Saturday, September 6, 2008

My brother's keeper


In our first reading from Ezekial 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 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.

Consider these three situations: A salesman for an airport limousine service said to a father, “Sir, your 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?

Take another case. 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 a final case. 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. Christians have a moral obligation not only to do what is right, but also to help their brothers and sisters 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 cases. What would a Christian response be to each of them? What should a follower of Jesus say to the limousine 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 Ezekial today seriously, “If 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, truthfulness, integrity and godliness; and they invite us good Christians to follow their example.

Lord Jesus, help us to take to heart your words when you said, “You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world…Your light must shine before others.” Let us all be Your light shining brightly in our world.

May God give you peace.

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