BE A BLESSING
Genesis 12:1-9 Hymns: 339
Matthew 5:38-48 *131
Responsive Reading #8, pp. 137f. **185
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I will make a great nation of you and will give you blessing and will make your name great so that you may be a blessing, and I will bless those who bless you, him who curses you I will damn.
This is about what you will read in most translations. The King James says, "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee and curse him that curseth thee." The New RSV says, "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse." The New International Version says, "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse." The New American Bible says, "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you."
That covers the versions that I have at hand, with the exception of one. There is a translation of Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Torah, by a man named Everett Fox, whose intent is to offer the reader the feel of the Hebrew text by following it as closely as possible. His version does not say "thou shalt be a blessing" or "so that you will be a blessing," or the like. It says "Be a blessing!"
There is a fairly obscure grammatical point involved, and either case could be argued, but what a difference it makes! It makes all the difference between a promise and a command. In the one case, all that is required of Abram is that he leave his homeland and go to the place the Lord will show him-which is accomplished three verses later. Other than that, the promises of greatness are unconditional. In the latter case, the promised blessings are contingent on Abram and presumably the nation itself being a blessing.
Certainly there is a close connection between being blessed and being a blessing, and in a way the nature of that connection has been under debate in the Christian church since its beginning. Do we obey the law in order to receive the Lord's grace, or does the Lord grant us grace so that we will obey the law? Which comes first?
On reflection, this seems more and more like one of those questions that leads off into the wilds of theory. It is a little like asking which foot we should put forward in order to walk when the fact is that we are already walking. Whichever came first, that is, we are now recipients of the Lord's grace, which enables us to care about each other; and as we express that care in our words and deeds we open ourselves to a greater measure of the Lord's grace. In traditional doctrinal terms, while we are wholly dependent on influx, the influx is proportional to efflux. There is a clear statement of this principle in Secrets of Heaven (§5828:3): "The universal law is that inflow adapts itself to outflow. If the outflow is restrained, then the inflow is restrained. There is an inflow of what is good and true through the inner self from the Lord. There needs to be an outflow, an outflow into life-that is, in the practice of caring. When this outflow happens, there is a constant inflow from heaven, that is, through heaven from the Lord."
This takes a very practical form in the Golden Rule. We are not commanded to wait for others to do us good and then return it. We are commanded to take the initiative. "You have heard that it has been said, `An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.' But I am telling you not to resist the evildoer." In a sense, this is telling us that no matter what others say or do to us, our own task is to try to see whether there is any way we can bring blessing.
The answer may, in effect, be "No." Our faith may tell us that the Lord is present in the lives of everyone, but we may not be able to discern that presence. We might think of what we are told about the Lord's care for people in the hells. The effort of providence is to minimize the harm they do to themselves and to each other, to prevent them as far as possible from sinking any deeper. I read not too long ago of a rather idealistic person who visited a maximum security prison, and after talking with some of the inmates said, "I'm glad some of these people are locked up."
Sometimes, though, it turns out that others can get through when we cannot. It is a familiar enough fact that when we run into difficulties, we turn naturally to people who have met similar difficulties. Women do not ask men about the subjective side of childbirth, for example. If we have not experienced poverty or brutality, it is all to easy for us to hand out advice to people who have, and it is likely to be as irrelevant and futile as it is easy. To turn the principle around for a moment, I suspect that none of us knows what it was like to be the CEO of Enron. It is tempting indeed to sit in judgment when we hear of the people who have lost their life savings while others profited, but any advice we might offer would be founded largely on our imagination.
Where does this leave us? Common sense tells us that it should encourage us to look for those areas where we do have experience, where we can be of some help. We do this by being truly attentive to the people who enter our lives and trying to understand them. My late colleague Cal Turley was a pastoral counselor who worked with some fairly troubled individuals. He insisted that he could not find a way to help someone move beyond harmful life patterns until he could discern what the individual was getting out of them. They were prompted by a need of some sort, and they would not be transcended until a better way of meeting that need was found.
His goal was to "be a blessing." Sometimes this would mean telling people that they needed more than he had to offer. Always it meant focusing on those others, trying to see their world through their eyes. It scarcely needs saying that this is easiest for us when we are dealing with people who have lived in a world like ours. There are hundreds of unexpressed assumptions that we hold in common.
Basically, this is saying that the Lord has a special place and role for each one of us. Each of us is unique, which means that each of us has something to offer that no one else can duplicate. If we pay too much attention to the standards of the world around us, we may well wind up feeling that we are not all that valuable. No one stands up and salutes when we walk into the room, no one offers us fame and fortune. But those are temporal matters, not eternal ones. The eternal ones have more do to with whether people smile or wince when we come into the room, and that seems to have a suspiciously close connection with whether we smile or wince when they come into the room. It struck me once that one of our students really did not know what she looked like to others because she wasn't glad to see herself when she looked in the mirror. She was having health problems and kept looking for signs of trouble.
This leads to the point that is made in our third lesson, namely that if we are going to be of any use at all in this world, we do need to take care of ourselves. That is a recurrent theme in education for ministry, incidentally, because idealism may prompt us to a degree of self-sacrifice that is little short of martyrdom. There is a striking passage in Divine Love and Wisdom (§426) that is too long to quote. It says basically that we are at our best when we are doing something for others simply because we want to; and it says also that when we begin to think about our self-image, the joy fades. Of course, sometimes we have to make ourselves do things we would rather not, but if that is the dominant theme of all the hours of all our days, life is grim indeed. There is nothing heavenly about self-pity.
"Be a blessing," then, is both a promise and a command. It is what the Lord has planned for us. It is what the Lord is constantly giving us, because the life that flows into us at the core of our being is love and wisdom itself. We accept this gift into our consciousness, though, only as we share it. The ambiguity of the biblical passage may be trying to tell us someting about the relationship between promise and obligation. It may be telling us that good is good for us.
Perhaps the best that can be done in translation is somewhere in between a promise and a command: "I will bless you and make your name great so that you may be a blessing." When we are told that the purpose of creation is a heaven from the human race, we are being told that the Lord offers us love and wisdom so that we may discover the joy that comes with giving and receiving in loving community.
There is a very simple little maxim that sums it up for me: "I matter, but `I' doesn't matter." We do matter to each other. Each of us is irreplaceable. There is an immense difference, though, between simply accepting that fact and feeling that we have to claim it. It is true whether we claim it or not; and in fact our very effort to claim it betrays a fear that it is not really true, a feeling that we have to make it true. The Sermon on the Mount offers a remedy for our anxiety about what others may think of us. Consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, and see how the Lord feeds and clothes them. "Are you not worth more than they?" (Matthew 6:26)
There will probably be some surprises for us after death. We are likely to find that some people we paid little attention to are quite beautiful and brilliant, and that some who impressed us are less than we had believed. We might well start looking for some clues here and now.
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The goal tells how we need to be our own neighbor and look out for ourselves first. If the goal is to become richer than others simply for the sake of wealth or pleasure or prestige or the like, it is a harmful goal. We are not loving the neighbor, but ourselves. However, if the goal is to gather resources so that we can be fit to look after our neighbor, human society, our country, and our church, or likewise to gain office for the same purpose, then we are loving the neighbor.
The goal that prompts our behavior makes us who we are because the goal is our love. For each one of us, our first and final goal is what we love above all.