This week, churches that follow the lectionary have a choice for their Hebrew Bible reading: Genesis or Isaiah. We choose Genesis because the Genesis reading refers to God’s promise to Abram that he will become the “father of many nations.” It was Abraham (same man; name changed to reflect the plurality of nations to which he became the father) who, along with his first-born son Ishmael, built the Kabba, the first mosque, according to Islamic tradition. As Muslims celebrate the major holiday of Eid Al Adha this weekend, it seemed appropriate choose the Genesis text in honor of the Muslims from many nations descended from Ishmael’s line who are making a pilgrimage this weekend, whether in body or in spirit. Adam and I wish a blessed hajj and Eid Mubarak to all our Muslim siblings around the world.
Blessings, Trust, and Justice
This passage begins with one of scriptures most frequent and comforting refrains: “Do not be afraid.” Why would Abram be afraid? Well, perhaps because the understanding of the divine throughout history has been rather terrifying. Humans tend to see power in force and violence, and in a frightening world, ultimate power is associated with death and destruction. Yet in scripture, the constant refrain of God, Jesus, and the angels is “Do not be afraid.” We are ever being led out of an understanding that associates divinity with fear with the continual revelation that God is Love.
Abram is also afraid because he has no offspring, and he’s getting up there in years. And this is an existential crisis: “What will become of me? What will I leave behind? Who will carry on my name, if I have no children?” We all wonder what our legacy will be; what will become of us… and having children leaves an impression upon the world. Abram may be worried about the mark he will make on the world, or worried that he has displeased God since his wish for children has not yet been granted. He cries to God that if he dies childless, his slave Eliezer of Damascus will be his heir.
This is the part that initially troubles me; that Abram is so reluctant that his servant should receive any of his inheritance. It seems that it is one thing to want offspring, but to be so distraught at the possibility that one who has been forced to serve in your home would receive some inheritance strikes me as cruel. Eliezer is not a child of Abram, but he is a child of God. And yet it seems his only role in this story is to be denied.
Yet the blessing of Abraham’s descendants is to be a blessing to the world. All the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham. Eliezer, too, will be blessed.
If we read only small excerpts from scripture, it can seem as if there are those whom God leaves behind, those whom God favors over others. But taken as a whole, we find that no one is left out. Scripture subverts the idea that God’s favor resides with the powerful; that success and prosperity are the hallmarks of God’s approval. Exodus is the story of God’s liberating love leading slaves out of captivity. Though Eliezer will not inherit directly from Abraham, through Abraham will be blessed by God.
Abram’s fears are quelled by the end of this short passage because he believes the Lord, “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” He is not merely making an intellectual assent to believe in God’s words; he is trusting, despite everything, that God will deliver on God’s promise. That is the trust of intimate relationship, not simply an intellectual affirmation of a fact. Abram’s anxieties are eased by trust. God told Abram not to be afraid, and love is casting out fear. What Abram wants more than anything, God will give in God’s time. The waiting may be hard, but trust is established, and God reckons that to Abram as “righteousness.” In Hebrew, the word for righteousness is ‘tsedek.’ It means both righteousness and justice. True righteousness is about our relationship with God and about our just relationships with other people. Righteousness with God and justice with our fellow human beings go hand in hand. So justice is built on a foundation of trust, on a relationship in which fear gives way to faith. In what other ways might justice prevail if human relations replaced fear of one another with faith in each other?
Treasure to Share, Not Possess
We turn now to the Gospel, where we also begin with Jesus telling his disciples not to fear. He has just told a parable of a rich man who died before he could enjoy what he had horded for himself, and he has contrasted that with the ravens and the lilies, for whom God provides all that is needed. He tells his “little flock” that it is “the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Therefore they are instructed to sell their possessions, give alms, and “make purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
First of all, the nerd in me is thrilled that a quote featured in Harry Potter and the Deathly Halllws falls in the lectionary this week, on the birthday of Ginny Weasley, where Harry’s heart definitely is, no less! (Warning: Harry Potter spoilers ahead!)
Potter fans will recall that the epitaph “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” is etched onto the gravestone of Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore’s mother and sister, respectively. It was Albus who chose this epitaph, to remind himself of what truly matters in life. He lost his sister, Ariana, in part through his own neglect, because he was so busy chasing power and glory that he did not follow through with his responsibilities to his younger siblings after they had lost their parents to death and imprisonment. For Dumbledore, this quote is a reminder to treasure our relationships with the people around us, and to be present to the people who need us. If we treasure wealth or fame or power above all, we will follow those things to the detriment of the people in our lives who need our love and our care. Albus Dumbledore learned this lesson in the most tragic way possible.
Love is the treasure that no thief can steal, no moth can destroy, no decay can wither. We store up love by being present in the lives of others. We store up love in service to those in need. The relationships we forge in this lifetime have lasting effects in the world; the good we can do for each other ripples out from us to touch others. When we value the joy and well-being of one another, we invest in a treasure that never diminishes but only multiplies.
So Jesus tells his disciples to sell all of their possessions and give to the poor; to treasure relationship and service above all else, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He is identifying his flock as children of God and heirs of the kingdom, and therefore they will want for nothing, so they may give everything.
John Lennon told us to “Imagine all the people sharing all the world.” What does it mean to give up possessions? Does it mean we will be left with nothing? What does it mean to possess something, to own something? Are not our greatest treasures not possessions but people, not owned but loved, those who give us their time and their friendship and their support and their love as we also give ours to them? What if all the world was not owned but shared? No sense of owning land, no sense of property, no sense of national boundaries to kill or die for. All that God creates is a gift to us; all that we create is a gift to each other. What if Jesus did not mean, “Go with nothing,” but “Renounce ownership, for the true gifts of this world are not yours to grasp or hoard, but to give and share. Everything of true value need not be possessed, but loved.”
No, I’m not ready to live in a commune or give up all of my possessions. But I find the idea beautiful. When we consider how much rivalry and violence are born of coveting, of wanting to possess for ourselves at the expense of others, we can imagine a world at peace when coveting and competition are replaced with cooperation and communion, when there is no “thing” that we desire more than the delight of one another. In the Kingdom of God, all that has been created in Love is given away. There is no ownership in the Kingdom; only overflowing, generous love.
Finally, Jesus tells us to be “dressed for action,” like slaves waiting for the return of their master.
Again, this may be problematic language to our ears, but Jesus is using the slave /master relationship in order to completely subvert it.
The master who finds slaves ready and alert will throw a banquet in which the servants are served. A “master servant” is completely nonsensical to Jesus’s time… and ours as well! Servants serve; masters command… but Jesus flips this on its head. The “master” is not a domineering tyrant but rather a model for the servants, showing them how to serve by serving them!
The master will reward the servants who are alert, who are ready to serve when the master returns. How do we know when the master returns? Jesus says, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Blessed are those who are ready at all times to see Jesus in those who need our service. Blessed are those who find Christ in the refugee, the prisoner, those whom we may help. We must be constantly prepared to find Christ anywhere, because wherever there is suffering, Christ is in its midst.
For the blessing God gave to Abraham, the blessing we have all inherited, is to be a blessing to the world. We are blessed to serve the world. We are blessed to give ourselves in love, for that is how we live into our image as reflections of the Love in whom we have our being. When we give our hearts in loving service, our treasure overflows.