Am I my brother’s keeper?
In Genesis chapter 4, we read of how Cain brought grain and how Abel brought the best part of the firstlings of his flock as First Fruit offerings to the Lord God. While Abel’s offering was seen as acceptable, and the Lord God knows the heart and the secret intentions of His people, Cain’s offering did not quite meet the mark. Cain was overcome with dejection and anger. He was filled with indignation, to which the Lord God replied, “If you act rightly, you will be accepted, but if not sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7)
As the account goes, Cain arranges with Abel to meet in the field, and there, he murders his brother.
When questioned by the Lord God, Cain replies, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4: 9)
While this story should serve as a cautionary warning about how sin lurks and waits to devour us when we let anger and envy overcome us, more important, is how the words of Cain – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” are exactly what we as Christians need to be asking ourselves all the time, and we already know the answer – Yes. I am my brother’s keeper. I am accountable for my brother and my sister in the faith.
How are we to exercise our call to accountability?
As a Christian community, we are part of the community of Saints, and in this community, every prayer counts. We are exhorted to lift each other and edify each other in prayer and thanksgiving. I need to pray and intercede for my brother and sister.
As James 5: 13-14 says, “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”
The power of prayer cannot be stated enough. A prayer for our brother and sister could mean the difference between life and death. A prayer for our enemy could turn his and her life around. For example, we read in 2 Maccabees 3 of how the combined prayers of Oni’as and the community “holding up their hands to heaven” (2 Maccabees 3:20) saw the Lord intervening to protect the treasury and how He”liodo’rus, despite how He”liodo’rus had come on the King’s command to ransack the treasury of the Lord, was spared his life because of Oni’as’ intercession –“Be very grateful to Oni’as the High Priest, since for his sake the Lord has granted you your life.” (2 Maccabees 3: 33). This eventually also led to He”liodo’rus’ conversion.
- Teaching and Admonishment
If we see that our brother or sister is treading the wayward path, it is our moral and spiritual responsibility to veer this person back to the right road through the right catechesis and teaching, the proclamation of the Word, and through admonishing our brethren if necessary.
As reminded by Scripture, and through the example of St. Paul,
“I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public, and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20: 20-21)
And in Colossians 1:28 “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”
As our brother’s and sister’s keepers, we are appointed as sentinels by the Lord, not in a busybody kind of way, but in way that we have a sacred accountability for their very lives. The Lord God takes this holy commission very seriously:
“Son of man, I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me. If I say to the wicked, you shall surely die – and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives – then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood.
If, however, you warn the wicked and they still do not turn from their wickedness and evil conduct, they shall die for their own sin, but you shall save your life.
But if the just turn away from their right conduct and do evil when I place a stumbling block before them, then they shall die. Since you did not warn them about their sin, they shall still die, and the just deeds that they performed will not be remembered on their behalf. I will, however, hold you responsible for their blood.
If, on the other hand, you warn the just to avoid sin, and they do not sin, they will surely live because of the warning, and you in turn shall save your own life.” (Ezekiel 3: 17- 21)
The implications are tremendous. If we know that someone’s way is leading to error and sin, and we do not check that or try to turn this person around; if we do not let this person know of the writing on the wall, then we ourselves will have to answer to the Lord.
This is enforced in Galatians 6: 1-5:
“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbour. For each man will have to bear his own load.”
As the Body of Christ, we do not exist in isolation of each other. We know from 1 Corinthians 12: 24-26 “But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.”
What are we doing to ensure that our brothers and sisters who are in need have a fighting chance to live? Do we know the needs of our community? The early Church in exercising the practice of Koinonia, “sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:45)
This practice of tending to the poor and providing for their needs was normative in the early Church, rather than an exception to the rule. This was to be practised by all, depending on how each person could give. We cannot say that we love our brother or sister if there is no concern for the welfare of the community. The tending and the care of the poor, is the responsibility of the individual, the local community, and the entire Church. (CCC. 948, CCC. 952, CCC. 953). Yet in today’s context, we are more than happy to let someone else take care of the poor in our community.
I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper
A keeper is someone who manages under their purview and jurisdiction, the persons, the objects, animals, events, treasures, documents, property, places, and things that have been placed under his or her own care.
We are called to be keepers of our brothers and sisters.
Our keeping of the people in our community, and perhaps even more so, to those rejected by society, extends life-long and life-wide.
At the sunset of our lives, we will be asked by the Lord God,
“Where is your brother [sister]?”
It will be tough for us to do a Pontius Pilate, and simply wash our hands then.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (n.d.) communion of Saints. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican Publishing House.