AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER?
Am I my brother’s keeper? This question goes back to the very beginning of God’s plan for salvation, and haunts us in a multitude of ways to this very day. Even though our readings today do not draw specifically from Genesis 4, the challenge of Our Lord to Cain after the murder of his brother Abel practically shouts through the Scriptures for today: Consider this man’s earliest recorded instance of back-talk. Cain had grown jealous over Abel’s status with the Lord, and killed him for it, having rejected God’s warning about sin “lurking at the door,” waiting for him. Cain’s sacrifice had not found favor with the Lord because Cain did not have charity in his heart, but instead harbored covetousness, and murdered Abel to spite God. Even afterward, Cain shows no remorse for the murder, but instead self-pity for the punishment that follows. His initial reaction to God’s interrogation was meant as a sarcastic attack, not a serious inquiry.
Even so, the question remains: Am I my brother’s keeper? As we read today, the answer is yes. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, but what does that mean? What kind of love does Jesus call us to exhibit? Not eros, and not even exactly philos (brotherly love), but caritas or agape — the self-emptying, sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross for all of our sins. We must have charity in our hearts for our fellow men and women, especially when it comes to the path of salvation.
The First Reading says, “[If] you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper. But not absolutely. “If, however, you do warn a wicked man to renounce his ways and repent, and he does not repent, then he shall die for his sin, but you yourself will have saved your life.” I have a responsibility to save my brother in sin, but I am not ultimately responsible for his salvation. The last choice will always be with him. There is no need, after one has done one’s best, to feel guilt over the evil behaviour of another.
And so it is that Paul in the Second Reading puts the emphasis on love. It contains all other Christian obligations. “Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.” To keep the commandments without love – and it is possible – is to become not another Jesus but a Pharisee. If I really care in compassion for my neighbour then I know that I am keeping the commandments and that I also am loving God. I have to look carefully at the needs of my brothers and sisters. If I see them hurting themselves or someone else, that is my business.
WE ARE REMINDED TODAY that to belong to the Church is to belong to a community of brothers and sisters in Christ. This means that being a Christian is not a private, purely personal affair, although that is the way some people seem to behave. When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”, Cain answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The teaching of the Gospel is that indeed I am responsible for my brothers and sisters.
Not only that, our relationship with Jesus, with God, depends intimately on how we relate with other people – be they members of our own family or complete strangers. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35) and “As often as you did/did not do it to the very least of my brothers and sisters, you did/did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:40,45).
Many of us are reluctant to involve ourselves in other people’s affairs. Sometimes that attitude is good and wholesome but sometimes it is not. Our government, for instance, now frequently asks us to report on instances of child abuse or spouse abuse of which we may be aware. Such behaviour against defenceless people is something about which we need to be really concerned, to the point of taking appropriate action to protect the victims. If such things happen within the family it can be even more difficult to take action. It is not easy to see one’s father or mother brought away by the police or investigated by a social worker, even though it may be in the best interests of all concerned.
The Gospel passage of today deals with such situations within the Christian community. The whole of Matthew chapter 18 is a discourse on mutual relations within the Christian community and, especially, what to do when divisions arise, as must inevitably happen. We are communities of sinners trying to be saints and there are many pitfalls on the way. In today’s passage we see first of all a three-stage procedure for dealing with a community member who has done “something wrong”. Presumably, it is some form of external behaviour which is harmful to the quality of the community’s witnessing to the Gospel.
The whole thrust of the passage is that we should all work towards reconciliation rather than punishment. There will also be a desire to keep the issue at as low a profile as possible. (We read regularly in our newspapers what happens when people drag their mutual grievances against each other to the law courts.) So, the first stage is for the two people concerned to solve the issue among themselves. If it works out at that level, that is the ideal situation. “You have won back your brother.” “Won back” here is a Jewish technical term for conversion. For it is not enough that he merely stop his offensive behaviour, there also needs to be a genuine change of attitude and a genuine reconciliation with the offending person.
If the offender refuses to listen to his “brother”, then others should be brought in as confirming witnesses. And, if he refuses to listen to these, then “tell it to the church” (Greek, ekklesia, ekklhsia). ‘Church’ is here understood as the local community because, in the thinking of the Christian Testament, each self-contained community is a ‘church’ (cf. for example, Revelation 1:4-3:22, where letters are written to seven ‘churches’ or local communities).
In the last resort, if the offender still refuses to listen or to change, “treat him like a pagan or tax collector”. That is to say, let him be put out from the community and be regarded as an outsider. Obviously, this is a drastic and final step and to be taken not in a spirit of revenge or vindictiveness but out of real concern for the wellbeing of the whole community. It requires very sensitive discernment because it is easy to ‘get rid of’ someone who may in fact be telling the community some wholesome truths it needs to hear.
Many genuinely prophetic people have had this experience. It is easy to be too concerned about the “respectable image” of the community or being seen as in conflict with the established authorities. The only wellbeing that can justify such ‘ex-communication’ is behaviour that is totally at variance with the community’s mission to be the Body of Christ and to be the witness of the Gospel message.
How, someone may ask, can this be squared with Jesus’ openness to sinners, including corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes, or with the story of the Prodigal Son? But Jesus’ reception of these people was not unconditional. It depended on their change of heart and the abandonment of their sinful ways. Jesus sat down with sinners, not because he liked them more than good people but because he hoped to lead them back. When he forgave the woman taken in adultery, he told her to “sin no more”. The Prodigal Son was received with open arms after he had decided he no longer wanted to live his life of debauchery and, by his own decision, came back to his father.
The common good and the individual good
So, it is in the interests of both the community and of the individual that, if he/she persists in anti-Christian behaviour, that he/she be separated from the community. We practice this partly by not allowing a person in serious sin to communicate during the Eucharist. There is a serious contradiction between a person acting contrary to the Gospel and wanting to share in the Body of Christ, which has been wounded by his/her behaviour.
The situation, obviously, can be changed by a change in the attitude and behaviour of the wrongdoer. Once he repents and converts, he will be – indeed must be – received back with joy.
“Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven…” These words indicate that the community has the power, given it by God, to make a judgement on who is fit to belong to the Body of Christ. It is a necessary power to preserve the integrity of the community as a witness to the Gospel. It is also a dangerous power which can be abused.
Again, “If two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where [even] two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” Wherever Christians meet together in truth and love, whether it be for prayer, study, or decision-making, Jesus is present and Jesus speaks and acts. This is both a tremendous gift and also a great responsibility.
Only path to salvation
It is easy to think that being a Catholic means being concerned with the relationship between God and me, that my duty is to “save my soul”. But, in fact, the only way to “save my soul” is by becoming a truly loving and caring person as part of a loving and caring community of people united in Christ. And sometimes that caring may involve bringing the brother/sister face to face with the loving demands of the Gospel. We do not help each other by turning a blind eye to behaviour which is clearly unchristian.
As a community we have a responsibility for each other’s wellbeing. We do not further the witness of a loving community when we, in false “charity”, ignore social problems such as drug-taking, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, violence in the home, discrimination against the physically and mentally handicapped, racial exploitation and the like taking place in our parish community. It is not enough just to deal with these things in the privacy of “Confession” for, ultimately, reconciliation must be at the community level. And, as such, this is the responsibility of the community exercising its calling as the Body of Christ.
In this passage, Jesus shifts the responsibility in a significant way to everyone in the Church, and not just those who prophesy. In the new covenant, all who are baptized have a part in the offices of priest, prophet, and king; offices which serve rather than rule others for the good of the plan of salvation from sin. Jesus provides a definitive answer to Cain’s mocking question: am I my brother’s keeper? The answer here is plainly yes, and not just for those governing the Church but for the entire Church and all its members.
Even though Jesus expands this responsibility to all within the body of Christ, He still maintains the limits seen in Ezekiel. Jesus provides a more formal process for this, one that has been followed in one form or another in Christian communities for two millenia. First attempt to enlighten the offender privately so that any sin can be immediately repented; if that doesn’t work, ask two or three others to intervene somewhat more publicly; failing that, let the whole Church decide whether the brother should be rebuked. If so and the brother remains unrepentant, then everyone has done what they can, and the rest needs to be left to God. Jesus promises elsewhere that the Holy Spirit will work through the Church if two or more are gathered in His name, and He emphasizes that here in this context of judgment.
Each step along this process allows for the offender to repent and for Christians to make this an exercise of caritas rather than revenge, hoping to see a sinner return to the fold. And in fact, it is the duty of the Christian to ensure that sinners find reconciliation and redemption. To silently allow sin to continue puts a Christian at the same peril as Ezekiel describes in his warning to prophets. But any such effort has to come from love of neighbor, not merely anger or the kind of sanctimony exhibited by the Pharisees when they called out sinners publicly in order to maintain their own stature.
Jesus has given us all significant office in the Church by the power of our baptism. The question for many of us is whether we use our gifts to fulfill those duties by demonstrating love of neighbor — the caritas that puts their needs ahead of our own — in service to His plan for salvation. After all, this doesn’t just apply to issues of correcting sin, but also of helping our brothers and sisters enough to where they can stand on their own and walk that path. In the tale of the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught a powerful lesson about the identity of neighbor, and in the parable of the talents another lesson on the need to put our gifts to work for the Master rather than just bury them in our own fields for no purpose.
Are we being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in the sense of opening the path of salvation to others? Or are we, like Cain, too jealous and self-involved to truly open our hearts to the kind of self-sacrificial love that Jesus showed, and from which we benefit so much? Perhaps it’s time for us to check in with our office(s) and get to work.
“Forgiveness is a beautiful idea—until you have something to forgive.” (C.S. Lewis)
Maybe you’ve heard of Corrie Ten Boom, who grew up in Holland before WWII. Her family had a hiding place for Jews in their home, and one day they were discovered and taken to Ravensbruck. Her sister and her father died there – but due to a “clerical error,” Corrie herself was released.
Rather than nursing a grudge, she spent the rest of her life preaching about God’s mercy and the importance of forgiveness. She liked to say that when we confess our sins, it’s like God throws them out into the deepest ocean – and then he posts a sign: “No fishing allowed.”
In 1947, Corrie was in Germany, talking about that very thing. She looked up and saw a man coming forward: one of the guards, a particularly cruel man from Ravensbruck. Everything flooded back and she was filled with hatred. But he came up to her, smiling, saying that he had found Jesus and was a changed man. “Isn’t it wonderful! You are so right – he casts our sins to the bottom of the sea. But I have wanted to be forgiven by someone who was there.” He put out his hand: “Will you forgive me, Fraulein?”
Corrie stood there, frozen. She could not forgive him. How could she? Her sister had died in that place! So many had died. But she had to forgive. She remembered Jesus saying, “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will I forgive you.” Then she thought about Jesus dying on the cross, asking the Father to forgive those who condemned him. “Jesus, help me!” She summoned up all her willpower and extended her hand, asking God to supply what she could not find within herself. As she describes it, a wave of warmth rushed down her arm and she was able to say, with what she knew was God’s love, “I forgive you!”
Forgiveness is Only Fair
We all have received the mercy of God. He has forgiven our sins, washed them away – even though we don’t deserve it. This is why St. Paul can say in Ephesians 4:31-32,
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander
be put away from you, with all malice,
and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,
as God in Christ forgave you.”
We can forgive others because God forgave us, and for the same reason it is our duty to forgive others. We must do so, in fact, or God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:15). Does this sound harsh? The Catechism explains that God’s “outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love … is indivisible; we cannot love the God we can’t see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see.” (No. 2840)
What Forgiveness Is … And What It Is Not
If you’re like me, it’s hard to forgive even knowing this is true. It helps to keep a few things in mind:
•Forgiveness is not an emotion, it’s an act of the will; an act of love. You don’t have to feel forgiving to forgive.
•Forgiving does not mean forgetting. That’s denial.
•Forgiving doesn’t mean excusing the wrong or saying it doesn’t matter. Things that don’t matter don’t need to be forgiven. Forgiveness says, “I know what you did. It hurt. But I won’t hold it against you.”
•Forgiveness is letting go of your “right” to be right. It means offering up your anger, letting go of your “right” to revenge – and leaving justice to God.
•Finally, don’t confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation requires repentance – but forgiveness does not. From the cross, Jesus forgave people who had not repented and maybe never would. We must do the same.
If you think forgiveness is hard, you’re not alone. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Forgiveness is the Christ-like suffering which is the Christian’s duty to share.” Corrie Ten Boom used to ask people who came to her with their own stories of hurt and bitterness, “Can you forgive [this person]?” “No? I can’t either. But God can.”
The Practicality of Letting Go
From my experience, I offer three practical steps to help you forgive:
1. Take your mind off of the person you can’t forgive. Do not allow yourself to grumble, or justify your situation, or feel sorry for yourself, or dream about ways to get even. Kill those thoughts as soon as you see them coming.
2. Remember that you are a sinner too. Recall specific ways you’ve needed forgiveness. Ask God to help you, if you can’t. Go to confession, if that helps. Meditate on the Psalms. Practice being grateful for the mercy God has shown you.
3. Every time that person comes to mind, say the words “I forgive you” whether you feel it or not. Make it an act of the will and ask the Holy Spirit to pour God’s love into your heart. Over time, start asking God to bless the person. Romans 12:14 says “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Force yourself to do it. Make it a habit. And watch how that sets your heart free.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.