We began the school year, as is our custom, with a College Mass. The focus took that theme for the year crafted by the boys’ leadership team: my brother’s keeper. We listened to the phrase’s source in the book of Genesis, where we have that rather puzzling story of the brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain feels rejected by God. There is some suggestion of his sinfulness in the background. But Cain’s jealousy of his brother leads to a cold-blooded murder. He then shakes off any responsibility with that slick and offensive response to God’s enquiry about Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The rest of the Bible which follows is a developing story proclaiming God’s close relationship with us, and the quality of relationship expected between us.
The Cain and Abel story has shocked and intrigued Jews and Christians over the millenia. I am intrigued by the representation in one of the twelfth century carved capitals in the Cathedral of Autun in France. In response to God’s question, Cain is shown rather cockily with his hand on his hip, a gesture of defiance. Yet, behind him, the feet of Abel’s body can be seen sticking out of the bushes, revealing the true answer to God’s question. Around the corner on the side of the capital we see the rest of Abel, among the palms (the sign of a martyr), with closed eyes, hand on heart.
We followed this with the parable of the Prodigal Son – which perhaps could better be called the story of the Two Sons, or the Two Brothers. Another story of a somewhat dysfunctional family. It is intended as a model of God’s generosity, God’s unconditional love as modelled by the father. But our interest here is the relationship between those two brothers.
One of them callously claims his family inheritance, even before his father has died. “Give me the money now,” he says to his dad. In so asking, he heartlessly implies, “You’re as good as dead.” But the father, in his love, gives it all. Then the son walks out on his father and his brother leaving them to run the farm. He forsakes his family, his home. He leaves his country. Finally, in descending to the level of feeding pigs, ritually unclean and impure animals for a Jew, he effectively abandons his faith. The complete outcast. Absolutely degraded. And being the prodigal that he is, all that he had from his father, what his father had worked so hard and so prudently to consolidate and conserve, slips wastefully through his fingers like water.
Then, when he has nothing left, his motives to return home are still entirely self-centred — he only wants better food and cosier living conditions. So he cooks up a plausible apology to his father and rehearses it well. No mention, either, of any hurt to his brother in the rehearsed speech. Those words are from his head, not from his heart. He was motivated more by a change of diet, rather than by a change of heart.
Meanwhile, in the distance, the father has been waiting for his son’s return every day. His love takes him to a hilltop and he waits. “Maybe today he will return.” How many disappointing days there must have been. How many times did his neighbours poke fun at him or speak of his actions behind closed curtains. “Silly old fool.” Until one day, on the horizon, in the hazy distance, he sees a figure. And … yes, it is. His son’s return! He runs and embraces the one who abandoned him.
This father does not stand on dignity. He is not interested in an apology, in that prepared speech. He does not lecture. There is no punishment. Only a new cloak, a new ring, footwear, a feast and a new start. “My lost son is found”.
But there remains another son. If the younger son was without sensitivity or feelings, full of selfish desires and wants, then there is that senior son, a slave to duty, the emotional cripple, who has only resentment and resistance eating away at him. One is a slave to his weakness and overt sin. The other is a slave to his self-righteousness. Each unable to relate to, or look out for, the other. But the father loves them both. Equally.
And where do we find the father in this story? We find him in two places. Of course, he was there waiting on the hilltop for the son who had hurt him so much. But we should not overlook the fact that he is also out in the dark, looking for the older son who has never known the father as father, and never related to his brother. The father is entreating his other lost son to come inside. To both of these sons he offers a place at the banquet. He wants, in the first case, to restore a broken relationship and, in the second, to heal a stunted relationship. In both instances, to draw them out of themselves to the other. And he wishes to bring this about in celebration, in a feast, in a meal.
We don’t really know how this story ends. The brothers seem not to be brothers to each other. The “keeper” of relationships is the father. Those brothers are locked into old patterns of behaviour. Disconnected. Does the father manage to reconcile and heal them? Are the sons freed from their insularity? Who knows? We look on from the outside ready to pen an easy fix to the story. Expecting a “happily ever after” ending. But the real world of relationships is not always like that – within families, between class or team members here, within our nation’s communities or between nations. In all those domains, we can point to where collectively we have failed to be our brother’s or our sister’s keeper. We know we have to work hard at being a keeper.
The same point is underscored and driven home once more towards the Bible’s end. The Bible is bracketed by the expectation of brotherly concern. First with Cain and Abel, and lastly in one of the New Testament letters of John, where he writes:
If a man who was rich enough in this world’s goods
saw that one of his brothers was in need,
but closed his heart to him,
how could the love of God be living in him? …
Our love is not to be just words or mere talk,
but something real and active.
The same story from cover to cover. And notice the last line: “Our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.” Deeds, not words. This is Ignatian language. It is our kind of talk. So, as an ‘Ignatian family’, we commit ourselves to be alert and active keepers of our brothers and our sisters. To let our immediate response to Cain’s self-absorbed and shameless question always be a resounding “Yes”.