Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brother's Keeper

Genesis 4:8-9 (NRSV)
Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?"

Genesis 4:8-9 (The Message)
Cain had words with his brother. They were out in the field; Cain came at Abel his brother and killed him. God said to Cain, "Where is Abel, your brother?" He said, "How should I know? Am I his babysitter?"


I was recently reading a book that urged congregations to accept the idea of being one's brother's keeper. The idea sort of irked the Libertarian in me. I'm glad to help my brother, but I'd like to see him take some responsibility. Yet, even within my own thoughts, I knew that there is a chasm between being your brother's keeper and totally ignoring him.

"To be my brother's keeper" has taken on an extremely political connotation (see my initial reaction). The phrase is used to divide (in the most simplistic terms) those who seek government and institutional help for society's less fortunate and those who favor a more hand's off approach. That's a very un-nuanced description, but I hope you get my point.

However when we look at that passage in its context in Genesis, there is one glaring fact. Cain knew exactly where his brother was and how his own actions contributed to that location. Cain was trying to escape God's anger by pretending to be innocent from wrong-doing and ignorant about Abel.

I find that on both sides of the political aisle, this attitude still prevails. On the one side, people rail against those who continue to keep down the poor, without regarding their own complicit behavior. On the other side, there are those who anger about "handouts" without considering the importance of a just society.

It's true that there will be no fully just society until Christ returns. If we rest in that knowledge, though, we are ignoring the God's call to us through the Word to work toward the fulfillment of the kingdom.

Since we are simultaneously saint and sinner, we live out both aspects in our daily lives. We are called to seek ways in which we can help our neighbors- through gracious action AND through empowerment. We are also called to always consider the advantages we have (and everyone has at least one) and to be grateful for them- seeking to use that advantage as we help others around us.

Am I my brother's keeper? Maybe not day in and day out, but I am called to bring life to him, not death. And I am called to be honest about my actions toward my neighbor- both how they help and how they hinder. And I ask God to help me do more of the former and less of the latter.


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