Am I my Brother’s Keeper?
When I was a kid, my father told me about small details he’d look for when interviewing potential work clients or new hires: when they salted their food, how much eye contact they made, etc. I appreciated the informal tests he shared with me, because they made me more aware of how I carried myself and was seen by others. But a few years ago, I found online perhaps the best way to evaluate new people. I would interview them… while shopping for groceries. I’d park far from any cart coral, and I’d watch what they did with the shopping cart once we were done. There is no law ordering you to return the shopping cart. No one will punish you for abandoning the cart in a parking spot or perching it haphazardly on a curb. You gain absolutely nothing for returning the shopping cart. But barring medical issues, nothing really hinders you from returning the cart either, other than inconvenience. Therefore, as the essay I read explained, it seems that a person only returns the cart out of the goodness of their heart, out of duty or love for their fellow man. Returning the shopping cart is the simplest test of whether someone is a decent person. Not returning the cart puts your mild convenience above others’ larger, later inconvenience. Returning it demonstrates you will go out of your way to show kindness to others you’ll never meet, for no gain. The shopping cart test: a go-to way for evaluating someone’s good nature. Try it yourself next time. And watch out for me at Meijer.
Now I say that because I think we Christians—not necessarily you personally but us overall—we Christians keep failing the equivalent of the shopping cart test. And I think this problem goes all the way back to the dawn of humanity. In Genesis chapter 4, Adam and Eve’s son Cain murders his brother, Abel. And asked by God himself where Abel is, Cain replies with a phrase I have heard too often from the lips of fellow Christians today: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God, of course, is not fooled by such deception, then or now. And yet that question is asked by Christians every day. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well… are we? Are you?
Some Christians answer, “No.” After all, Paul writes to the Galatians, “you were called to freedom,” and to the Romans he writes, “never… put a stumbling block or hinderance in the way of another.” We Christians are given freedom through Christ, and we are not to inhibit others’ freedom in turn. We Christians are freed from obligations to the law of Moses, because we know it is not what we do that saves us but only God’s grace. We Christians in a way are freed even from laws of culture, society and government, because we know when we stand before the Lord we are not judged on whether we were popular or a model citizen but rather judged only on whether we were faithful to Jesus Christ, who stands above all human affairs. If a law violates the will of God, we have the freedom to ignore or oppose it like Moses before Pharaoh or MLK with Jim Crow, accepting earthly consequences while keeping our eyes on heaven’s goal. Christian freedom means not worrying over what others think—whether neighbors, society, or governments—because we know our identity rests in God’s love, our confidence in God’s grace, our strength in God’s power. A few Christians even go so far as to claim that—when others dislike them or complain that they’re being obnoxious or insulting—they claim that since Jesus said believers would be hated like he was, others disliking us is proof that we’re following Jesus. So it’s not without Biblical pretext that some Christians claim they are not responsible for others.
And yet, when asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” it feels gross to agree with Cain’s implied answer. And yet so often when people complain about us Christians, it’s often not that we’re hated because of Jesus per se… but for doing things which we too would find obnoxious were the roles reversed. And yet so often the ones who go on and on about Christian freedom… often do so only to use that freedom as an excuse to justify doing whatever they want, even if it hurts other people. And yet so often we treat Christian freedom as a get-out-of-jail free card from moral and social responsibility… instead of as the first step in a long journey of repentance, humility, and grace which Christ meant it to be. As I said, some Christians cite these scriptures to claim their Christian freedom from obligations to others—whether morally, legally, or socially—but hear the full message Paul says to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” And Paul also says more fully to the Romans, “Resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hinderance in the way of another—so yes, maintain each other’s freedom, but then Paul demonstrates what Christian freedom looks like—If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.” So it seems that Christian freedom is not a blank check to act however we please. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” cannot be answered with a simple “No.”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, perhaps the answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” For Paul writes to the Galatians, “through love become slaves to one another,” and to the Romans Paul writes, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding [with others].” Over and over in scripture we find selfless responsibility to others lifted up. The laws of Moses decree protections for foreigners, establish regular cancellations of debts, and declare that because there will always be poor people therefore the Israelites as a matter of law shall be extraordinarily generous to the needy. The prophet Ezekiel in chapter 16 says the sin of Sodom was not its sexuality… but rather Sodom’s pride and luxury that left the poor starving. Christ too shows concern for how we treat people, and this responsibility for others’ welfare is ultimately displayed on the cross, when Jesus Christ chooses to die so that we might live. These are the ideals we are called to. Over and over, the Bible summons us to be responsible towards others, whether or not they are good in return, whether or not we particularly like them. And this other-mindedness is displayed in us, the Church, at our best: in food pantries and soup kitchens, in hospital visits and cards to the sick, in comfort to the grieving and solidarity with the oppressed. Because after all, when asked to sum up the entirety of God’s law, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength… and?” “Yes, love your neighbor as yourself.”
And yet I have seen this too become perverted. Christians of good heart can drive themselves mad with guilt, wondering if they’ve been good enough for God’s tastes, anxious that they’ve somehow done harm, losing sleep with worry over some perceived offense they may have done. Still more heartbreaking are those Christians who wrongly think Godly love requires them to put up with domestic abuse, when Christ asks no such thing. In both cases, the danger is losing your God-given self… by taking responsibility for others but doing so without Christian freedom. Also common are Christians who try so hard to be relatable or liked that they lose what makes them and their faith unique. In college, I studied under a priest who was a founding member of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims. This priest—whose life’s work was interfaith dialogue—explained to me the delicate balance required for such talks. On one hand, without concern for others’ wellbeing, interfaith dialogue cannot occur: conversations require a mutuality that only respect or love can provide. Yet at the same time, dialogue can only happen when there are two separate, distinct people communicating: you do nobody any good if you discard what makes you yourself in order to more easily talk to people. The priest explained to me that proper interfaith dialogue—or I might more broadly add properly relating to anyone different—takes both a sense of freedom to be yourself and express your faith… and a sense of respect, love, and duty to provide space for the other person too. You must straddle both freedom from and responsibility to others.
And the Apostle Paul sums this up perfectly in our very first verse today. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Galatians 5:6: “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Faith: what sets you free. Love: what binds you to others. Faith: what keeps your eyes fixed on the glory of God. Love: what keeps your hands busy serving your fellow man. Faith: what releases you from anxiety when you do wrong by others. Love: what motivates you to do better by others next time, because God so loved you. “Faith working through love”… means we are freed from rigid legalism yet bound by compassion to serve others. “Faith working through love” is what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he essentially tells the Gentile converts in our Romans scripture today, “Look, you and I both know eating bacon is fine by God now. But the Jewish converts in your church still feel morally obligated to keep kosher. So please do not to eat pork around them, not because God requires it but because you love them and care for their feelings and faith.” Now, granted, the Apostle Paul in today’s scriptures is talking primarily about relationships between Christians. But if you look at the sum total of how the Bible calls us to relate to others, both inside and outside our faith, the principle is largely the same. I just think these two scriptures sum it up the best. “Faith working through love” is knowing you do not have to do something… but doing it anyway because your mild inconvenience makes others’ lives easier. “Faith working through love” means you don’t lose sleep at night worrying over what you did wrong… but it also means you use your freedom to love others as Christ loves you. And Christ died on the cross pleading for the forgiveness of those who put him there, knowing he was free to leave the cross at any time… but choosing to stay there out of love for the people like us.
So the next time you hear Christians talk about their God-given freedom in response to a perceived imposition—whether it’s masks and social distancing, or store clerks saying “happy holidays” because for all they know we’re Jewish or atheist, over someone feeling insulted by our cavalier speech, over anything really—remember Cain’s question: “Are you your brother’s keeper?” As a Christian only God is your final judge. So no, you are not obligated to do as others desire. You’ve been freed from the duties of law by the blood of Christ. You aren’t technically your brother’s keeper. But as a Christian, you have been freed… in order to love God and other people, which means going out of your way to make others feel respected, understood, and welcome. It means the Apostle Paul keeping kosher, not because he had to but to be kind to the Jewish Christians in his congregation. It means biting your tongue when a friend says something distasteful at their spouse’s funeral, because you know right then they need comfort more than correction. It means wearing a piece of cloth on your face—even if you don’t fully believe in masks or find them annoying—because it makes others feel safer and—on the off chance they do work—could save a life. None of these things are required of you, and none of them get you into heaven. But we take on inconveniences with dignity because we know we’ve been set free… in order to love others. Christian freedom is not liberty to act however we please but a release from guilt… so that we can freely serve others as Jesus Christ has served us. We are freed from obligation… so that we can bind ourselves freely to others in love. So as you balance Christian freedom and Christian responsibility, may you follow the words of the Apostle Paul: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” And put your shopping cart back in the cart coral. Amen.