December 31, 2017 - The Feast of the Holy Family (Part 1)

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying: "Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?" Abram continued, "See, you have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir." Then the word of the LORD came to him: "No, that one shall not be your heir; your own issue shall be your heir." The Lord took Abram outside and said, "Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so," he added, "shall your descendants be." Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

Genesis 15:1-6

This Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  The readings seem to have been chosen for the simple reason that they have a familial theme.   Several alternative readings are offered in the Lectionary.  Two are particularly interesting and I’ll examine the first in this post.

In this passage, Abram is promised innumerable descendants.  Abram takes God literally, but what God is really promising is that from this encounter with God the three major religions will arise:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God’s promise to Abram is of extraordinary importance to all that comes after it.

There is a popular belief that God chooses particularly good and virtuous individuals to be His messengers – people who have used their free will in ways that please God.  But in every case, the text fails to support this notion.

We first hear abut Abram at Genesis 11:27 where it is announced that “Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot.”  The narrative continues, and with broad brushstrokes we are told that Haran dies and Teran moves his family with the intention of settling in the land of Canaan, (which would become the Promised Land).  But when the family arrived at a place coincidentally (?) named Haran, he settled there instead. Suddenly, without any preamble at all, God makes an extraordinary promise to Abram:

“Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And 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 him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

Note that there is no statement about Abram’s righteousness that might inspire God’s reward.  He seems to have been chosen at random. Aside from obeying God’s command to leave, there is little to recommend Abram’s morality in the rest of the narrative.  Fleeing famine, Abram arrives in Egypt.  He hatches a plan to pass his wife, Sarai, off as his sister.  Pharaoh makes Abram a wealthy man to include Sarai in his harem.  God afflicts Pharaoh with plagues and Pharaoh, apparently dismayed by the position Abram’s deceit has placed him in, sends them away. This is a trick Abram and Sarai will play again in Chapter 20, this time on Abimelech, king of Gerar, who pays Abram a fortune to assuage his guilt. God inexplicably repeats his promise of innumerable descendants (Genesis 13: 14-16).  Abram wins a military victory to rescue his cousin, Lot from captivity (the same Lot who escapes Sodom’s destruction only to have children by his own daughters in the very same chapter).  Again, God repeats His promise, which is today’s reading.  The first solid evidence that Abram might be a moral figure is the last line.  Bear in mind that comes after God promises him the same thing three times and after Abram has been nothing but a cad.  

This is the grace that I wrote of in the Advent Series:  God does not reward or punish us depending on how we use our free will.   He rewards us  despite not having free will.  God does not forgive our last bad moral choice.  He ‘forgives’ something much more profound - our inability to make morally autonomous choices in the first place.  Abram is the recipient of an extraordinary promise that is fulfilled not because he was good, but because God is irrationally generous.