MY BROTHER’S KEEPER – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A; Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

September 6, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Exodus 12:1-14 or Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 149 or Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Lectionary for Mass (RC)

Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9 (8)
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 18:15-20

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Cain’s famous reply to God is perhaps one of the most quoted verses in the Bible and has been applied to a variety of situations. It sprang to mind as I reflected on today’s scriptures, which raise a fundamental question about life in community: Do we have a responsibility for one another’s well-being, and if so, what does that responsibility entail?

God made the prophet Ezekiel “a sentinel for the house of Israel” (Ez 33:7). Sentinels play a key role in assuring the well-being of a community as they keep watch and sound the alarm when there is danger. Ezekiel’s mission to warn the people to turn from wicked ways entailed life-or-death consequences both for the community and for him. Although failure could result in dire results, God’s purpose was to preserve life: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (33:11).

What is our responsibility toward a community member who sins against us? Some have viewed today’s Gospel reading as a policy statement, laying out a process for dealing with offenders; yet the clear intent of this passage is to provide a path to reconciliation. If you take the person aside and they listen, you’ve “regained that one” (Mt 18:15). If not, include others from the community and try again, because as Jesus points out just a few verses later, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (18:20). If even the involvement of the community fails to achieve reconciliation, then “let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (18:17). While that may seem indicate that such a person should be put out of the community—and there are certainly situations in which detachment is necessary—it’s worth remembering how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, and how deeply the self-righteous teachers of the law resented him for it.

Our responsibility for others is perhaps addressed most directly in the passage we hear today from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8). The kind of love about which Paul writes has both social and personal dimensions. As Cornel West has observed, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” When Christians speak out and take action against unjust systems and policies, we are fulfilling our call to love. At the same time, when we reach out to those who have hurt us, when we even take the risk to seek them out, we are practicing the love that Jesus taught—a love that is expressed in forgiveness and that brings about reconciliation.

Christian love is not a choice between justice and compassion—it is both. The Beloved Community is called to seek justice for those who have been wronged and to search out and reclaim those who have caused injury. Jesus assures us that as we discern the path by which we carry out our responsibility toward one another during times of conflict or in the midst of injustice, he remains with us to guide us. We are indeed our sibling’s keeper, and thankfully we are not alone.

A Hymn for Today: “Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak”

Frances R. Havergal was one of the earliest English female hymnwriters—one of several whose work appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. She followed in the footsteps of her father, an Anglican priest who was an enthusiastic promoter of stronger congregational singing.

This hymn expresses a willingness to take on the task of speaking words of challenge, but it is foremost a prayer of petition and surrender, asking that the work of correcting, teaching and strengthening others will flow not from a spirit of self-righteousness but from the heart of God.

Lord, speak to me that I may speak
in living echoes of your tone.
As you have sought, so let me seek
your erring children, lost and lone.

O lead me, Lord, that I may lead
the wandering and the wavering feet.
O feed me, Lord, that I may feed
your hungering ones with manna sweet.

O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
the precious truths which you impart.
And wing my words that they may reach
the hidden depths of many a heart.

O fill me with your fullness, Lord,
until my very heart o’erflow
in kindling thought and glowing word,
your love to tell, your praise to show.

O use me, Lord, use even me,
just as you will, and when, and where
until your blessed face I see,
your rest, your joy, your glory share.

Text: Frances Ridley Havergal, 1872, alt.

Image Credit: Smile on Your Brother, mural by Rico Fonseca (Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village), photograph by Tony Fischer

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.