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Giving Thanks for God’s Blessings

November 7, 2012

Feasts (like Thanksgiving), as well as common meals, are times when religious people give thanks for their “many blessings.” Often in mind are the abundant blessings we enjoy in the U.S.; we think God has blessed us in exceptional ways.

The problem with this kind of thinking and praying is that it is based on the Old Testament, not the New Testament. It is biblical, but is not according to the new blessings Jesus brings. For example, God’s covenant with Moses and the kingdom of Israel was that if they obeyed the commands of that covenant, God would bless them with a bountiful land (the promised land), bountiful crops, and bountiful families and health. If they disobeyed, however, God would curse them with exile from the land. (And this covenant was for Israel, not other nations, like our country.)

Part of the emphasis of the Gospel of Matthew’s genealogy in Mt. 1:1-17 is the “deportation,” the exile, of Israel to Babylon (1:11-12,17). The fourteen generations from king David to the deportation are introduced in Mt. 1:6 by the birth of Solomon to David “by the wife of Uriah” (whom David killed in order to take his wife). So those generations of mostly disobedience led to God’s curse: exile.

In Mt. 23:35-39 Jesus says due to all the blood shed by Israel’s rulers (especially the blood of the prophets, in 23:29-30), that final generation will be forsaken (by God) and left desolate. In Mt. 24:2,15-20 Jesus describes this desolation that will come on Israel, including destruction of the temple; in 24:34, he says that generation will not pass away until all these things take place; Jesus is referring to the final curse against Israel and Jerusalem, a curse that did take place within that generation, around AD 70 (when Rome punished a rebellious Israel).

In contrast, Jesus begins his ministry by announcing the arrival of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. In this kingdom, Jesus will rule and give new commands and blessings (and curses); in this kingdom, the blessings are not a bountiful land, crops, families, and health. The “wealth and health gospel” is found only in the old covenant. In Jesus’ new covenant, he blesses his poor disciples, for they will be his new kingdom (Lk. 6:20; Mt. 5:3).

John the Baptist points forward to the special blessing the new king will give to his new kingdom: he will baptize with the Spirit (Mt. 3:11). When Jesus approaches John to be baptized, John wants to be the first one baptized by Jesus (with the Spirit); instead Jesus is baptized by John–and then the Spirit descends from heaven (anointing him as the new king) and the voice from heaven announces him as the Son of God (3:14-17). The kingdom from heaven has begun.

The new king is then led into the wilderness by the Spirit, and is hungry for forty days; the evil spirit (Satan) tempts him to abandon this kind of kingship and become another king of the earth, whether in Israel or over all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus refuses these kingdoms of earth, including Israel, and begins to announce the beginning of the kingdom of heaven. In “Galilee of the Gentiles,” the light has dawned; a new kingdom that will include Gentiles–as well as some Jews–has begun (4:1-17).

The first blessing Jesus promises his disciples is the kingdom of (and from) heaven (5:1-3). This blessing is for disciples who are the “poor in the Spirit” (a better translation than “poor in spirit” since the Greek article is found before the word for spirit and so far in Matthew the spirit has always been the Holy Spirit). These first disciples have left their families and businesses (in 4:18-22) to follow this poor “king.” For now, Jesus is the only one who has the Spirit, which has led him into the wilderness, into the way of lowly, suffering kingship. But in the future, Jesus will do as John predicted and baptize with the Spirit; then his disciples will also be the “poor in the Spirit,” and be willing participants in this very different kingdom from heaven. That Spirit and that kingdom are the main blessings; and the fruit of that Spirit is not wealth and prosperity and power (as the disciples themselves first expected), but the sacrificial kind of love that sells earthly treasures and gives to the poor–and thus has treasure in heaven, the source of all their blessings.

Those of us who are more rich (compared to most of the world) are thus called to become rich in good deeds, giving generously and joyfully, which in turn leads us in the direction of poverty (though not necessarily destitution, the lowest form of poverty). For the rich young ruler (in Lk. 18:18-30) this was impossible; but what is impossible with men is possible with God; thus the rich tax collector Zacchaeus (in Lk. 19:1-10) welcomes Jesus and gives half of his goods to the poor, and repays fourfold those he defrauded.

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