Brother (and Sister)

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

            —Matthew 5:21-26

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” is the unasked question driving Bonhoeffer’s continued ponderings on discipleship, here, in chapter five of Matthew’s gospel.  While never explicitly expressed in this excerpt from the gospel, the gospel writer implies the question—in Bonhoeffer’s estimation—throughout the text.  Also, it seems fitting that the writer should infuse the text with this question because this fundamental interrogative lies at the heart of the disciples’ community of faith.  Moreover, the answer to this question serves as the bonding tie of love that holds each to the other and to God.

Let me explain.

It is important to recall the context in which this unasked question was asked.  In the story of Cain and Abel from the fourth chapter of Genesis, we encounter sibling rivalry, jealously, betrayal, murder, evasion, punishment, and grace . . . all in just a few verses.  In the Genesis story, Cain and Abel are born of Adam and Eve.  Cain and Abel both offer sacrifices to God, but Abel’s are well received while Cain’s are not.  Out of jealousy, Cain kills his brother and is confronted by God.  Yet, God’s confrontation is indirect, confronting Cain through a question.  

In the text, God asks, “‘Where is your brother Abel?’”  And, in reply to God’s inquiry, we hear Cain’s evasive and infamous response, “‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’”  Now, in this exchange between God and Cain, we begin to see the reason why this question lies beneath the reflection offered by Bonhoeffer in his consideration of discipleship in this chapter from Matthew’s gospel.  Because, in this encounter between God and Cain, a linkage is created between our love of God and our love of others, paralleling the connection Bonhoeffer highlights from the gospel text cited above.  

In both biblical texts, love of God and love of neighbor are so intertwined that, functionally, one love can hardly been distinguished from the other, while, theologically, they are completely fused.

The source of Cain’s jealousy centers around the love his brother exhibited toward God and the love God returned to Abel.  God honored Abel’s offering because Abel’s gift was the first of what he had while Cain’s was simply an offering of what remained.  Abel’s gift demonstrated sacrifice, risk, and trust while Cain’s self-interest, caution, and suspicion.  In other words, Cain’s lack of love for God expressed itself in a lack of love for his brother.  Cain’s devaluing of his gifts from God for God is evidenced in his devaluing of his brother’s life.  In this way, love of God is love of neighbor . . . and vice versa.

Like the text from Genesis, the text from Matthew assumes a direct correlation between our love for God and our love for our neighbors.  Such a correlation was infused into the theology of Israel and into the church.  Consider both the first and second tables of the Ten Commandments or the protestations of the prophets against sacrifices to God that do not, also, assume sacrifices for neighbors or the two greatest commandments identified by Jesus.  In each instance, love of God—i.e., worship—and love of neighbors—i.e., concern for their wellbeing—are inextricably intertwined.  Thus, in Bonhoeffer’s reflections, it makes perfect sense that a complaint about how we treat a brother or sister in the faith automatically evolves into a conversation about authentic worship.  That evolution is exactly what happens, here, in Matthew’s gospel.

In this passage, Jesus is, again, instructing the disciples on what it means to follow him.  And, there, he reiterates a central theme of this discourse.  That theme is the essentiality of community.  But, not just any community is essential.  The essential community needed is a community bound together through love of God and of others.  (And, by others, Jesus and Bonhoeffer are referring to more than just those who are part our [faith] communities.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.)  

For Bonhoeffer, communities are important because it is only within an intimate community of persons dedicated to each other and to risking life together that we able to chance embodying who we are meant to be and to preserver in that embodiment.  Said much more simply, the disciple’s response to the implied question of this passage is “yes.”  We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

When offered the opportunity to be each other’s keepers, our faith-filled reply is to engage in other-keeping practices.  Importantly, these other-keeping practices are not owning practices but “keeping” in the sense of caring, as a beekeeper cares for a hive, not possessing it entirely, but only in part.  Such keeping-as-caring involves a kind of mutual interiority, allowing our defined walls of self and community to become somewhat blurred, distinct but permeable.  It is only in these kinds of loving embraces of each other and God that the kind of world (anticipated by a God willing to risk incarnation) may be realized.  

As Jesus iterates in the Matthew text, even anger—self-righteous anger—can become destructive of both self and the other.  When we allow anger to assume the defining position between others and ourselves—even if that anger is well earned, then that person ceases to be a person with whom we relate but the object of our hostility.  In Bonhoeffer’s estimation, through our anger that person’s movement from subject of shared life to object of antagonism is a kind of death, a killing of a metaphorical kind, a death to life together that is replaced by a vengeful, insular heart.  

It is for this very reason that Jesus immediately jumps from a statement about murder to a claim about anger to a conversation about love of God and neighbor.  Importantly, the kind of anger discussed is not a fleeting impulse or reflexive response, i.e., a flash of anger.  Rather, the kind of anger assumed is that festering, vindictive kind that lingers, producing an acidic soul that destroys our bonds of love and dissolves our hearts of grace.  Such anger is a murdering, of a sort.  That kind of anger kills our communities, kills our connections, and kills who we were, both together and individually.

Interesting.

As we approach another national election, I think of the significance of this particular requirement that discipleship means embodying a core of love.  Further, that a core of love means the mandatory rejection of lingering anger because such anger dissolves and destroys, enacting a kind of communal murder as we destroy our connection to others as people and treat them as objects worthy of our hate and vitriol.  And, our political speech certainly carries both hate and vitriol.  Such a communal killing by re-categorizing political adversaries as objects of despisement rather than persons whom we love is precisely the kind of action that produces the double effect of destroying our communities and ourselves.  

Given the ubiquity of those seeking office to speak ill of their opponents and, then, to seek to capitalize on their own Christian faith as a kind of political commodity, it is my prayer (and their voluntarily assumed obligation by virtue of invoking their faith into the political process) that those chosen allow love to become the currency in which we trade.  It is my prayer that love repairs and restores; that neighbor love is understood as a chance to heal and not an obligation to fulfill; and that grace abounds where disgraceful speech previously purchased airtime on our televisions.  

I cannot speak for other faiths.  I am hesitant even to speak for the Christian community.  But, I am certain that I can speak for myself as someone committed to living faithfully in community, community comprised of those of one faith, of many faiths, of no faith; of big government and small government advocates; of conservative and progressive values; of appreciation for the past and joyful anticipation of the future; of trickle-down and bubble-up economics; and of every permutation in between.  I am certain that neither political party has cornered the market on being the most faithful or biblical or Godly or just or righteous or compassionate or “best hope for our future”—despite what those running for office tend to say.  I am, also, certain that churches are not the Republican Party at prayer or that the Democrat Party is faith in action.  What I am certain of is that love must be at the heart of who I am called to be and that such love leaves no room for the expanding reach of abhorrence, nor tolerates the acidic dissolving of vitriol, nor succumbs to the severing cuts of hate.  

Communities (countries) cannot be sustained on abhorrence, vitriol, and hate.  Communities (countries) require love, a love that serves as a gravity to draw us in and a love that actively binds us together “with cords that cannot be broken.”

Now, that is the kind of community that will get my vote every time.

Have a great week.  See you along the way.

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