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Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

by Steven Harper

     You may be familiar with the story in which the title for today's article was spoken, and probably just as familiar with its popular usage today. In the Bible story, Cain had killed his brother Abel and God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Cain's reply was this familiar statement and question: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:10). If the cold-hearted attitude of Cain was not already evident by the murder he had committed, it was surely manifested in his reply to God! As the question is used today, it is usually used as a reply to someone who has asked about the condition or situation of someone else, and is meant to imply that the respondent has no responsibility towards the one in question [who may literally be a brother, or at least a brother in Christ]. And when it is used, there is an underlying resentment that someone would even think we had any responsibility towards this one.

    When Cain uttered those now-familiar words, he demonstrated the ultimate in apathy, basically saying, "I don't know and I don't care." It is no different today when disciples of Jesus Christ have this same attitude towards their own brethren! Surely we cannot imagine Jesus ever uttering these words, right? Did Jesus ever demonstrate a lack of concern for others — no matter what their condition or how they got there? If anything, we see Jesus welcomed the potential interaction with — and welcomed an opportunity to care for — others. At no time do we see Jesus turning people away because He simply did not care for them and their condition. Never did He say, "That's not my responsibility."

    Within the religious world, there are some who see their faith as theirs alone and one that does not seem to actually involve contact or any sort of interaction with others; they are cold and apathetic towards others, and even in cases where they could easily help out a brother or sister in need, all they can see is the other person's individual responsibility for his own situation and, thus, his personal responsibility to correct it or solve whatever problems have resulted. In so doing, those who refuse to act fail to see their own personal responsibility for helping him! The difficult part in this is getting them to see that the very thing they are demanding of others is being ignored by self! While they coldly demand that the one who 'got himself into trouble' somehow extract himself from the situation, the cold-hearted one fails to remember that Jesus has commanded us to help those in need and give without expecting anything in return (cf. Matthew 5:40-42), and has forgotten the rhetorical question of the apostle John, who asked, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (I John 3:17). The answer to that rhetorical question should be obvious: it does not! And in both of these texts, it should be clear that when others are in need, we all have an individual responsibility to help them.

    Let us note that those passages are also unqualified commands and statements. Jesus did not say we should give our cloak if we think they are worthy, or only if their previous coat was not lost because of their own carelessness, or only if they have tried to get a job to earn money to buy their own cloak; John was not implying that we should help our brother in need only if we think they deserve it, or only if their need did not come because of poor choices, or only if they have gone to government agencies first. God expects us to help others in the same way He has helped us: with grace and mercy — and towards all men.

    Think about that for just a minute: Where would we be if God helped us in the same manner some brethren 'help' others? Can you imagine God looking at man's spiritual condition and saying to Himself, "Now why should I help them? They got themselves into that situation on their own — they can get themselves out of it!"? And if we sinned more than once after we obeyed the gospel, He would sternly chastise us and set tougher restrictions and higher demands before He would act to forgive us next time. He might even simply refuse after so many times, angry because we keep getting into trouble and He has to keep getting us out. Doesn't it sound ridiculous when we apply human actions to God? It should!

    Though the Scriptures are plain about our responsibility toward our brethren, some brethren approach their needy brethren with an attitude that our faith should follow the 'American spirit of rugged individualism' that preaches a message of stubborn self-reliance and a refusal to accept help or charity from others unless they have lost both arms and at least one leg. Those who live with this attitude are not content to personally live this way, but steadfastly believe everyone else should, too; so when someone is in need, the first thought that comes to mind is, 'He got himself into that mess, and he needs to get himself out of it!' Help is offered only begrudgingly, and even that is often a bare minimum of help that is offered. Often, too, it is a matter of seeking to place blame first and finding solutions later. Surely we can do better than this!

    What is missing in those who act so parsimoniously with their help is evident: compassion. Maybe it is the brother who grew up and was what many call 'a self-made man'; because he had a good home life and because he was successful in much of what he has done, he believes that everyone else should have the same successes he had and should have made the same wise choices he did; maybe it is the sister who has a good husband and family who believes the woman who is in a struggling marriage is somehow at fault because her husband has become worldly and is about to leave her for another woman; maybe it is the older woman who has raised godly children who looks contemptuously at the young parents who are struggling to keep the world out of their children and their children out of the world — and are losing. In each of these cases, what is needed is compassion and concern — not a reprimand.

    A couple comes to you, telling you they have marital problems; how do you respond? A mother comes to you who is afraid she has lost her daughter to the world; how do you respond? A man comes to you telling you he has a problem with gambling or alcohol or pornography; how do you respond? A brother or sister comes to you in need of some temporary financial support; how do you respond? In each of these cases, do you say 'It's not my responsibility' or do you show compassion? Yes [of course], spiritual guidance and Scripture should be given, but let us not be so keen on pointing out past errors and the corrective texts that we forget compassion and mercy. That was a major fault of the Pharisees (cf. Matthew 23:4, 14, 23).

    In all cases where God gave His people instruction as to how they were to treat or respond to those in need, there was nothing stated about finding out how they came to be in need; that is not the point! Yes, some brethren will make bad choices and end up in financial need; they still need our help. Yes, some brethren will make bad choices and put themselves in spiritual danger because of unlawful marriages; they still need our help. And, yes, sometimes, parents will not train their children as they should and they will suffer the inevitable consequences later; they still need our help.

    Am I my brother's keeper? Yes, I am. And so are you. Knowing this, let us resolve to be less judgmental or apathetic towards our own brethren — even in times when we think they are undeserving of our time or resources. None of us deserved the spiritual help God gave us, yet He was willing to give His Son for us.