And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: am I my brother's keeper?- Gen_4:8-9.
1. It is not to be supposed that the refusal of Cain's sacrifice was the cause of his crime. That one incident could not have changed his character. He must have had a predisposition to sin. We are not informed of the precise nature of his wickedness previous to his act of fratricide; nor could it do us any good to know it. The exact course of sin men pursue depends upon their tastes, training, circumstances, and temptations. Apart from God, an unrenewed heart must lead us into ways that are evil: it does not matter, in regard to the acceptance of our worship, whether our sins be refined or gross, secret or open. If any form of iniquity is cherished within, or any kind of unrighteousness is persisted in, our prayers and praises will not reach the ears of our heavenly Father.
2. But sin tends to develop sin. Like all other forms of character, sin grows. Never for an hour is it at a standstill. No soul can live in eternal infancy. One sin begets another sin. Nothing else in nature is so prolific. One sin roots itself in the soil of character, and spreads itself outward, and lifts itself heavenward defiantly. Sin penetrates the underground of character, and forms there hidden enormities and unconscious depths of passion. A man of long experience in sin is always a worse man than he seems to himself to be. The day of judgment is to be a day of fearful surprises and overwhelming revolutions in self-knowledge.
(1) When Cain went in the joy of harvest and offered his first-fruits no thought may have been further from his mind than murder. It may have come as suddenly on himself as on the unsuspecting Abel, but the germ was in him. Great sins are not so sudden as they seem. Familiarity with evil thought ripens us for evil action; and a moment of passion, an hour's loss of self-control, a tempting occasion, may hurry us into irremediable evil.
The murder began by the side of that altar, when, as it is written, “He was wroth, and his countenance fell.” Then he lifted the bludgeon to kill his brother; as the Scripture saith, “He that hateth his brother is a murderer.” Envy, jealousy, and bloody wrath were born within him at that moment, although the murder may not have been consummated for some time afterwards.
(2) We can hardly suppose that the man who has committed one crime-has stolen his neighbour's goods or taken away the life of a fellow-man-will scruple, in order to justify himself, to deny his crime or to violate another law to hide it. In the face of truth, right, and conscience, even in the face of the Omniscient, he will not hesitate to assert his innocence and defend himself. Thus when the Lord says to Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” he coolly and sullenly replies, “I know not.” Though fresh from the murder of his brother, his hands still reeking with his blood, the image of his mangled body still before his eyes, his ears full of his dying groans and unavailing prayers for life-the whole scene of horrid fratricide engraven on his soul-he coolly but falsely answers, “I know not.” So strong is the fear of punishment inhering in guilt that we may doubt whether there is any baseness of falsehood to which it has not power to drive the guilty.
(3) It is this lie that leads us into the understanding of the answer, “Am I my brother's keeper?” The answer is not of itself self-revealing of the answerer. It is, as words go, a very simple and colourless question. But, following as it does a falsehood, it is really an intimation that Cain disdainfully throws off all sense of personal responsibility for his fellow-man. Then it is that God runs down the lie, and tells Cain that man is responsible for man, and that any one who disowns, neglects, or abuses such responsibility, walks the earth beneath His displeasure.
(4) Were we not so well acquainted with human nature and the history of mankind, we should think it strange that this incident comes so early in the history of the human race. But that acquaintance convinces us that to be true to human nature the Bible needed to have just such a story at just such a place in its records. For one of the deepest dispositions of the heart of man is to seek one's own pleasure and neglect the welfare of others, especially of such others as, for some reason, we feel are apart, are different from ourselves. It was for the man he had not fellowship with, the man between whom and himself there was lack of common ground, the man whose presence did not seem essential to his happiness-it was for such a man that Cain disavowed responsibility. And what Cain did, it has been the tendency of the very highest as well as the very lowest of the human race to do. The weak brother, the brother who interferes with our happiness, the brother whom we do not need that we may prosper, the man, whoever and wherever he may be, that we can afford to overlook, has been neglected and sometimes abused.
Many years ago I was told of a priest who was called to visit a dying man. He heard his confession and prepared him for death, but the dying man said to him: “The one thing which troubles me more now even than the great sins of my life, is a trick that I played when I was a boy. Not far from where I lived was a large common, in the middle of which two roads met, and at these cross-roads a rickety sign-post directed the traveller to his destination. The arms of the sign-post were loose, and one day, for fun, I took them down and changed them, so that they pointed out the wrong road; and now that years have rolled by and I am dying, it worries me greatly to think how many a poor, weary traveller across that common I sent on the wrong road.”1 [Note: A. G. Mortimer, Stories from Genesis, 68.]
(5) It is perfectly clear that the responsibility of man for man is one of the axiomatic principles of our religion. It is assumed at the outset, as truly as the being of God is assumed and as the obligation of man to obey God is assumed. No proof is proffered of God's existence, no proof is proffered of man's obligation to obey God, nor is any proof proffered that man should regard the welfare of his fellow. Any mind that thinks is aware that if one member of society has disease, society as a whole is weakened through the weakness of that one member, and is aware, too, that if that disease is contagious or infectious, the whole community is in danger. If one member suffers, the whole body suffers. This law is so plain that he who runs may read it.
The black plague in China unchecked will cause thousands of deaths in Europe from Italy to Norway. A foul spot left uncleaned in India may taint articles of adornment transferred to American homes. There cannot be one vicious life in any part of the world that is not a peril to the rest of the accessible world. As society enlarges from the village to the city, from the city to the nation, and from the nation to the whole earth, the interdependence of man on man for safety and well-being enlarges. To-day, with the intercommunication of products, ideas, customs from all parts of the earth, we are subject to influence from all people everywhere.2 [Note: J. G. K. McClure, Loyalty, 76.]
(6) Christ Himself exemplified this principle of responsibility. It was the motive force that led Him to leave Heaven and come to earth. His heart noted the absence of all wanderers from safety; His feet followed such and His voice called to such. To Christ every human being was a brother in need, and whether the brother realized his need or cared to have it relieved, or was worthy to have effort made for him, did not affect Christ's actions; He was deeply, solicitously, and lovingly interested in every man whatever the man's state of mind. As Christ felt toward others He expected His followers to feel toward them. Accordingly His followers made ministry to others their life-work, and when they did most for others, in the State, the nation, and the world, they best manifested the spirit and the wish of their Master.
When Gregory the Great was Bishop of Rome, a beggar once died of hunger in the streets of the Eternal City. Am I my brother's keeper? he asked himself. He felt he could not avoid the true answer. One of the sheep committed to his care had been starved to death; his charity was shocked; his vigilance had failed; his sense of responsibility was outraged; and he imposed a severe penance on himself, and for many days actually lay under his own sentence of excommunication, performing no priestly act. This is the man who won the title of Great; this is the man who attained to the brilliant company of the Saints.1 [Note: S. E. Cottam.]