Here is a question that was posed in the 4th chapter of Genesis. And it has been discussed by bible scholars, by students of the human condition, by writers and by students ever since.
It is the rather surly response to God who asks Cain where his brother, Abel, is. Of course, God knows where he is. He has been murdered by Cain. Not only that. Cain knows that God knows, so his attitude is, “Why ask me when you know full well what happened.”
Isn’t it strange how this story unfolds at the very beginning of the bible writings? Why so early? Why should there be a tale of intrigue and murder so soon after the Creation? Why, in fact, why was there a story of temptation, of giving in to temptation, of disobedience to the Creator God, and of God’s response to man’s disobedience? Wouldn’t you think it might have been more glorious to speak of God and his angels in all their glory, describe the beauty of heaven, and thank God for his great gifts?
I’ve thought of these things, as many of you probably also have. Taking a step back, a step away from individuals like Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain, Seth and so many more, I believe the writers of these early stories were simply trying to make sense of the world as we know it, not necessarily as we would like it to be.
We don’t live in a world without pain. We don’t live in a world without death. We don’t live in a world in which man is always unselfish and kind to his fellow man, his brothers and sisters. But recognizing the truths of our human failings, I also recognize the strong truth that we still look for solutions to our faults. There is an instinct within us that prompts us to search for the RIGHT way to do things. This also is what the bible stories constantly probe. Therefore, we have the question, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” And if the answer is YES, we must be able to answer WHY?
So, it is not simply a story of Cain and Abel. It is a story of jealousy, of hate, of aggression, and of the ultimate crime, that of murder. It is the beginning probe of ethics and of why such heinous crimes are not simple transgressions against God, not simply sins, but actions that result in a dysfunctional world, a world that does…not…work.
As a young man in high school, I loved sports of all kinds, mostly football and hockey, but also soccer and baseball. If you notice, all four of these sports are team events, not the classical individual Olympic events like track and field, but events that require several players working together toward a common goal. I had some pretty good coaches throughout high school and college, and my school, Loyola, won its fair share of championships. How was that accomplished? What our coaches taught us is that in order to WIN, certain basic disciplines must be applied.
But why bother with winning? Why bother with success? Why bother with our fellow men and women? And what is winning anyway? Why is it desirable? Isn’t it enough to just participate and have fun? Isn’t it enough to just do for ourselves?
Well, in my opinion, winning is just a word to describe the attainment of certain challenging goals. Yes, you can be a winner by simply doing the best you can. You can be a winner by achieving certain set personal individual goals. But to be a winning TEAM, you have to rise above your own individual world and include the world of your TEAMMATES. You have to not only do your best. You have to help your teammates to do their best. If one stumbles, another must immediately step up to take his place, to lend a hand. You must recognize what others’ strengths and weaknesses are. You must be willing to BE YOUR BROTHER’s KEEPER. If you do not, your team will fail, and repeated failure in the big world means an eventual failure of your society. You will eventually perish without winning.
Christ recognized this in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The interesting thing to me about that story is that the expert in the law - or lawyer - who challenged Jesus ended up by answering his own questions.
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’[d]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
30 In reply, Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
So, you see, this lawyer had his answers already in his own soul. Jesus only asked him questions. The lawyer was instinctively able to provide the correct answers. In the same way, we instinctively know that we need to be our brother’s keepers. We have the answers in our own conscience. If we are able to think as TEAM players, not as selfish individuals. If we are able to see others as our own brothers and sisters, not as strangers to fear. If we do not allow prejudice and fear, but caring, be our guiding light. The essence of caring for others begins when we are very young. The essence of hatred and fear likewise begins at the same time. I don’t know if I’ve ever sung this little song to you here in Rockburn, so forgive me if you’ve heard it here before. It’s from South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are ugly made
And people whose skins are a different shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
But in our modern world, we often fail to recognize how to be a good neighbour. We often fail to distinguish what it takes to be a good Samaritan. There’s a little story I read about a Scotsman named Jock:
Jock’s mother calls him from Aberdeen.
"How's the flat you're living in in London, Jock?" she asks.
"It's okay," he replies, "but the woman next door keeps screaming and crying all night and the guy on the other side keeps banging his head on the wall."
"Never you mind," says his mother, "don't you let them get to you, just ignore them."
"Aye, that I do," he says, “And I just keep playing my bagpipes.”
We all have trouble being good neighbours sometimes. When someone goes to cut you off on the road, you see him coming, you know exactly what he’s going to do, you have plenty of time to slow down and let him in, but do you? Or, do you speed up and try to keep him from getting in front of you? And when he flashes you his middle finger, do you feel sorry for what you did, or do you give him the finger right back again? I admit there have been times I have done exactly that.
The story of Cain and Abel is a story about a brother killing a brother. It is a shocking story, a cruel story, but it was an act fuelled by jealousy and murderous thought before it actually resulted in the taking of a life.
Luke 10 makes it clear that the thought comes before the deed:
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
And Matthew makes clear that while it is a good thing to attend church and to offer sacrifice, it is even more important to settle your differences with your brothers and sisters.
Matt 5 23-24
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
You see, it’s easy to hold a grudge and to keep a wall of silence between you and your neighbour, friend, or family member. And, it’s easy to let your pride take over when, instead of making up over some differences, you decide to “never talk to him again.” It’s easier in the short run, perhaps, but sometimes such an attitude can become hardened, neither side gives way, and you may end by taking your differences to the grave. I can guarantee you that if that happens, you will be forever sorry, and too late to do anything about it. Better to make amends now while you can. Better to be ‘brothers’ again, even if you feel he or she was the wrong one. Go to him, knock on his door, and say, “Hey, bud! Look, I just want to say I’m sorry. Can we forget about all this and just be friends again?” I guarantee you won’t regret it. I know. I have been there. Better to be your brother’s keeper than to let the wound fester until your relationship is dead.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.