Bless, blessing, blessed. These are such common words in the Bible and in conversation. They are also words than carry big concepts. Concepts that shape how we understand the world and God’s presence in it. So how do we start to get some sort of understanding of what these words mean? One place, of course, is the dictionary.
The definitions overlap and yet there are also a variety of meanings within each definition. Each of these words can be something we do, something we ask or something we receive, something we give. God can be involved, or not. Context and the intent of the speaker matter. The dictionary really didn’t clear much up for me. How are we supposed to use this word? What does it really mean?
When you read the Bible, it seems to me that Israel and the early Christians had the same problem. It’s one of several big conversations we find in the Bible, along with “What is salvation?”, “What is God like?”, “What do bad things happen?” What does it mean to be blessed, to be a blessing, to bless? The text goes back and forth on these questions. The people of God have always debated and wrestled with these questions.
If we step back and try to look at the big picture, can we gain some clarity? I think so. Our first clue about blessing comes early, when God blesses Abram.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:1-3)
Here, we may be tempted to think that God’s blessing is about making Abram into a great nation and making his name great. But if we read carefully, the blessing is about something different than fame and wealth. It’s repeated, which is our clue that it is important. “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” and “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Abram is blessed not simply because God wants Abram to have land, descendants and wealth. Abram is blessed so that through that blessing everyone else is blessed. The blessing is for others. Abram is to extend the blessing by what he does.
This is a remarkable charge to Abram. This is not how tribes, and kingdoms, and empires act. In the Bible, we find Israel struggling with the idea that they don’t exist simply for themselves and their own well being. In the “real world” tribes, and kingdoms, and empires exist for their own well being. Actually they existed for the well being of the royalty and elites. The well being of peasants didn’t matter to the elites as long as the peasants healthy enough to grow food and do work for them.
All of us, from kings to peasants look and round and see that there is only so much land in the world. Only so many resources. Only so much rain. What if I don’t have enough [ fill in the blank] because you have some also?
God sees something else. God’s intention, right from the start, is that there is enough. Abram’s blessing isn’t supposed to stop with Abram and his family. Abram is charged to pass on the blessing. There is enough so that Abram, can share the blessing. There is enough.
Abram, if you read his story, struggles with this. He’s only human. We all fear being hungry, enslaved, homeless. The nation of Israel struggles with this. They have Torah and later the prophets to help them remember how to live generously, blessing each other. But it is hard. Israel gets confused and thinks the blessing means God likes them best. They worry that there is not enough for everyone. They worry that some other nation will be bigger, stronger, wealthier.
All these centuries latter, we worry about the same things. Is there enough? Will someone take what is ours away? We get is so wrong that Jesus has to take a few loaves and fish and feed the multitude. But our fear runs deep. The disciples see Jesus feed everyone and they still don’t believe. We so misunderstand how blessing works and what it means to be blessed that Jesus has to preach the shocking and bizarre Sermon on the Mount.
I wonder. What blessing do you have, do I have that we are supposed to share? What blessing does our city have, our state, our nation? What if we lived to share our blessing? What could the world look like?