What’s your legacy?

The older I get, the more my perspective shifts about what’s important. For example, I’ve taught at the seminary for nearly 35 years now, and I know that it won’t be that long before I retire or transition to “senior” faculty status (how’s that for an official designation?). With every passing year, I care less and less about the so-called “success” of my own career, and more and more about the success of my younger colleagues who come after me. In part, it’s because I’m realistic enough to know that for the most part, my body of work won’t survive me. What matters more, therefore, is supporting the work of those who will carry on our shared mission.

But more than that, it’s also a practical expression of what theologians would call an eschatological perspective — a way of looking at life and the world through the lenses of what the Bible says about our future. I don’t mean speculative theories about the timing of Jesus’ return or interpretations of book of Revelation. Rather, having an eschatological perspective (eschaton is the New Testament word for “end”) means trusting that God will eventually make everything right, even if right now, everything seems wrong. It means trusting that God is still at work even when he seems absent. It means clinging to the hope of a new heaven and earth even when we’re going through living hell.

Having a consistent, future-oriented perspective makes us rethink our priorities and behaviors. Instead of worrying about how to fix the now, we envision what we might contribute to the future, and in particular, God’s future.

We ask the question of legacy.

. . .

Recent posts have dug into the wisdom of Psalm 37, and I want to finish our consideration of the psalm here. The main ideas of the psalm can all be found right up front. God’s people are tempted to give in to envy and anger, because they see wicked people prospering and righteous people suffering. “Don’t fret,” the psalmist says, three times in the first nine verses. Overall, the message is: Trust me, it’s the righteous who will inherit the Promised Land and pass it on to future generations, not the wicked.

On the one hand, eleven times in a psalm of forty verses, the psalmist says in some fashion that the wicked are here today and gone tomorrow. They will wither away like grass or flowers in the hot sun (vss. 2, 20); they will “vanish…like smoke” (vs. 20, NRSV). They, or their children, or their “posterity” will be “cut off” (vss. 9, 22, 28, 34, 38). God laughs at their wicked plans, because he sees “that their day is coming” (vs. 13). Quite simply, the time is coming when the wicked will be “no more” (vss. 10, 36).

On the other hand, God can be counted upon to rescue the righteous, for God does not “forsake his faithful ones” (vs. 28). God will break the weapons of the wicked; indeed even their arms will be broken (vss. 15, 17). He will vindicate his people and make “the justice of [their] cause” shine like the sun (vs. 6).

Most tenderly, even if the righteous stumble, they won’t fall and hurt themselves, because God holds them by the hand (vs. 24). The psalm thus ends on a hopeful note: “The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in time of trouble. The LORD helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them, because they take refuge in him” (vss. 39-40).

The righteous, in other words, have a future, even if the present looks bleak. The opposite is true of the wicked: their present prosperity masks a bleak future. The righteous will leave a legacy to future generations; the wicked will not.

But it’s not just a legacy of land. It also seems to be a legacy of character.

. . .

At one point, with a wisdom saying that sounds like it was taken straight from the book of Proverbs, the psalmist writes, “The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving” (vs. 21). If this were meant to be just a straight contrast between two kinds of people, we might expect the second part to read, “but the righteous always pay back what they borrow.” Instead, the psalmist’s words may imply the two sides of a relationship: one keeps taking, the other keeps giving.

Some scholars even imagine that the wicked and the righteous may belong to the same community; there are those among God’s people who do not live according to God’s way. If so, that helps explain what otherwise might sound like an odd saying just a few verses later:

I have been young, and now am old,
    yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
    or their children begging bread.
They are ever giving liberally and lending,
    and their children become a blessing.
(vss. 25-26)

This probably does not mean, “I’ve been around for a long time, and the righteous never go hungry.” Rather, it means that the righteous have a reputation within the community for being generous, and when they have a need, others in the community respond. There is no need for the children to beg. And having grown up in such a family, with parents of such character, the children in turn will become a blessing to the community as well.

Things may be all wrong in the present, and we have every reason to pray for God to rescue us from our troubles. But we must always remember: the premise of righteousness is that we cherish God’s Instruction and hold it within our hearts. We want God’s way to be our way. We don’t just want our lives to go well, we want our lives to be pleasing to him.

And with that perspective, we can see our current troubles a little differently. The question is no longer just “When will this end?” or “When is God going to do something about this?”

The question is, “What kind of a legacy am I leaving with my response?”

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