“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Has anyone ever asked you this question? Have you ever asked anyone this question? Sometimes, people do not say the words as a question but as a statement, a kind of advice. They say, “Each of us must be our brother’s keeper.” Do you know the origin of the words, “Brother’s keeper”? The origin goes back to the Book of Genesis 4:1-16. It goes back to the first family in the Bible, the first siblings in the Bible, Cain and Abel, the children of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Cain was a tiller of the land, he was a farmer, and his brother, Abel, was a shepherd. They offered sacrifices to God. Cain brought the fruits of the land, while Abel brought fat from some of the firstborn of his flock. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel, but he rejected that of Cain. So Cain became very angry. Cain tricked his brother, Abel to accompany him to the field where Cain attacked Abel and killed him.  God said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain responded, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

I have tried to examine God’s response to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I see Cain’s question as one that required a simple “Yes,” or “No” answer. But I have realized that after Cain asked that question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God dedicated the rest of the Bible to answering the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The three readings of today’s liturgy answer that question. The first reading from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel answers it clearly that we have been appointed to watch over our sisters and brothers. In case we ask, “But how do I watch over my sisters and brothers?” The second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans answers us that we watch over our sisters and brothers by loving our neighbors as ourselves. In case we ask, “What if my sister or brother does something wrong against me, how must I respond?” The answer comes in the gospel passage.

If a sister or a brother offends us, Jesus gives us the four steps we need to take in response to the offence. Step 1: address the person directly; try to reconcile with the person. Step 2: if step 1 does not work, invite one or two other persons to help reconcile both of you. Step 3: if step 2 does not work, involve the church and let the church address the issue. Step 4: if step 3 does not work, then you are free to treat that person as a tax collector or as a Gentle.

What does it mean to treat a person as a tax collector or a Gentile? Does it mean, we can alienate them, hate them, or retaliate in any form? How did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Zacchaeus was a tax collector; Jesus loved him into his conversion. Matthew was a tax collector; Jesus loved him into his conversion. Matthew became one of the twelve apostles and authored the gospel from which we read today. The point here is, there is no going back when it comes to winning back our lost sisters and brothers. When it comes to reclaiming a lost brother or a lost sister, no stone must be left unturned.

But some people are very difficult to love, some people are incorrigible; they will never take it when you tell them they wronged you. I have two points to share regarding such people. First: when you tell people they wronged you, do not only focus on what you say, but how you say it. The manner of addressing an issue goes a long way to determine the outcome. Another way to put it is, connect before you correct. Put yourself in the person’s shoes; when you get to know their story, you become more compassionate in addressing the issue. Jesus did the same thing; he was up there in heaven, he wanted us to become divine, he knew we were on the wrong path, and the first step he took was to come to earth and become a human being like us. He stepped into our shoes and went through our experience, and in him we see the height of compassion.

Second: you need some patience in reclaiming a lost sister or a lost brother. You must not expect an immediate conversion because you have no idea how far away they have gone from home; you have no idea of all that contributed to what they have done against you. On your part, be consistent in doing the right thing, loving them, praying for them, and compassionately advising them when possible. Just keep planting the good seeds, and let God take care of the growth. Last month, we celebrated the memorial of Saint Monica. Her son, Augustin, was lost. It took her a long time praying, weeping, and lovingly advised Augustine. It seemed as if she was wasting her time, but when the right time came, Augustine experienced conversion. He was received into the Church, he was ordained a deacon, a priest, a bishop, and now canonized as Saint Augustine. Today, all that we know of Saint Monica is courtesy of her son, Saint Augustine. My dearly beloved in Christ, never give up on any sister; never give up on any brother. And in case someone asks you again, “Am I my sister’s keeper?” or “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The simplest answer to the question is, “Yes, you are.”

Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Ochigbo

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