Permit me this meditation. Here, I posit that the story of Cain and Abel is an allegory for those who try to attain salvation by works of the Law and those who trust in God, though working, are saved by their faith.
When Adam and Eve, deceived by the serpent that they can be “like God” by eating the fruit and thereby attain to “false divinization,” took their salvation into their own hands. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, so all those who do rely upon their own righteousness instead of God’s were cursed:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground. (Gen 3:17-19)
Sadly, we reap what we sow. Adam and Eve, sowing the desire to be righteous by their own works instead of humbly waiting upon the grace of God, were forced to toil and sweat. This toil and sweat produced fruits, but not without major impediments posed to us by the cursed ground, full of thorns and thistles.
Cain was a pigheaded man, content to follow the sinful example of his parents and follow them in their ways–becoming a “tiller of the soil.” Abel, Christlike in his innocence and devotion to God, decided to become shepherd, a “keeper of flocks.” (Gen 4:2)
There is a reason why Christ is the Great Shepherd, because there is no more Godly profession than that of the shepherd. The spiritual life of every ascetic should be modeled after one.
Being a shepherd is long work. One must care for animals countless hours–even when half asleep his ears are silent tuning into the sound of the sheep or the barking of dogs, wary of intruders. These intruders are demonic thoughts and temptations, constantly afflicting the people of God on their way to salvation through faithfulness and obedience to their salvation.
For Christ, these demonic suggestions were “repulsed” and “dispelled…like vapor” (Damascene, Exposition, Book 3, chap 20). Abel and those of us following after Christ only with great strivings and ascetic discipline repel these assaults and maintain peace of mind. This is only possible if one has humility.
This is why a shepherd must be humble. His hard work can be thwarted by sudden attacks of savage beasts. This, allegorically speaking, is our tendency of falling into sin–but we must repent and get back up again.
A lack of rain can ruin the fields and make it impossible to water his flock. Speaking of fields, they do not belong to him so he relies upon God’s provision. Marauders, local strongmen and property owners, and any given impediment stands in the way of him providing for his livestock. So, not only we fall into sin, but we also suffer from privation–but we Christians are content with merely food and clothing (1 Tim 6:8). With such asceticism, the onslaught of Satan may not evaporate, but it can be deflected.
In the shepherd’s long quiet moments, as the bleating of animals apart from sudden danger easily becomes a white noise, he entreats his God for protection and provision. He also has much time to think about what he is grateful for. Most shepherds deal with the long hours and the constant impediments due to the peaceful life it is. It is hard work, but the peace comes from striving and not expecting guaranteed recompense–simply waiting upon God and trusting His provision is what truly gives shepherds joy. Even the unbelievers in this profession marvel at the peace that this way of life provides them.
Though not directly relevant to my meditation, the fathers reflected upon the humility of the shepherds in a similar sense:
But the Angel went not to Jerusalem, sought not for Scribes and Pharisees, (for they were corrupt and tormented with envy.) But these were simple men living in the ancient practices of Moses and the Patriarchs. There is a certain road which leads by innocence to Philosophy. (Chrysostom, Catena on Luke 2:8)
Let not this seem to you a slight example of faith, because of the humble character of the shepherds. For simplicity is sought for, not pride. (Ambrose, Catena on Luke 2:15)
The life of the shepherd teaches one true philosophy:
Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
And to depart from evil is understanding. (Job 28:28)
The simple in heart can easily fear and obey. This is why the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to little children.
Abel, a humble shepherd reflecting upon how God has provided him everything, “brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions” (Gen 4:4). In other words, he gave sacrificed his best animals, though he did not know what tomorrow would bring–and he did not keep for himself the best cuts of meat, but he gave their choicest portions as a whole burnt offering.
This is is the example of the saints. Saint John of Kronstadt notoriously gave his salary away leading his wife to ask the bishop to receive his pay. So many saints gave their best to God, knowing that He already gave them everything.
Cain, on the other hand, “brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground.” (Gen 4:3) In other words, he gave of the fruit of his labors–and not even his first fruits. God “had no regard” (Gen 4:5) for Cain’s offering, even if it was many times greater than Abel’s (after all, domestic farming is a lot more of a profitable enterprise than shepherding.) Why?
Cain was trying to attain favor with God by his labors and not by the complete emptying of himself. He gave his 10 percent, so to say, and considered himself even. His heart was far from God.
These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. (Is 29:13)
Is it no surprise the Pharisees and Sadducees were not shepherds and God’s nativity was not declared to them? To the Judaizers Saint Paul wrote:
So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:5)
The shepherd, working 15 hours a day and suffering through sleepless nights, knows his provider. To him, every day God provides is a miracle. Those who till the land by the sweat of their bow, and rely upon their own efforts, demand recompense. There provision is not miraculous–its and investment with a guaranteed pay out. This is not the way to salvation.
Saint Mark the Ascetic reminds us:
Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants. (On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works, par 2)
When Scripture says ‘He will reward every man according to his works’ (Mt 16:27),
do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the
contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with
faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God
our Creator and Redeemer. (On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works, par 22)
Those who till the soil, expecting recompense, do not understand the life of the shepherd because they do not have the faith to rely upon God’s provision–His grace. “[E]very shepherd is loathsome to the Egyptians,” (Gen 46:34) the Egyptians being those whose minds are captive to Satan. This is why Cain, besting Adam’s fall was not merely deceived into wrongdoing. He hated righteousness and willingly turned away from it, murdering his brother because he despised Abel’s righteous.
For what does light have with darkness? The darkness hates the light.
This is why Abel is a type of Christ. He died for Christ, because His Christian witness made him despised in the eyes of his worldly brother. He was a priest like Christ, offering a blood sacrifice instead of his efforts. He was like Christ in that he worked righteousness for the sake of love and not for the sake of recompense.
And so, we must be careful not be be Cain. When we work righteousness, though it saves our souls, our hearts must be completely bare before God. You must say to Him: “when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” (Luke 17:10)
Then what is the place of works? Abel points us the way. His sacrifice of the choice portions can be no other than a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary–the Father’s only-begotten Son sacrificed for the sins of the world. What choicer blood sacrifice can there be?
And this sacrifice is relived every Sunday in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. You, oh man, what works have you done to partake in the Eucharist for the healing of your soul and body? Do you bring God to Earth? Do you turn common bread and wine into His eternal flesh and blood?
And this sacrifice is also real for us in our baptisms. Saint Paul writes:
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)
Did you baptize yourself? Did you summon down the Spirit into the waters? Did you exorcise them? Did you enact a metaphysical change where you were crucified with Christ and buried with Him when you were plunged into the waters? Did you resurrect yourself spiritually when you were brought out of the waters so that even now seated with Christ in the heavenly places as you dwell on this Earth? (cf Eph 2:6)
So, are we already saved? Of course. To quote New Martyr Daniel Sysoev:
[S]alvation has already been given and it is our task to assimilate and preserve it. Salvation requires Orthodox faith, a desire to live according to the commandments, and repentance of sins.
This is the teaching of the holy fathers, as Saint Mark the Ascetic also teaches:
We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to
preserve the purity given to us. (On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works, par 22)
We must have the mind of Abel. Like the Israelites who were shepherds in the wilderness for 40 years (Num 14:33) surviving due to God’s provision of manna until they were to enter the promised land, so we too must be faithful to God and receive his grace daily until we ourselves fight the good fight, keep the faith, and enter paradise.
The life of the shepherd, of Abel, is our model. A life of hard work, but complete reliance on God. We must have a simple heart that demands no recompense from God, but receives His grace with an open hand.
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You make some good points, summarised by:
“Saint Mark the Ascetic also teaches:“We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us.”
However, I think that you also go astray at times by reading into the text what is not there. For example, you say: “Adam and Eve, sowing the desire to be righteous by their own works”. What evidence from scripture supports this statement?
Your opening point is: “I posit that the story of Cain and Abel is an allegory for those who try to attain salvation by works of the Law”. You have sown confusion already here by equating the “works of the Law” with “Good Works”, two entirely different concepts. There was no law at that point anyway.
You also say: “Abel and those of us following after Christ only with great strivings and ascetic discipline …..”. This “could” be read as reliance on good works. (It is not by any means the only way to read it though).
You say: “Cain was trying to attain favor with God by his labours”. This is conjecture. More to the point is this statement of yours: “ Cain, on the other hand, “brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground ….. not even his first fruits.” That is the difference between the two offerings.
You say: “So, are we already saved? Of course.” On its own, this assumes the “once saved always saved” fallacy. It is dependent on what you immediately after say by quoting Martyr Daniel Sysoev: “[S]alvation has already been given and it is our task to assimilate and preserve it.” I know I’m being pernickety, but I’d prefer that connection to be stressed.
I do not think the CCC differs with me, or the Patristic doctrine on this point. If we preserve salvation, we already have an aspect of it (not the glorified aspect obviously, we do not have resurrected bodies.) And so, the paradigm of good works to the Orthodox must not be understood as earning favor with God, but preserving and husbanding faith. Our only authoritative teaching on the doctrine of justification is Decree 13 of the Council of Dositheus. In it, the teaches is “faith and works” justify, described as “it is faith that justifies, through works.” So, faith and works justify, but faith alone puts one into relationship with God and works preserve this salvation attained only by faith.
Saint Maximus the Confessor speaks of the same thing. I also think it explains James 2:22 which says it is through works that faith is made perfect.
However, I have other articles that delve more into the theological details, this article is more of a spiritual nature.
Thank you for your comments as always!
We are basically on the same page, I was just looking for an explicit link, just a quibble.