a closer experience and relationship with God, and thus a more elevated mode of existence. Again this jars with the Pharisee’s acceptance of mediocrity, avoidance of his call towards perfection and sanctification (cf. 1Thess. 4:3), hence squandering the gifts of the Spirit that have been bestowed upon him.

Yet one may ask what would have transpired within the Temple had the Pharisee been confronted with the presence of a holy man who exceeded the Pharisee’s supposed righteousness? One could only speculate that it may have challenged his preconceptions, but given the fact he had veered off the spiritual course that he was following, he would have been filled with envy and jealousy of such piety. Possibly even attempting to “outdo” such a man of faith, so that he may be seen as holier and praiseworthy. However the Lord challenged the Pharisee through a humiliating example of piety via an outcast of society, in order to elicit the prayers and love of the Pharisee towards the Publican who was in effect the Pharisee’s spiritual child, (given that a Pharisee was a guardian of Israel and its people).

For us, the Publican and the Pharisee, are representative of our own personal approach to life and mode of existence. Both ways of life pose their dangers and pitfalls by which one needs to remain vigilantly mindful of. With the publican, he engrossed himself within a hedonistic and prodigal lifestyle at the expense of others, to the detriment of his own well-being. Yet in recognising this, he takes the first step towards reconciliation, but his tears are shed knowing well that such stains upon his spirit take years of work and struggle in order to be fully forgiven. For as St. Kosmas the Aetolian often cited, that sins and pathoi are like trees, which first begin as saplings, and with the passage of time become great trees whose roots delve deeper into the soil of our souls and become harder to remove, requiring more time and effort on our behalf. That is the burden under which the publican has to labour with.

Whereas the Pharisee who may have had a good beginning within the spiritual journey, faces something as equally onerous as the publican. Yet his failing may not be as clear to his own perception, as was the publican’s case. His difficulty is to discern how he has diverted away from God’s calling, and how he could return back to that spiritual path and reacquire humility of heart and the gift of love.

In observing these lessons, the account of Cain and Abel becomes clearer to the reader. For as verses 3 and 5 relate, that Cain was a farmer who offered “the fruits of the ground” (his harvest) to God, but God did not “respect” this offering. Whereas Abel was a shepherd (v. 2) who offered the firstborn of his flock for sacrifice to God (v. 4), who was most pleased by Abel’s worship.

As a discerning reader, one can see that the two brothers shared the same faith and worshipped the same God, but the preference of God towards Abel’s sacrifice calls into question the attitude and inward state of Cain’s offering. As we cited earlier with reference to Psalm 50, God does not delight in whole-burnt offerings, unless a broken (contrite) spirit and a broken and humbled heart is offered first.

Nonetheless, if we observe Abel’s example, we see a man of faith who gives the most valuable thing a shepherd can offer, the firstborn of his flock. The absence of any questions or complaints on Abel’s behalf in making this offering, indicates that his gesture was one of due reverence to God, knowing fully well that he is dependent upon God’s generosity. Thus he expresses his inner joy by offering worship with an open and generous hand.

Once again we are confronted with questions over Cain’s offering to God. Did Cain bring the firstfruits of his labour with an open and joyful heart? Did Cain through his gesture express thanks for what God had provided him, or did he believe that the fruits of the earth were solely his own undertaking? Did Cain fail to show due reverence to God, despite being ritually correct?

In tentatively seeking to answer these questions, v. 5 begins by giving us a clue as to Cain’s spiritual and emotional state of being. Within this verse we observe Cain falling into a sorrowful, almost despairing, state of being which reveals that his inner heart was tormented, if not plagued, by passions which dominated and controlled him. In contrast to v. 3 where Cain is simply making an offering, we see this sudden shift towards extreme sorrow by his fallen countenance because his offering was rejected. From this alone, if one keeps in mind why God created the universe out of love, then one could deduce that Cain’s offering towards God was conducted in either a selfish or arrogant manner that was careless and disregarded his personal relationship with God.

Nevertheless, in v. 7 we have God providing us some of the answers to our questions about His rejection of Cain’s offering:

Did you not sin, even though you brought it (the offering) rightly, but did not divide it rightly?

Within this counsel God provides a clear and balanced pedagogical approach to assisting Cain out of his dilemma. As a loving spiritual father, God commends the liturgical correctness of Cain’s offering, “you brought it rightly…” However God questions Cain as to the spirit/mindset of his offering “Did you not sin…” and then He points out to Cain that he “did not divide it rightly…” The conclusion from this advice, is simply that Cain was liturgically correct, but ritual without reverence, humility, and love is empty, it is merely going through motions of habit. Such offerings are cold and merely symbolic, for they hold no meaning or purpose for God or the believer, neither are edified, or share within their communal relationship. Both are insulted!

From God’s side of the matter, the last thing He would want, is someone to begrudgingly approach and make an offering to Him as if they were doing Him a favour and without love. Naturally when people offer gifts to each other in such a manner, it is an offense because it does not express respect to the recipient, if anything it is condescending and a total rejection of them. Is this how one should return God’s love? Is this not a rejection of our relationship with God? Is this how we repay the blessings we have received? Are we then spurning and insulting God simultaneously, when offering our prayers and their works of mercy, in the same manner of Cain’s offering?

These questions speculate on the intention of the believer, particularly when they insult God and their own intelligence and integrity by performing “onerous” and “compulsory” obligations that need to be fulfilled. From the outset that expresses the lack of faith or trust in God, for it indicates a failing in one’s spiritual journey and the urgent need for a guide to bring them back onto track.

For if the foundations of a person’s faith is not built on firm ground, then there is the need to return to repair and make proper correction, which God through His pedagogy of Cain, teaches us the value of repentance (metanoia). This is not dissimilar to Christ’s exhortation about how one should leave their gift before the altar, until they are reconciled with their brother (Mt. 5:23-24). In Cain’s circumstances the reconciliation needs to be with himself and with God. Part of the reason why Cain needs to be reconciled with himself is due to the lack of self-discipline over his emotions and actions. Furthermore, as a created being who believes and worships God, one has to take into account what was Cain’s reason of being (λὀγος τού εἰναι) or purpose.

If we observe God’s creation of the earth and all that is within it, Adam and Eve were placed as God’s representatives to serve as stewards of creation and provide the vital link between God and Creation. Yet in turn they were also the representatives and liturgical celebrants leading Creation in offering thanks and worship to God for the grace of His love and the gift of life they have received.

Cain’s failure to serve as a faithful middleman/mediator between both realms caused him to not divide his offering rightly, let alone offer sincere and fervent supplication to God on behalf of all Creation. However the reference to dividing the sacrifice rightly poses a double meaning:

  1. The custom of making offerings involved sacrificing various parts of an offering to a particular prayer or petition. An offering was not made in one big hit! Consider the litanies used within Orthodox Christian worship, whereby we offer prayers for the peace of the world, while in other petitions we ask for seasonable weather and the abundance of the fruits of the earth. These would be followed by a prayerful petition like “Lord have mercy”, or “Grant this o Lord”. In like manner in days of old, as would have been the case with Cain, worship and sacrifice followed this process.  It seems that Cain did not offer prayerful petitions which were appropriate, maybe they had selfish ends?
  2. Sacrifices would consist of those things offered and a particular portion set aside for the consumption of the worshipper or priest who made the offering. In effect symbolising a common covenant meal with a deity, since this feasting figures prominent within ancient cultures as it did in Jewish history with the elders of Israel ascending Horeb (cited in Exodus) to partake in a meal with God. For Christians it is receiving the Holy Eucharist within the Divine Liturgy. It is possible that Cain only allocated either the best or greater portion to himself, while making only a token gesture to God.

Whatever the case might be, God overlooked Cain’s indiscretion and cited to him what needed correction. Nevertheless, God also perceived Cain’s unsettled state by calling upon him to “Be still…” to take control of his emotions before his passions (pathoi) began to take control of him. Furthermore God perceived that this unsettled state could boil over into something negative and lethal, whose fallout would impact upon Abel.

Thus God reminds Cain that Abel’s “…recourse shall be to you; and you shall rule (αρξεἰς) over him”. In other words, Cain being the older of the two had the responsibility for Abel’s well-being, just as Adam and Eve had been responsible for his welfare. Furthermore because of this responsibility, which within the passage is not contested by Abel, Abel was not permitted to do anything independently without first consulting Cain. Hence God places the two in a relationship of mutual support, because Abel demonstrated spiritual perception which he could help Cain with, while Cain’s knowledge of liturgics and more worldly matters could assist Abel. Through consultation, each brother could illumine the other with a differing perspective, but ultimate responsibility remained with Cain, while Abel must work in conjunction with Cain to avoid disunity.

Unfortunately, Cain ignored God’s advice and the “authority” which he had been given over Abel. Cain did not seek repentance to correct the pathoi which had taken root within him and tormenting his very being. Much like the Pharisee who opted for a static acceptance of the existing status quo, Cain deluded himself that everything was okay, completely blind to his own growing anger, jealousy and envy. Hence, like a malignant cancerous growth, Cain was consumed by hatred that boiled over with the murder of Abel within the fields they were traversing as they conversed (v. 8).

Then God confronted Cain inquiring as to the whereabouts of Abel, knowing fully well what had happened, but seeking even at this awful point to provide Cain the opportunity to repent and seek forgiveness. Regretfully Cain responded arrogantly having rejected God’s earlier counsel: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9). God attempts to awaken Cain to the severity of his actions because he is still blinded by his act of pathos which he refused to deal with: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” (v. 10).

Cain does not respond immediately and allows God to continue speaking, this in itself indicates, as reflected by the whole account, the dangers of being desensitised to the spiritual life and having complete apathy. A man has been killed, who is uniquely created in God’s own image as the crowning glory of Creation, and is both a brother and a fellow believer!

Nevertheless, God cites that Cain’s actions have stained the earth with his brother’s blood which was spilt before God’s allocated time for Abel’s passing. For blood is a life-force which even speaks from the ground to God, but Cain cannot hear, for he has been deafened to even hearing Creation in which he exists in, because he has turned away from listening to its very source, God. The result is that the stain upon the earth has made it accursed before Cain who will now suffer the consequences of his actions:

Verses 11-12: “…you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You will be groaning and trembling, on the earth”.

In effect Cain will have to work even harder and more laboriously in order to produce food necessary to sustain himself. He will be groaning from the burden of that toil, but he will live in fear (trembling) for his life because he has now become liable to Creation’s own dangers, including other humans, who could easily do harm to him or his subsistence. Regretfully Cain still did not repent or attempt some sort of reproachment and reconciliation. Instead he bemoans the burden of the consequences which he will have to endure.

Furthermore he exclaims that “My guilt is too great to be forgiven!” – (v. 13). Just like Judas Iscariot, Cain used his guilt as an excuse to avoid beginning the healing process of repentance. This in itself is an expression of disbelief in God’s loving grace and wilfully giving free reign to the pathoi to blind and deafen his heart. Cain then continues to bemoan the harshness of the consequences, blaming God for this action, and then reiterating why repentance and forgiveness is not possible:

Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be groaning and trembling on the earth. Then it will happen if anyone finds me, he will kill me”.

The last part of Cain’s whinge-fest, is one of self-pity whereby Cain exclaims that on top of these punishments meted out to him, he expects to die according to the same fate as Abel, causing him great fear (-Again voicing distrust of God!). Yet again, God shows mercy upon Cain by assuring him that he will not be murdered, but will be marked out. Thus should anyone kill him, a sevenfold vengeance shall be taken against the perpetrator.

Once again Cain still does not respond to God’s compassion, but applies (abuses) his free-will to continue to pursue what is detrimental to himself. He instead chooses to live in a delusion whereby he leaves the presence of God (v. 16) and dwells in a land opposite to Eden, known as Nod. The name “Nod” in Semitic is very revealing as to the path Cain has taken, because it means “the one who wonders away from God”.

The final concluding act of Cain to entrench humanity’s movement away from direct communion with God and His Creation, is the construction of the world’s first city, (v. 17). What does a city represent?

Simply that it is not a naturally occurring reality, for it is a man-made creation that breaks with the natural cycle of life and seasons. Where trees once grew to provide comfort and shade, a building has now replaced it within an artificially created environment which lacks biodiversity (thus it kills life!). Where theocentric and environmental principles governed life and perceptions, now anthropocentric principles dictate life as well as God and the environment. Man-made concepts of order and balance determine what constitutes civilisation, equity and justice, despite its unstable and ever-changing nature to do what is expedient. This is what Cain and the Pharisee did, to create their own false and delusional reality rather than seek the simpler things which were required of them, sober reflection and repentance, forgetting in the process that we are all our brother’s keepers!

Dedicated to the memories of true spiritual fathers of the Faith, Reverend Fathers, Kyriakos Stavrou, Dionysios Demetriades, Stylianos Aivaliotis, Vasileios Christofias, and John Combis. –Eternal is thy Memory, VM.

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