Genesis 13:2, 5-18
Matthew 7:6, 12-14
Offering compliments to others can be variously motivated. We can do so to gain favor with another, even should we stretch the truth a bit in our comments to someone. But we can also do so in genuine admiration of a person’s gifts or talents. Especially in this case we can "make his or her day", by reminding such a one of the blessings adorning one’s life.
When we listen to the ongoing travels of Abraham, ever deeper into the land promised him by God, we’re able to appreciate how he has been gifted by God. Though he has indeed made an ostensible sacrifice of his own life plans, as a result of the encounter he has had with God, he has accumulated his blessings: was he not already rich in livestock, silver and gold, thanks to his own diligence and shrewdness? But all this is to pale before what accrues to him as he journeys into a new land, along with Lot, his kinsman. A vast territory falls into his lap, comparable in size to the furthest extent of what he can see to the north, south, east and west. And the dust covering this land, could it be calculated, indicates the number of Abraham’s offspring that will eventually populate it. All of this suggests the giftedness he has received from God.
This scenario presents helpful contrast with the gospel of the day, couched in the language of commandments: which commandment in the law is the greatest, asks the Pharisee? And Jesus courteously obliges the questioner by responding that love is the greatest commandment: love of God, and then He adds, by way of bonus, another commandment: and love of neighbor, and of oneself as well.
Now, should we confine ourselves to this issue of "commandment", we find ourselves in a familiar ethical context, since ethics frequently centers on laws and precepts. It reminds us of what we are obliged to do, under penalty of violating the law, and suffering the consequence of doing so. And we are occasionally troubled by the pressure of a law, even to do something as commendable as loving God, self and neighbor, should it be that we are not minded to do so on a given occasion.
But let us try working ourselves out of the context of the gospel to the point where we can bring to bear the bigger picture provided by the account in Genesis. There we move in a different setting than commandments and obligations, and find ourselves before blessings and gifts. We are presented with a man, our father in faith, who has been richly endowed with benefits bestowed on him by God. There is no question here of a victimization mindset in Abraham at having to leave his homeland and travel to a new place (did God suggest or command this?). He is now mesmerized by what he sees as he looks about and realizes that all on which he gazes is pure gift. He has no sense of being "put upon" before such generosity on his behalf. It’s not a question of command ethics; it’s one of "good news" theology.
This was the mindset of Aloysius Gonzaga, the young Jesuit scholastic, memorialized today as a saint for the sacrifice he made, like Abraham, of leaving behind family pedigree and wealth, so as to be free to do what he could not have done as a young nobleman: serve the sick and dying. He gladly did so, not to keep a law, but to embrace the gift (of a calling) bestowed on him by God, much as Abraham did. Aloysius died doing so, and, in the process, fulfilling the law to love one’s neighbor. Let us appreciate our blessings, moving beyond precepts and laws in virtue of the impetus received from God’s blessings in our life, comparable in abundance "to the dust of the earth".
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.