A Keeper of Brethren
We live in a society that values the freedom of the individual, and by extension, the responsibility of each individual. Thus, we can often feel and act in a very isolated manner. There are even incidents where bystanders cannot even be bothered to call for help because the fate of the one suffering isn’t any of their business. Being a true individual means, to some, that the plight of others is not our concern.
This attitude was at the root of Cain’s excuse when he was questioned by God about the whereabouts of his brother Abel, whom he had slain. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Not only was this a disrespectful and callow reference to the fact that Abel was a “keeper” of sheep, but it was a claim that he was not responsible for the state or health of his brother. The answer to Cain’s retort was, of course, yes. He was, indeed, responsible for the fate of Abel. (Genesis 4:1-9)
This responsibility continues to be a theme that is present throughout scripture, and it closely tied to one of the “great commandments” (Matthew 22:35-40) in the Law. When Jesus quotes from the Law to talk about our responsibility to our fellow humans, the place He chooses to cite describes how Israel was responsible for others. “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am YHWH.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) Part of loving our neighbor involves reproving them and not incurring sin.
This idea is present in some very significant portions of Ezekiel who was called to be a watchman for Israel and warn them of the danger of sin. (Ezekiel 3:16-21; 33:1-20) If someone was warned in Israel of transgression and they did not heed the warning, “he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered yourself.” However, if danger was present and the prophet refused, he was told, “his blood I will require from your hand.” It was a violation of loyalty to a brother to fail in warning them of the danger of sin.
Even in the New Testament, the principle remained as the first and foremost way to address sin. “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (Matthew 18:15; Luke 17:3) While the text is primarily dealing with interpersonal infractions, there is still a valuable lesson about “winning” our brothers and sisters by speaking to them directly and lovingly concerning the danger of sin.
The ultimate example of keeping brethren is seen in Jesus. While He did not share in our sin, and the consequences of it, He willingly came and suffered along with us. We were the ones who had failed to heed God’s warnings, and as a result were under the power of sin and death. Yet, despite His innocence, He came to rescue us, and is not ashamed to call us “brethren.” (Hebrews 2:10-18)
We will all individually stand before God, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility toward our fellow humans, who all relate to the same God and Father. Will we show loyalty and be a keeper of our brethren?