A few months ago, a man in a motorized wheelchair approached me in the grocery store. “Hi, there,” he said brightly, and pulled up alongside me to inspect the peanut butter. He pointed to the individual servings I was contemplating. “Those are the best. Have you ever tried them?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m wondering if I should.” I wasn’t interested in talking, really. I wanted to get my peanut butter and go home. But I was raised to be a talker by a family of talkers and, unlike some of the other people in the grocery store, I didn’t have it in me to give a tight smile and walk away.
“Oh, do,” he said. “Do.” And before I could interject or get away, he added, “That’s the only way I can eat peanut butter or otherwise I’d eat the whole jar!”
I laughed and sympathized. And again, before I could interject or get away, he went on to talk some more: he told me had multiple sclerosis, and he’d been on a diet to lose weight, and he’d lost fifty pounds because he decided that he wanted to walk and exercise as much as he could before MS stole the chance to do so.
His words were inspiring, and they touched me. I congratulated him and joked that he’d motivated to keep up my own exercise habit. He beamed and then – to my surprise – said goodbye and then rolled away. He hadn’t wanted peanut butter. He’d just wanted to talk – to share a personal achievement with a stranger who might appreciate it. If I’d hurried on, I might have missed the moment. I was glad I hadn’t.
A strong and unmistakable mandate of the Christian ethos – one of Christianity’s defining characteristics – is that we are to love and care both for those who love us, and for those who do not. We are heart-obligated to the community around us. The seeds of this pop up in the Bible as early as Genesis. Cain destroys his small community and brings a curse upon himself by murdering his brother, and his encounter with God afterward is telling (Gen. 4:9):
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain knows very well he is his brother’s keeper, as we are all our brothers’ keepers – the very question is a slap in God’s face – and God’s curse and punishment for this sin is to cast him out from community: to make him a “restless wanderer on the earth” (12). Cain’s mocking question challenges God’s very purposeful vision for human life on earth: that we might care for and be cared for by each other. And yet God’s wish has endured in spite of our fallen state, modeled for us when He came down to show us what such love looked like, and placed in us by the Spirit we bear.
New Year’s resolutions are often fraught with self-centered wishes. Even though they hinge on improvement or bettering oneself, they’re mostly still all about us. Cain’s desires, too, were all about Cain – about his feelings, his wants, his inadequate sacrifice, his cruel actions. We might not be murderers, but we’re just as prone to selfishness and sin. So this year, strive for something different. Don’t make the mistake Cain made by flipping the focus to yourself, by shrugging off God’s purposeful desire that you care for others.
Even if it’s just talking to someone in the grocery store instead of walking off, or writing a card, or saying a prayer, or giving a hug, we’ll find ample opportunities in 2016 to tend to the community of believers and non-believers around us. Keep your eyes and your ears open as January arrives. What will you do this year to care for those around you?
Instead of making a New Year’s resolution, make a vow to be your brother’s keeper.