When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
Genesis 17:1-2 (NRSV)
You may have noticed that I think about most things through the lens of relationships. That is how I make sense of the world. My relationship with God, with you, with others, even my relationship with myself, are all important ways that I understand the world around me. For example, when I hear the creation story in Genesis, I hear the importance of relationships. We are created in God’s image, and God exists in the eternal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. Then we hear of the importance of Adam being in relationship with another human being. To which God’s answer is to create Eve.
The tricky part about relationships is that there is often a power differential in our relationships. Even in marriage, which is intended to be a partnership, there are times at which one partner has more power than the other. That is the way the world works. However, in healthy relationships there is a sense of safety in spite of those power differences. For example, there is an obvious power difference between God and me, but I know that God is safe, that I can trust God, therefore the difference in power isn’t a problem.
Throughout the Bible we see story after story of covenantal relationships. Over time, however, we have tended to replace the idea of covenant, with the similar (but different) idea of contract. If you’re like me, you have tended to use those two words as synonyms of one another. But, there are some distinct differences in what they mean. In our daily lives we deal more in terms of contracts. Covenant is not a common phrase anymore. We hear covenantal language used in church and around weddings, but not many other places. We think of the New Covenant to which Jesus refers in the Last Supper. We may even think of God’s covenant with Abraham. But mostly we deal with contracts. We hire contractors to help us with building projects. We sign contracts for our cell phones. We may even have a contract at our place of employment.
So what is the difference? And, more importantly, does it matter? I believe it does matter, greatly. And I believe a brief description of the differences between covenant and contract will help us see why. Scott Hahn writes this about the difference between a covenant and a contract: “Contractual relations usually exchange property, exchange goods and services, whereas covenants exchange persons. So, when people enter into a covenant, they say, ‘I am yours and you are mine.’ So, God uses the covenant to enter into a relationship with those whom he created in his own image: humanity and all human persons.”
A contract exchanges things, while a covenant exchanges people. Think about it this way, a marriage is a covenant where two people exchange themselves for one another. Slavery, on the other hand, is a contract where a human being is treated as an object. We believe slavery is wrong because humans are not objects, we are created in God’s image, we are people, not things.
Notice that there can be a power differential in a covenant. God’s covenant with Abraham doesn’t make Abraham equal to God. But in a covenant, the “other” (regardless of the power dynamics) is treated with love and respect. Isn’t that what we all want? To be treated lovingly and respectfully. Don’t we all want to be like the little child who Jesus calls to sit on his lap? Jesus is showing a covenantal relationship while the Disciples are busy thinking in contracts and shooing the child away.
This idea of covenant is essential to our lives together in the church. When we join the community of faith, the Body of Christ, we do so in covenant. We build a relationship with the Bride of Christ. We don’t simply purchase a seat at the table, or salvation, or a vote, or anything else. We covenant with God. We covenant with one another. We even covenant with the wider church, at the denominational level.
When thinking about my relationships, I want to know if my relationships are covenants or contracts. Because, I like being a person and not an object. My prayer for us, as a community of faith, is that we foster covenantal relationships of love and respect, in every aspect of our lives. I truly believe thinking about covenant can transform the way we live in the world, and is a powerful witness of God’s work in our lives.