We have a running joke in my family that’s become tradition. If a person loses something and asks another where that something is, the other person will say, “Am I your (something’s) keeper?”
So it goes: “Hey, Honey, where’s my watch?” And the response: “I don’t know; am I your watch’s keeper?” You get the point.
Such a sarcastic, if not silly, question reaches as far back as the first murder. In Genesis 4, Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to God, only one of which God finds acceptable. Cain, jealous that God had favored Abel’s sacrifice over his, slays Abel and tosses his body somewhere discreet. God comes looking for Abel and asks Cain where he is. Cain utters that infamous question about not being his brother’s keeper.
Cain’s sin was heinous not only because it was cold-blooded murder, but also because it rested on the assumption that life is expendable. His question, as contemptuous as it was, places that assumption in the light of day. Cain took his brother’s life, but then declares that his brother’s life is worthless in comparison with his own.
This sin did not happen on an individual level; rather, Cain turned the sin into a broader concern that pulls in the entire ethical fabric of what it meant to live in community.
Consequently, God’s punishment for this sin was one of isolation and banishment. Cain lost the privilege of living in community with others. God said that Cain was to a fugitive and a “wanderer on the earth” (NRSV).
Cain realized that the punishment did indeed fit the crime and exclaimed that banishment from the community was more than he could bear. It was in this moment that the depth of Cain’s sins came to fruition — God called humans to be their fellow-human’s keeper, in life and in death.
Within the larger community in which we find ourselves, be it neighborhood, church, or even our country, God still calls us to be our neighbor’s keeper. The premise for this challenge is that life — all life, regardless of how one chooses to live — is invaluable to God. No life is expendable.
Consider what God did for us by sending his Son to live on Earth, die and rise from the dead. Jesus’ crucifixion and God’s investment in humanity through that act raises the dignity and sanctity of life to new heights.
How much is life worth? The Bible gives an answer: God’s very Son. Are we our sibling’s keeper? Jesus’ resurrection provides an overwhelming answer in the affirmative: Yes, we are.
The first letter of John is clear that living a new life in the shadow of Christ’s resurrection means that we must engage community with a sense of social responsibility: “Beloved,” John writes, “I am writing you no new command, but an old command that you have had from the beginning … Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in darkness” (1:7, 9).
Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:3-4).
When God comes to us in the final hour and asks us how we have served Him, I hope that we can answer that we have served one another. When the world asks us the question that Cain asked so long ago whether we are our neighbor’s keeper, I pray that we can answer in the affirmative: Yes, we are our brother’s and sister’s — and, indeed, all of creation’s — keeper.