Am I my brother’s keeper?
The soul that sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.
Two diverse perspectives from the word of God: on the one hand we see the call to social responsibility, to be careful of our influence, to feel responsibility for our brother, to look after one another; on the other hand is the announcement from God of individual accountability, that the soul who sins, and not the one who merely influences him, will face the consequences of his actions.
Between these two principles life is lived and community is built. We have an influence in this world, that we may use for good or for bad, and we will have to give an answer to God for every careless word spoken. As Christ said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matt. 18:6-7)
Yet the ultimate accountability in life and in afterlife is upon the individual, for if we only had to point to others’ influence for all of our mistakes and sins, then life becomes a journey of blaming them and not taking responsibility for ourselves, and community has no basis for improvement or even existence. If my neighbor, for example, decides to strew his garbage in the street, and then I accept his influence as irresistible in my life and do it myself, and on down the block it goes, from house to house, street to street, etc., how then could we live?
The truth is that we each live with this reality, that others have influenced us and yet we must decide for ourselves whether their example was worth emulating. Our courts recognize this and hold individuals accountable legally, as does society itself. An unhappy childhood may influence us, but eventually we must choose for ourselves. Abraham Lincoln said, “After forty years of age, a man is responsible for his own face,” and the only disagreement I have with this is that I believe this responsibility begins long before we reach forty.
The focus of God’s word, whether we speak of influence or actions, is on the issue of personal responsibility. Christ explained it in these extreme terms:
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven … either in this age or in the age to come.
Nothing in Christ’s words encouraged us to a lukewarm commitment. They were all radical and gave in the strongest terms possible a call to life and life beyond life. Along with a call to radical responsibility is the announcement of radical grace. If we think it is enough to just stand by and not take part, to not be too bad, to only commit those “acceptable sins,” then we are mistaken. If we are not gathering with Christ, we are scattering against His purposes. But the covering of His grace is always greater than the stain of our sin.
We never know the extent of our influence. Christ cried from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and these words not only apply to those who unknowingly crucified the Son of God, but to the human condition as a whole. We never in this life know the extent of our sin, the damage of our words, the pain our choices cause faceless and nameless others, the damage of our silence and inaction, and the ripple effect of our moral imprint. All we can do is to come in our conviction of sin and confess and if there is still some hint of self-condemnation we can remain in th spirit of confession – “beating our heads bloody on the cross” – until the Spirit clarifies in our soul that we are forgiven.
Paul was an example of this as he had persecuted the church, threw new Christians into prison, put some to death, and was a violent man. But the grace of God came to Him in full forgiveness, cleansing him and setting him apart for the ministry, even to face persecution himself.
If anyone wants simply a life where neither responsibility nor confessions are aflame with passions, then they should not look into the Christian life. Everything about Christ’s call is uttered in radical terms, but this is exactly what the human heart needs. He forgives fully, down to the deepest and most hidden and painful sin, and He calls us to life that is fully engaged in following Him.