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9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
As one of the first questions in the Bible, Cain’s question is a great follow up to God’s original question of “Where are you?” for Adam and Eve. Two of the greatest questions one can ask of him/herself is “Where am I in life?” and “Am I looking out for my brother?”
On the face of it, Cain’s question was an evasion of responsibility, not just for his murderous act, but also for his brother’s care. In some sense, Cain is asking God if he’s been assigned responsibility for keeping track of Abel’s welfare. It’s a question that God doesn’t answer, and in fact, doesn’t need to answer because Abel’s blood screams the truth.
You can almost hear the disdain in Cain’s voice. Funny, how, when we get caught with the “goods” the first words out of our mouth often seem to sum up our sin and serve as a self-indictment. As one who has a younger disabled brother, I understand Cain’s superficial frustration. Why do I have to take care of his needs? Can’t we just hire someone to take care of him. A caretaker?
But then, I wouldn’t be acting as his brother.
It’s not a trivial point. Because generally speaking, keepers or caretakers aren’t personally invested or intimately involved with the people they care for. They’re paid to care. Whereas a brother cares for another brother out of love and personal concern.
When serving others, we have to make an initial decision: will we treat them as caretakers, or family?
God was careful to guide early Israel regarding the treatment of their neighbors. In Leviticus 19:34 He told them “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” That is a foreshadowing of Jesus statement of the two greatest commandments. It sounds to me as though God is demanding that we treat others as brothers/sisters.
Jesus had a great way of teaching, correcting and motivating people with His questions. Curiously, when a Jewish scholar asked Him who was his neighbor, Jesus responded with a related question, but one that turned the original question inside-out. Rather than limiting Himself to answering the scholar with a fixed description for “neighbor”, Jesus asked him “Which of these acted as a neighbor?” This turned the question from a culturally-limited version of others’ status in society, to a liberated version of caring for others like God cares for us. From “qualifying” for neighborly care, to a gracious, sacrificial model of brotherly love. From focusing on the worthiness of the neighbor to the character of the one who acted as a neighbor.
But going back to the scholar’s question, and transforming it slightly, we can ask in his stead, who is my brother? Well, for him, that was a no-brainer. Every refined Jew in ancient Israel knew who their brothers were by virtue of rigorously maintained genealogies. You were either “in” or “out” of the Jewish family by virtue of birth. The Jews before Jesus extended this to mean that if you weren’t a native Israelite then God wouldn’t bless you.
Today, we too are confronted with the challenge of deciding whether we give different treatment to near kin (brothers/sisters) and distant kin (neighbors, immigrants, foreigners). Jesus directly challenged us by saying "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” Luke 6:32 This challenge is important when dealing with others who are not familiar or desirable to us for one reason or another.
The Jews had inclusion issues. They couldn’t accept anyone who wasn’t in the blood line of Abraham. Jesus had a habit of lifting up people groups outside of the Jewish nation. He was trying to prepare Israel for the entry of Gentiles into God’s covenant family, while at the same time trying to help the Jews “get over” their notion of cultural and hereditary exceptionalism. In terms of Abraham’s family story told in Genesis 12, they would be “blessed to be a blessing.” Deuteronomy 14:29 reinforces the Genesis commission: “and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” In other words, the blessings of God would pass through them, but should not be selfishly kept by them. Jesus was being faithful to His own lineage: His great-grand mothers, Rahab and Ruth, were themselves foreigners from people groups outside the family of Israel. Yet God had welcomed them into the family and even made them exemplary matriarchs for His nation.
So God’s instructions seem abundantly clear. We need not worry ourselves about defining who our neighbors are. Pretty much anyone, in need or otherwise, who comes into our life or our sphere of influence fills that role. What we need to concern ourselves with is acting like a neighbor, or more importantly, acting as a brother. The Leviticus and Luke verses cited above suggests an even closer relationship; that of a brother or sister.
This is not an intellectual exercise. It’s not a concept to be debated. It does involve thoughtfulness and intentionality. But mostly, it requires “doing” which entails assertiveness. When God punctuates the Leviticus verse with “I am the Lord thy God,” it’s pretty much the equivalent of “just do it.” God said it; discussion closed.
What holds you and I back from obeying God in this fundamental mandate of scripture?
1. Many of us go through life waiting for God to act in our lives.
Waiting for Him to protect and nurture our families. To set things right in our world. To give us strong churches and honest politicians, etc. We don’t reach out to neighbors and brothers because we’re waiting for the Lord to reach out to us. A notable departure from this mindset was Isaiah. Although he knew he was unworthy of representing the Lord to the northern kingdom of Israel, that he wasn’t “ready,” Isaiah didn’t wait to be personally directed by God. He volunteered for the position without being asked. We all need a bit of Isaiah’s initiative: “Here am I Lord, send me.”
2. Some of us mistake “busyness” for accomplishment and obedience.
Or we use busyness as an excuse for not getting involved with our neighbors. Busyness has a way of eating up valuable time that God can use for changing us and the world. It also deceives us into thinking that we’re getting something accomplished. But often our activities really don’t do anything to add to the hastening of the kingdom. As a former teacher, I am well acquainted with busyness. Nothing like 32 middle school kids in a class to keep you occupied! But I always had to ask myself “were the kids learning?”
Perhaps a great deal of our busyness is directed to ourselves. In Western societies, particularly individualist societies like America, the focus of activities and values tends to be on one’s self. In short, we are in the business of consuming. We think about how events affect us, not others. We spend much time ordering our personal world to make us happy and insulate us from uncomfortable life situations. We strive to make ourselves unique through our activities, possessions, and work. We may have little concept of how our group is faring, be it a family, a group of friends or our nation.
This mindset isolates us from the needs of others. We often try to escape awareness of others’ problems. Their problems just seem too demanding, intractable and painful to deal with.
Jesus was busy too, but busy with His Father’s work. Jesus was available, as when Jairus begged him to come heal his young daughter. He was also approachable, as when the woman sick with bleeding touched His robe in order to be healed. In short, Jesus had daily tasks given him by the Father, and some of those tasks required Him to allow for interruptions by people in need. Jesus didn’t consume the world’s goods for His own pleasure. He opened new behavioral possibilities for His followers who could help other sinners get what they desperately needed but couldn’t obtain.
3. We’re not aware of who needs help (or we do our best to ignore needs).
It helps to think about the perspectives of those in need. This requires we suspend our self-centered lifestyle to intentionally think about others. There are many different types of needy people, but the Bible gives us a helpful guide to what we might expect:
Jairus: Some people are desperate for help and willing to do whatever it takes to be healed by Jesus. They seek you out for help.
The Gerasene demoniac: Some people are so badly hurting that they won’t be able to ask for help. They may even be repulsive or off-putting. We need to help them anyway.
The woman at the well: Some people are so blinded by their worldview that they can’t see their own needs and can’t even imagine asking for help. Engage them and find out about their life story. This engenders interest in yours.
Zacheus: Some people know that something is wrong in their life and just need a warm, welcoming invitation. They’re waiting for you to extend yourself first. Their response can be extremely encouraging and uplifting.
The Roman official: Some people are “stuck” in their life circumstances but are nonetheless willing to do what they can to gain access to Christ. They may have to stay in their current culture, but can become God-honoring people nonetheless. Honor and affirm their search.
Nicodemus: Some people need time to process who Jesus is, and how their lives would be changed if they accepted help. They may be mulling over a way to confirm their doubts about their own faith. They need acceptance and encouragement too.
10 Lepers: Some people will be greatly appreciative for your help, while a many are not. Expect this as a basic fact of service. Help them anyway.
Epileptic son: Some people have obvious needs; It’s our duty to heal them even if they can’t .express those needs.
The Infirm man at the Pool: Some people know exactly what needs to be changed in their life, but can’t get the healing done themselves.
Lazarus: Some people appear to be beyond help. It’s our job to try to help them anyway.
4. We’re anxious about engaging others’ needs, because we don’t know where to begin.
We’re designed to be insufficient. 2 Corinthians 3:5 says “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.” Only Christ is sufficient. This is the way it’s supposed to be. William Blackaby wrote a curriculum called Experiencing God a couple of decades ago. It was instrumental in taking SonRise members to a higher level of kingdom work. A famous quote from his book said:
“When God invites you to join Him in His word, He has a God-sized assignment for you. You will quickly realize you cannot do what He is asking on your own. If God doesn’t help you, you will fail. This is the crisis of belief when you must decide whether to believe God for what He wants to do through you.
At this point many people decide not to follow what they sense God is leading them to do. Then they wonder why they do not experience God’s presence and activity the way other Christians do.
The way you respond at this turning point will determine whether you become involved with God in something God-sized that only He can do or whether you will continue to go your own way and miss what He has purposed for your life.” (pg 134)
“We forget that when God speaks, He always reveals what He is going to do – not what He wants us to do for Him. We join Him so He can do His work through us. We don’t have to be able to accomplish the task with our limited ability or resources. With faith we can confidently proceed to obey Him because we know He is going to bring to pass what He purposes. Jesus indicated that what is impossible with man is possible with God. The Scriptures continually bear witness that this is true.” (pg 140)
Blackaby continues: What is your current crisis of belief? What is it that God is setting before you to do and you need to take a step of faith and walk on the water? If you don’t know, keep seeking Him in His Word and wait upon Him to reveal Himself to you.
And so we claim “(that we are confident) that he who began a good work in you (us) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6. I join you in crisis, friend. If we’re going to walk on water, we have to get out of the boat!
Love, Brad Fox