Why should we care about our brothers or sisters, let alone neighbors, co-workers or classmates? Why not simply focus on our own needs and concerns and let others take care of themselves? In the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4: 1-16), God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” to which Cain defensively replies, “How should I know; am I my brother’s keeper?” I sympathize with Cain in a way. Am I supposed to be everyone’s baby-sitter? Before we try to answer that question too quickly we need to know three things:
(i) We need to know who our brothers and sisters are… (4.1-2) The most obvious thing about these first few verses is that it is the story of a family. That interrelatedness of the entire human family and its relatedness to God is a presupposition of the biblical story and it’s also the perspective of science. We’ve known for decades now from DNA evidence that all human beings living on earth today are biologically related to a common ancestor (Eph. 3: 14-15). But Scripture is not just interested in our biological relatedness – it also says that we are spiritually related…because we have each been given the breath of life by God and created to reflect God’s image.
This is important to keep in mind, because though we may be biologically and spiritually related to every other person on this planet…our experience tells us that pride, resentment, and jealousy have often driven us apart. Take Cain and Abel…When Eve gives birth to her first son she names him “Cain” which sounds like the word “acquire” or “get” in Hebrew as when Eve says, “I have “gotten” a man with the help of the Lord.” The name may imply strength and self-reliance. Abel’s name, on the other hand, is related to a word meaning “nothingness,” or “frailty.” We can’t say for sure, but it’s possible Cain represents the proud, self-reliant one who cared nothing about his “frail,” “nothing” of a younger brother. My point is that sometimes we would be just as happy not to be related. Something like what President Obama and former President George W. Bush must have been thinking when they discovered through the New England Genealogical Society that they were 10th cousins once removed! But isn’t that just like God?!
So who is my brother or sister? You may be sharing a room or a cubicle at work, living across the street from them, sitting next to them in class, or saw him on the street asking for a handout. He may have cleaned your teeth on Wed., given you too much homework on Friday, or fought you for a parking place on Sat. And though you may wish some of your brothers and sisters were only 10th cousins… the fact that you’re related to them is a truth you can’t deny. Why we should care about them, though, is what we need to understand!
(ii) We need to know why we should be their keeper… (4. 3-7) Because caring for others is an act of true worship. Jesus told us that there are two great commandments, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When Cain and Abel brought their offerings, they were coming together to worship God. God is honored by our love for him…but he is equally honored by our love for each other. When Cain demonstrated hatred for his brother, he was showing hatred for God as well.
Our actions often reveal the attitude of our hearts. Abel brought the firstlings of his flock (There are many references to the offering of firstfruits to God in the Mosaic law. See, for example, Exodus 23:19), but Cain appears to have brought an ordinary offering of the fruit of the ground. Abel brought his best to God – a gift that cost him something – while Cain appears to have brought whatever he could find. Did Cain show half-heartedness toward God with his offering? We can’t say for sure, but what we can say is that he was heartless toward his brother and enslaved by anger; and if he was heartless toward his brother, he could not have been wholehearted toward God. Jesus once said that if we come to the altar with a gift, and remember that our brother has something against us, we should leave our gift at the altar and go and reconcile with our brother and then return to offer our gift (Matt. 5: 21-26). In other words worship is dangerous…because being on God’s team is not just about singing songs, saying our prayers and listening to sermons…it’s also about being able to say to one another and to those who are not here, “I’ve got your back!” I’m your defender and your team member for the sake of Christ!
I think it’s interesting that even though quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers are the ones who receive the most headlines in the NFL today, it’s actually the left tackles who grab the second highest paycheck. In Michael Lewis’ book, The Blind Side, he explains the importance of these anonymous, but essential, offensive linemen. He traces their emerging importance back to the injury of star quarterback Joe Theismann. On a Monday Night in 1985 more than 17 million people watched as an incredibly athletic linebacker named Lawrence Taylor blindsided Theismann, breaking his leg and ending his career at age 36. By the way, Theismann has never blamed Taylor for this injury. But back to the left tackle. Since most QB’s are right handed, the main role of the left tackle is to prevent his quarterback from being hit from behind, unseen. And it takes a special person to do it. Left tackles must weigh more than 300 pounds and have long arms to block, but they must also be quick on their feet. Today, teams are willing to pay for such a player. Only starting quarterbacks earn more than the left tackle today. The role of the left tackle is literally to be his "brother's keeper." So again, why should we be our brother’s keeper ? Because that’s simply what being on God’s team means…to honor God by looking out for our team mates, watching their backs, honoring them and keeping them well. But let’s try to be more specific, because beyond knowing who our brothers and sisters are and why we should be their keeper…
(iii) We need to know how to “keep” them well… (4. 8-16, 25-26) It’s certain that Cain is not our model for how to “keep” or “watch over” our brothers and sisters well. But what would coming in the opposite spirit look like?
First, it means that we value our brother or sister’s life! In Hebrew thought, the life of a person is in the blood…so when Cain shed his brother’s blood he was not only disregarding his life, but taking something that belonged to God alone. Jim Wallis was speaking to Christian students about the intersection of faith and politics one day when “A young woman stood and said “4,000 lives were lost today because of abortion. How can I vote on any other issue than that?” Another responded, “Fair enough, but 9,000 lives were lost because of HIV/AIDS. What about them? And a third said 30,000 children died today because of needless disease and poverty.” All this is to say that we can be selective about what life or whose life we care about when as Christians we need to be consistently life affirming…I realize that can sound overwhelming. This brings us back to the question I first posed at the beginning of this message: Does caring about every life mean I am called to be everyone’s babysitter…which is the way E. Peterson translates Cain’s sarcastic response to God’s question. I think we can say, “No” – unless of course we’re talking about an actual baby. But then what is my responsibility?
I think that from Cain’s negative example, we can say that keeping our brother does not mean babysitting them, but empowering them to use their unique gifts and capacities as human beings. As Christians we do this by (1) loving people where they are, (2) inviting them to follow Christ, (3) helping them see their God-given uniqueness, and (4) equipping them to use their gifts to God’s glory. This is something Cain could not do…he was too filled with jealousy and resentment to value his brother’s extraordinary offering. When we don’t appreciate the contributions of others…we’re really treating them like “nothings.” Now let’s be honest, it is hard sometimes to rejoice in the gifts that others have that we wish were our own…to celebrate the successes of others while we wait on the sidelines. Yet God calls me to accept and cherish not only my own gifts, but the unique gifts and contributions of those around me.
While some of our students were on skid row yesterday sharing food and love with the homeless, I had the opportunity to sit in a Presbytery meeting. On the way I was sure that being on skid row with those students was where I should have been. I was surprised to find out that the meeting was actually focused on organizations that are addressing homelessness in our city. One of these was Union Rescue Mission, directed by Andy Bales. What a man of Christ-like compassion... This organization has nearly 400 guests on any given day…and almost half of these are children or teens. Certainly they provide food and shelter, but they also offer sobriety and recovery classes, counseling for grief and loss, P.E. classes for the body and what Andy calls “Life Transformation Programs” where the focus is on making disciples of Jesus and productive members of society. It’s a long, tough road, but one man was there to speak of that trans-formation. He said, “Jesus is the one who changed my life, but it is his people who helped me become a man. Truly, God is a God of second chances.” Andy and others recognized the value of his life, helped him to grow and take responsibility as a man, and to identify and use his gifts for the sake of Christ.
Is there someone whose unique gifts and special contributions God is calling you to honor rather than resent, whose life God is calling you to cherish and even protect, or who our Lord is calling you to invite into God’s family as your brother or sister in Christ? God is challenging us to come in the opposite spirit of Cain (1) by recognizing who our brothers and sisters are (not only here, but out there), (2) by understanding that why we love them is that it’s the highest expression of our love for God; and that (3) how we do this is to encourage others to use their unique gifts to the glory of God.
Gracious Lord, you have shown me that you care about where I am in relation to you; but also that you care about where my brothers and sisters are…and that you want me to share that concern. Help me to turn from any attitude or action which is preventing me from caring about others in practical ways…whether chronic busyness, a self-centered focus, petty jealousies or bitter resentments. Help me to see in those around me the reflection of your sacred image – one you’ve called me to honor and care for without coddling, and who is potentially my brother or sister in your Forever Family. Now may this be the demonstration of my loyalty and devotion to you – that I love even those I once called “the least of these,” just as you have loved me. Amen.