Saturday, September 3, 2011

Am I my brother's and sister's keeper?

There were two young mischievous boys who were always getting into trouble. If any mischief occurred in town, these two were probably involved. At her wits end, their mother heard that the priest in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The priest agreed so the mother sent the younger boy in first. The priest, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, 'Do you know where God is, son?' The boy's eyes opened wide, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open. So the priest repeated the question in an even sterner tone, 'Where is God?' Again, the boy made no attempt to answer. The priest raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, 'Where is God?' The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him.

When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, 'What happened?' The younger brother, catching his breath, replied, 'We are in BIG trouble this time…GOD is missing, and they think we did it!’

In our first reading from Ezekiel today, we heard God say, “If you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way I will hold you responsible.” All of today’s readings beg a very familiar and timeless question of us, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Our Scriptures answer that question with a definitive “yes” today. As Christians we are called to be noticeably different than the rest of the world. To a world bent on greed, we are to be signs of selfless giving; to a world bent on violence and war, we are to be signs and instruments of peace; to a world bent on deception and lies, we are to be a sign of honesty and truthfulness. Let us consider these three situations:

A salesman for an airport limo service said to a father, “Sir, you son looks young for his age. Take a half-price ticket. If the limousine driver questions you, just say that the boy is under 12. Save yourself a few bucks.” If you had been that father, what would you have said to the salesman?

Or, how about this: A mother caught her five-year-old daughter with a stolen candy bar just after they returned from the supermarket. If you were that mother what would you do?

Or finally: Suppose you heard your son’s best friend say to your son, “If you need any answer on the math test, just give me a signal.” If that had been your son, would you keep on reading your newspaper, or would you put it down and have a talk with the boys?

I have no way of knowing what you would do in those cases, but I do know what Jesus would do. The answer is found in today’s readings which focus on the mutual obligation that every Christian has towards one another. As followers of Christ, we have a moral obligation not only to do what is right, but also to help each other do what is right. Jesus told his followers, “You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world…Your light must shine brightly before others.”

Let us return to our three situations. What would a Christian response be to each of them? What should a follower of Jesus say to the limo salesman who encouraged the father to lie about his son’s age? Well this is a true story. The real father told the salesman, “I appreciate where you are coming from, but I want my son to be truthful, even if it works to his momentary disadvantage.”

And what about the mother whose daughter stole the candy bar? Also a true story. The real Christian mother had the child return the candy to the supermarket manager and apologize. But, to the mother’s dismay, the manager said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s such a small item. My employees steal much more than that from me every day.” What an unfortunate reply. The manager taught the child the lesson that stealing is no big deal if you only steal something small. God tells us that stealing is always wrong, no matter what. “Thou shalt not steal.”

And finally, what about the young boys encouraging each other to cheat? Well, this too is a true story. Jerome Weidman, author of Hand of the Hunter, had this experience as a boy. As a child in school in New York’s lower East Side, he had a third grade math teacher, Mrs. O’Neill, who gave her class a math test one day. When grading the tests, she noticed that 12 boys had given the same odd answer to one question. The next day she asked the 12 boys to remain after class. Then, without accusing any of them, she wrote a simple sentence on the board; a quote from Thomas Macaulay which read, “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be caught.” Weidman wrote, “I don’t know about the other 11 boys, but I can say only this: it was the single most important lesson of my life.”

And so we have three different cases where three different Christians spoke up. Three Christians heeded Jesus’ instruction to help their brothers and sisters live the Christian life. Three Christians took God’s word to Ezekiel today seriously, “If you do not you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way I will hold you responsible.” Three Christians took St. Paul’s words seriously, “Love does no evil to the neighbor.” And, finally, three Christians took Jesus’ words today seriously, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

Edmund Burke once wrote, “All that is needed for evil to prosper is for good people to remain silent.” The three Christians in these cases did not keep silent. They encouraged others to holiness and godliness; and they invite us good Christians to follow their example.

A zookeeper was looking high and low one day, unable to find the zoo’s orangutan. Finally he found the monkey sitting in the public library holding a Bible in one hand, and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in the other. Looking up the monkey said to the zookeeper, “I’m confused. Am I my brother’s keeper – or my keeper’s brother?”

My friends, make no mistake about the importance of being our brother’s and sister’s keeper. It is part of the fabric from which we were woven by God. God’s plan for you and me, and for everyone, includes being our brother’s keeper. But the question is not whether or not we are our brother’s keeper. The question is whether or not we actually keep our brother or sister, whether or not we look out for them, whether or not their welfare is our concern, whether or not we reach out and share faith and help meet the needs we see around us every day.

Let us take St. Paul’s words today to heart, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

May God give you peace.

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