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045  Your Reward Will Be Great

Merry Christmas, all, and Happy Hannukah.

It's always puzzled me how Jesus arrived at the truths he taught by studying the Old Testament. A lot of the time it does not sound like he's quoting Old Testament theology. But I've discovered that very often he really is. 

I found this little nugget while I was preparing a sermon about tithing a few years ago. It starts with the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, where Jesus teaches his disciples: 

"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men." Luke 6:27-28,35

Where does the Old Testament say that, you ask? I think Jesus gleaned that from reading about Father Abraham.

In Genesis 14 we're told a story about how some major kings from the area we now call Iran came to exact tribute from all over the fertile crescent, including kings in the area where Abraham lived. Some of the western kings refused to pay, and in the war that followed Abraham's nephew Lot was taken captive along with his family.

Abraham was a fairly powerful king in his own right, though. He already had a trained army formed from the men of his own household and aided by his Amorite neighbors, Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner. Abraham took his small army and traveled about 200 miles to rescue Lot, pursuing his captors past Damascus.

When he returned from rescuing Lot, Abraham had in his possession all the goods from all the towns that the Iranian kings had captured. By Bronze Age rules, he was entitled to keep all those goods, and also to keep all the captured people as his slaves or vassals. And in a very real sense, since those foreign kings that he'd beaten were the dominant powers in the Ancient Near East at the time, Abraham had every right to call himself the ruling king of the known world.

But that's not what he did. What happened when he returned from rescuing Lot has three incidents, and they're all connected with each other:

(1) Malchizedek, priest of El Elyon, blessed Abraham, and Abraham tithed to Malchizedek.
(2) The king of Sodom bargained with Abraham to get his people back, but Abraham unexpectedly returned all of Sodom's goods to the king of Sodom.
(3) God declared that He would be Abraham's provider, and that all the nations would be blessed in him.

The first and third incidents are the two sides of a suzerainty pact. "Suzerainty" refers to a pact made between a greater king and a lesser one. The lesser king pays homage and protection money to the greater king, and in return the greater king agrees to protect the lesser king. In the Middle Ages this would have been called "fealty." In this case, God was the greater king, and Abraham the lesser.

Malchizedek, as priest, was representing "El Elyon," which means "the Most High God." He informs Abraham that he'd succeeded in conquering all those kings because of the blessing of El Elyon. Malchizedek specifies further that this is the God who owns all of heaven and earth. Most gods in the Bronze Age were local and tribal and ruled within limited areas, but Malchizedek's God was ruler everywhere. Abraham had come to that part of the world on the command of a God who claimed to own land everywhere, so he recognized this El Elyon as the God who had been leading him.

So Abraham declared his fealty to El Elyon by tithing to him in the person of Malchizedek (Gen 14:20b). The tithe was the king's portion in the ancient world; you can see echos of this in Samuel's description of what a king would demand of the Israelites in I Samuel 8 (vv. 15, 17).

Abraham describes this in verse 22 as having "sworn to YHWH El Elyon who owns heaven and earth". The nature of his oath had to do with provision and protection; we know this because of what they said to each other. Abraham said that he was trusting YHWH El Elyon to provide for his needs, so consequently he did not want to take even a thread from the King of Sodom (vv 22-24). And God responded to Abraham, "I will be your shield," which is what the greater king said to the vassal king in a suzerainty agreement. He went further to assure Abraham that he would not be sorry to have accepted His protection: "Your reward will be very great." (Gen 15:1) The reward turns out to be the deepest cry of Abraham's heart, the desire for sons; and God promises more sons than Abraham can count.

The king of Sodom came to Abraham to bargain for his life (v. 21). He didn't know what Abraham was going to do with him or his people--make them slaves to cut wood and carry water, sacrifice them to his gods, or whatever. So he pleaded with Abraham, "Just let us go. You can keep all our stuff." But Abraham did something unexpected; he gave up all the wealth to which he was entitled. He'd sworn to make YHWH his source, so he told the king of Sodom, "Keep your stuff." 

By doing so Abraham saved numerous lives. The "stuff" included Sodom's food supply, v. 11. If Abraham had kept all the stuff, the Sodomites would have had to raid surrounding towns to steal food for the entire next year, or they would have starved to death. So Abraham actually prevented a year's worth of murderous raiding by being generous.

By trusting God completely and giving Him his full devotion, Abraham was able to treat material goods as secondary. His level of trust in YHWH gave him liberty to be generous with the king of Sodom.

So, what does this have to do with Jesus' teaching? 

For starters, we can see the story echoed in Jesus' teaching about serving two masters, Matthew 6:24 and surrounding. The whole of Matthew 6 is about looking to God rather than man for all sorts of provision: approval, reward, food, clothing, and so on. Jesus echoed Abraham's choice: do you want to be God's vassal, or do you want Sodom to make you rich? Are you serving God, or Mammon?

But Jesus got even more out of the story. He saw Abraham's kindness to the king of Sodom as reflecting the character of the Father. He recognized that the king of Sodom was a wicked man (the destruction of Sodom was just 3 chapters away in Genesis), but God blessed him through Abraham's generosity. So Jesus taught what I quoted at the beginning of this message: "Do good to those who hate you. Lend to those who can't pay you back. Be like your Father." 

How do we know that Jesus got that teaching from Abraham? Look at what he said will be the result: "Your reward will be very great, and you will be sons of El Elyon." (Luke 6:35) This is the only place in the gospels where Jesus used "the Most High" as the title for God. That's El Elyon in Greek. And he echoed God's side of the pact to Abraham: "Your reward will be very great." His message was "If you do what Abraham did, you'll get what Abraham got."

I'm pretty impressed with the man who can read Genesis 14 and 15 and glean from it that God's nature is do good to those who hate him. Apparently, though, that sort of content is available to us in the Old Testament if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. Jesus showed us the way to getting it--not to mention that Jesus actually gave us the resulting teaching in the New Testament. 

But in particular we should glean from Abraham how to approach God will the full measure of devotion. That's what He wants from us--that we should trust Him completely to supply us everything we need, which leaves us free to do good to those around us. So let's make that a goal for the coming year: devotion to God that permits us to leave all other sources of protection behind us.

Is 2017 over already? I'll be back next year with more.

Phil Weingart


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