Building Up Our Neighbor

Fr. Luke Veronis

We woke up this morning to the horrific news that there was once again shocking mass shootings in the past 24 hours in our country – 20 people dead and 26 injured at a Walmart in El Paso by a man who posted a hate-filled anti-immigrant manifesto minutes before the shooting; 9 people killed and 16 wounded early this morning in Dayton, Ohio; and a week ago 3 people died and 13 were wounded in a shooting at a garlic festival in Gilroy, CA.

We are becoming numb to the reality of this insane and tragic violence – sometimes instigated by hatred and violence which is cultivated in the divisive and fear-instilling rhetoric we hear constantly in our society, and other times perpetrated by people suffering from mental illness, loneliness, and a sense of loss of who they are and the divine image in which they were created. We are a country inundated with guns and we seem to becoming a country dividing itself up more and more with antagonism and even hatred for one another.

It is tragic. It is disheartening. It is scary. It is depressing. It is so contrary to the Christian spirit that we profess. Jesus Christ came with Good News of love for all people. He reminded all those who follow Him that all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, are created in the image and likeness of God. We all are His children created in His divine image, and thus, we are called to love one another.

Now I realize that not everyone calls themselves a Christian, and not everyone is a sincere follower of Jesus Christ. But for those of us who are, we have a clear and special calling from our Lord to reach out to the world with this good news of love, sharing it not only with words, but first and foremost in our actions.  We have a responsibility for one another, for our neighbor, for those who are suffering in our society all around us – for those who are suffering after such tragic events of mass shootings, as well as for those who are lost in their own hatred and who commit such horrific crimes.

Have you ever heard the saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Do you know where it comes from?

It comes from the story of Cain and Abel, the first children of Adam and Eve. One day Cain, who was a farmer, offered a sacrifice to the Lord from the labors of his work. Abel, who was a herdsman, did the same, but he brought to God not simply something, but the first and best of his flock, the fat offering. As the story goes, God was pleased that Abel offered the best of what he had and accepted his offering. God was not pleased, however, that Cain offered something that was not from the best of what he had. He advised Cain not to get angry but suggested that if he offered the best of what he had, his gift would be pleasing and acceptable to God. Instead of heeding this advice, Cain turned to his brother Abel and began to jealously resent his brother’s acceptance by God. His resentment led to Cain eventually murdering his brother. When God confronted Cain and asked where his brother was, Cain simply responded, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In other words, “Am I in charge of my brother?” What responsibility do I have for my brother?

Cain’s resentment and hatred led him to reject his brother and to believe that he had no responsibility for the care of his brother.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

This question was asked by the first humans about one another, and from the beginning, God made it clear that YES, we are our brother’s keeper. Yes, we are responsible for our brother and sister, for our neighbor, for the “other.” Human beings are connected to one another for we all are created in the image and likeness of God. We are all God’s children! It doesn’t matter what labels we place on one another or how we try to separate and distinguish ourselves from others. God reminds us, we are keepers of one another!

Jesus supported and solidified this perspective when he taught His followers the two greatest commandments of faith – to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Love for God and love for neighbor are one and the same love. One and the same commandment. We can’t honestly say we love God if we don’t love our neighbor.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” YES! The Fathers of the Church overwhelmingly answered how our brother, the “other” is our salvation. We can only express authentic love for God when we show sincere love to the other, whoever that other may be.

This lesson is something that we hear throughout the Gospel, as well as in the Epistles of Saint Paul. In today’s letter from St. Paul, the Apostle exhorts the Christians in Rome by saying “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak. We are not to focus on or please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” (Rom 15:1-2)

Think about this. Each of us are called to “please our neighbor” so that we can build them up. The Apostle Paul is telling the Christians in the first century that followers of Jesus Christ have a serious responsibility of caring for our neighbor, of building up others, of helping those who are weak and in need. If God has given us strength, there is a reason why we have strength – it is to help those who aren’t as strong as ourselves. We don’t just take care of ourselves. We have a responsibility to build up our neighbor, to strengthen those who are weak, to act as my brother or my sister’s keeper.

Our fallen, egocentric desires try to get us to only care for ourselves. The ego is inward-turned. Love, divine love, is always outward turned. Love does not put itself first, or think of itself first, but goes out towards the other.

This epistle reading of today about helping our neighbor is relevant as we think about the tragedies our country suffers through these mass shootings, and in general as we look around and see many people suffering and struggling through their own tragedies, challenges, and struggles.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are responsible for our neighbor. We are “keepers” of our brothers and sisters all around us. We who may be strong have a responsibility to care for those who may be weak.

This week let each of us open our eyes to those around us – look and see where people are suffering, struggling, and facing daunting challenges. Let us enter into their suffering and risk taking part in their lives. Take care not to give in to our egocentric voice which tells us to just worry about ourselves. The world around us needs people who will become true brothers and sisters with our neighbors and get involved in their pain and challenges.

Am I my brother’s or my sister’s keeper? Absolutely yes, we hear today, absolutely yes we are!

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June 16, 2024
My father passed away a year ago. We are celebrating his one year memorial today in our Church here in Webster, and in two weeks in Lancaster, PA. I think of my father often and thank God every day for blessing me with such an incredible role model in my life. Fr. Alexander Veronis exemplified for me all that he ever preached during his 64 years as a priest. Read more »

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