God wants to bless you! Or does he?

I like the church that we go to. I like its exuberance and energy and robust conviction that God is a living, dynamic, transformative, communicating, healing presence in the midst of the community. But you have to wonder about the hermeneutics sometimes.

We were told this last Friday in what was, in many respects, really a quite challenging sermon about prayer, that God wants to pour out abundant blessings on those who love him or ask him. Reference was made to Deuteronomy 28:1-14. The Lord will set you high above the nations; blessed will be the fruit of your womb, of your ground, of your cattle and flocks, your basket, your kneading bowl; you will lend to other people and not need to borrow; the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and so on. All you have to do is ask or believe… or something along those lines.

That’s a rough paraphrase from memory. The bit about the head and the tail (Deut. 28:13) stuck in my mind because it is an example of how in Scripture (and indeed in Hellenistic literature generally prior to the New Testament) the metaphor of ‘headship’ denotes something other than ‘authority’, which of course is relevant for interpretation for passages in which Paul speaks of the man as ‘head’ of the woman. But that’s another story.

The point here is that I’m pretty sure the clear and repeated conditions for divine blessing in this passage were not mentioned: if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God… if you obey the voice of the Lord your God… if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways… if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them…. There is nothing here about asking for blessing or trusting for blessing.

And certainly nothing was said about the remaining 53 verses of the chapter, in which the people are warned in no uncertain terms that if they fail to obey the voice of the Lord their God, the blessings will wither before their eyes and become rotten, blackened curses. They will suffer famine, sterility, disease, pestilence, military defeat, invasion, siege, subjugation, and exile, culminating in the threat of being returned to captivity: ‘And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer’ (Deut. 28:68).

It seems to me that if we are going to claim for ourselves these sort of material promises, we should pay closer attention to the terms and conditions. It is characteristic of modern church culture that much is said about love and acceptance and trust and blessing, and very little is said about honesty or integrity or justice or righteousness. This may be another reason why the church should fear competition from Islam: we know a great deal about grace and very little about the disciplines of right behaviour.

If, on the other hand, we wish to assert our freedom from the requirements of the Law, then what right do we have pursuing the benefits of Torah-righteousness? Faith for Jesus’ disciples was merely the start of a long, arduous, self-denying, cross-bearing walk along a narrow road leading to life.

It would then be a legitimate question to ask what in concrete terms that ‘life’ was to be. We are not direct actors in the austere eschatological narrative of the New Testament any more than we are Jews living under the jurisdiction of Torah. But again, that is another story.

For now, at least, we should pause to consider whether we really know what we’re doing when we edit scripture down to all the marvellous windfalls of God’s grace and leave the context and caveats and curses on the cutting-room floor. How often do we hear the promises of Isaiah proclaimed with no indication whatsoever that they were made to a people that would have to go through the horrors of war and deportation on account of their persistent failure to live up to the standards of righteousness that should have set them apart from the nations?

Yes, eventually the salvation and justification of this stiff-necked people came through faith in the way of Jesus, but this was a way to fulfil the requirements of the Law, not to circumvent them:

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Rom. 6:12-14)

It seems to me a quite serious mistake – even allowing for the fact that we are a community saved by grace, through faith (Eph. 2:8) – to promise the goodness of God without, somewhere along the way, asking, first, what the conditions for not being blessed might be, and secondly, what the consequences of not meeting those conditions might be.

". . . we know a great deal about grace and very little about the disciplines of right behaviour."

Well said.  I readily agree with the overall thrust of what you're saying here.  I wonder if the blessing idea (originating in Gen 12) would help the discussion here.  The covenant people are supposed to be a 'blessing people' in the sense that they are to perpetuate the blessing of God upon creation, not simply heap it upon themselves.

And, yes, without the disciplines of the faith we are simply living the way we want to (sometimes dubbed, 'worshipping God in our own special way') and then asking God to give HIS blessing on OUR lackluster efforts.  

Doesn't the Deuteronomic code speak within the context of God's blessing upon Israel in order for Israel to be a blessing upon the whole world?

I wholeheartedly agree with you, Andrew. 

The appropriate missiological / theological backdrop to understanding "the blessing of God" is the new covenant, which itself can only be understood in the light of the narratives of the Abrahamic, Sinaic and Davidic covenants. Covenant is a binding obligation, formed between two parties (even if initiated by one). Blessings and curses are the consequence associated with the keeping or breaching of that covenant relationship, typically sealed with an oath.

With covenant as the foundation, it is also possible to escape the unhelpful dichotomy between (a) faith and works  — by a focus upon "covenant faithfulness," i.e. faith as life lived in faithfulness to covenant relationship, including a system for dealing with 'minor' breaches (b) law and grace — by a recognition that both Torah and the Spirit are both given to teach and guide the covenant communities, both forms of grace, both evidences of the bonds of covenant.

How that translates in the new covenant, mediated by Y'shua, Jesus, is, of course, where this fresh (ly understood, ancient) paradigm for "faith" becomes interesting.

What indeed, is required of one who would claim to be a faithful member of the new covenant community? In the first century and now? What is the consequence of claiming to be a member of that covenant community whilst deliberately scorning faithfulness to the covenant? Then and now?

Good comments. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that the church – not least the charismatic church – has adopted a model of living by the Spirit that was developed originally to function within the narrow eschatological dimensions of the New Testament. The church in the New Testament is gifted by the Spirit to exist as close-knit prophetic communities that must negotiate the very difficult transition from Second Temple Judaism to an established internationalism.

But just as ancient Israel had to make the transition from the constraints of the Exodus wanderings to the freedom and prosperity of the promised land, so the early church made the journey from persecution to social and political legitimacy. Under conditions of freedom, if the Spirit is to take the place of Torah in the formation of community, it cannot be restricted to the eschatological pattern of the New Testament but must encompass the fulness of living as God’s new creation. And if we are again on a journey, again in exile, again marginalized and constrained, it is because we have failed to bear concrete and prophetic witness to the full goodness of created life.

The church in the New Testament is gifted by the Spirit to exist as close-knit prophetic communities that must negotiate the very difficult transition…if we are again on a journey, again in exile, again marginalized and constrained…

My own perspective on the vocational, missional call of the church to covenantal faithfulness has been profoundly influenced and coloured by exposure to the African church, in particular. Their experience of faith and reading of the New Testament—once they escaped the cloistered readings of the Western missionary influence, with the waning of colonial influence—is one in which there is a ready identification with the call to faithfulness out of an experience of innate poverty, vulnerability, suffering and cultural marginalisation.

While the Western church is still a long way from such an innate experience (and moreover, elements of the African church are  moving away from such innate vulnerability, increasingly exhibiting signs of being "the head and not the tail" within their own societies), you seem to allow that the Western church's journey into a fresh (cultural?) exile could now allow it to re-identify with the original narrow NT narratives afresh. Would you agree with this?

That being so, just at a time when theologically, the emerging church and theologians such as NT Wright and others, including yourself, are encouraging us to see more clearly the call to express the "full goodness of created life" and "new creation" in-breaking into the old, it seems that culturally those options may increasingly seem to be denied to a church-on-the-margins, since, even though it be "free," it is socially ostracised.

If we take the example of Christian art and  music, its representation from the margins of society and culture are likely to be very different to what it might have potentially exhibited were it occupying the central ground that you seem to imply could have been (ought to be?) its legacy…if only it had been faithful, prophetically and concretely.

Which returns us, its seems to me, to the concept of the microcosm, that you have promoted: The church must rediscover its vocation to be an expression of the "full good of created life" in microcosm, a community-within-communities that is uniquely blessed…in order to be a blessing to other and wider communities and peoples, through exhibiting and pointing to the hospitable shalom of the kingdom of God, which is, in fact, available to all who are open to covenant relationship with the Creator God.

If I understand you correctly, this is your concern. That in being increasingly marginalised culturally, the Western church resist the temptation to re-identify itself overly with the persecuted NT church, in its trials and struggles and instead recognise its place within the broader covenantal narratives of Scripture, including its vocation to exhibit powerfully what it means to be a covenant community, blessed to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.

If this is indeed the page we are on, it seems that it is the tension of the vocational, missional, covenantal call to "be a blessing to the peoples of the earth" is the key component. Without this tension, the Christian community either becomes turned in on itself and overly concerned with its cultural marginalisation and, or with its prosperity. With this element firmly in place missiologically, marginalisation is no longer seen as a judgement, per se, but an opportunity to act subversively, swiftly, without the constrains of cultural acceptability AND prosperity is seen as an responsibility to reach out to others and "share the shalom"!