2nd Sunday of Lent (B)
To say the story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult is a grave understatement. Abraham was a man whose longstanding personal relationship with Yahweh had developed over time through a series of tests and trials [see Genesis 12-22] and included a promise that he would father a great nation. Abraham had learned that Yahweh was trustworthy and kept promises; therefore he had no reason to doubt. But then he was asked to offer up his firstborn son to prove his worthiness. If a great nation was to come from this one man, his total commitment must be guaranteed. What better test than to ask for what was most precious to him? Recall that in Abraham’s day human sacrifice was not uncommon. Also, recall that Abraham was prevented at the last minute from carrying out the sacrifice. He had passed the final test and became the father of the Hebrew nation.
Still, that happy ending does not change the fact the entire story line is unsettling and gruesome. What kind of loving god would ask such a thing as a test of one’s faith? What if Abraham had objected? Maybe he did, but followed through nonetheless. We don’t know because the scripture does not tell us. Verses 3-8 which are omitted from today’s reading render an unemotional narrative of Abraham going through the motions: cutting the wood he would use, locating the place where the sacrifice would take place, arranging for there to be no witnesses, and carrying the fire and the knife that he would use to slaughter his son. Each step of the way the tension mounts, and Isaac’s innocent question about the animal they would sacrifice slowly reveals the horror of what is about to take place. The reader asks, “Is this really going to happen, is this what God wants?
Abraham’s anguish over what he thought he was being asked to do was not as important as his absolute knowledge that God is trustworthy. Surely he was confused and likely devastated by God’s request, but had personal knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness. This is the paradox of faith: the willingness to surrender what is most precious ultimately reveals the bounty of what has been promised.
What does God expect from us? The the story is telling. At the very last minute Yahweh sends a messenger to stop Abraham, saying, “Do not lay your hand on that boy, do not do the least thing to him.” The message can be understood two ways. First, although we can’t fully understand God’s plan we need to trust that God truly has our best interests in mind. Our faith tells us this is true. Our commitment comes from our willingness to listen and say “Yes, Lord” especially in times of extreme difficulty. Second, acts of violence are entirely in opposition to God’s plan for creation. God’s message is “Stop the violence!” Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue explains: “In reading this story we recognize the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will. Therefore the lesson for this time has got to be, we all have to come together to end war and stop the violence and stop the sacrifice and stop the killing.”
As an evangelizing people our witness to the Good News must reflect both of these points with a trusting commitment to God and an active commitment to peace.
ART: Section from Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. 1635