March 1, 2015
Second Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Have you ever hung on to something that you didn’t really need? Baseball cards, knick-knacks, old papers, souvenirs. Stuff sometimes seems to accumulate of its own accord. We think we own it, but it can come to own us. We often don’t realize how much of a hold our stuff has on us until disaster strikes: our car is repossessed or we lose our house to a natural disaster. Our attachment to stuff reveals a chink in our armor, a flaw that has the potential to expand until it hurts us. In this Sunday’s first reading, Abraham comes face to face with his own attachment to things, which only God can pry his fingers from.
The Binding of Isaac
The story we read in Genesis 22 is called the “binding of Isaac,” since Abraham binds his son with a rope before placing him on the altar of sacrifice (Gen 22:9). Often in Jewish circles it is simply referred to as the Akedah, the “binding.” The story is straightforward: God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son who had been promised by God and miraculously born of Sarah in her old age. Abraham obeys unhesitatingly. Just before the sacrificial killing is about to occur, the Lord’s angel stops Abraham and acknowledges that his faith is authentic: “Now I know that you fear God” (22:12).
Is It Child Abuse?
While the power of the story impresses us, sometimes we can tilt our heads a bit and wonder how on earth the God of love would come up with such an awful command. It seems like child abuse, even if Abraham doesn’t go through with the killing. Since this passage follows the story of Isaac’s birth in the previous chapter, it is easy to think that he is a small child at the time, but one detail can escape us: Isaac carries the wood up the mountain (22:6). Isaac must be old enough to carry the wood and we know that Abraham is an old man by this point in the story, 100 years old at least (21:5). It is very possible that Isaac could have overpowered Abraham. Jewish tradition holds that Isaac was 36 or 37 years old at the time, based on the age of Sarah (Gen 17:17; 23:1). If Isaac is an adult at the time of the Akedah, then he presents himself as an obedient and willing victim.
The Bible forbids human sacrifice (Lev 18:21; Jer 7:31). Why would God command it here? Perhaps the command has two aims: first, it is clearly a test of Abraham’s faith (22:1), but second, God might be challenging Abraham’s own cultural conditioning. Maybe God wants to teach Abraham not only to trust him, but also that human sacrifice is diametrically opposed to his will. Abraham does not object to the command, nor does Isaac. Abraham is prepared to commit the fatal act, which is actually opposed to God’s wishes for humanity. Many ancient peoples engaged in human sacrifice as a way to relating to the gods, but the Lord wants to dramatically eliminate that tendency from Abraham’s heart. What better way than this?
But thankfully, God is not going to use such an extreme method to teach us what we need to learn from this passage. Abraham’s test of faith demonstrates his attachments. It would have been easy for him to idolize his son, Isaac: the child of promise, the heir, the future. God doesn’t want him to be attached to the gift, but to the giver. By leading him through the treacherous episode of near-sacrifice, God weans Abraham from his human attachment. We too have “attachments”—not physical, but spiritual connections, dependencies, crutches. God wants to free us from those things whether they be bad habits or not. Whenever we find ourselves depending on something other than God, we need some freedom. God wants us to depend wholly on him. That does not mean we are supposed to be irresponsible, but that we do our work, take care of what is entrusted to us, but offer it all back to him and realize that it is all a gift from him. While not all of us are called to radical poverty, all of us are called to poverty in spirit (Matt 5:3).
The Real Sacrifice
Of course, the near-sacrifice of Isaac also prefigures another son, on another mountain, carrying wood up for another sacrifice. Christians find a foreshadowing of Good Friday in the Akedah. But rather than receiving a last-minute substitute, Jesus himself, the pure lamb of God, is sacrificed on the altar of the Cross. In fact, his willing sacrifice stands at the center of the mystery of our redemption. Jesus was crucified, not because of the local politics in a backwater province of the Roman empire, but for the sins of the whole world. He died so that we may live. Even though his sacrifice is the ultimate tragedy, the killing of God, it does not end in sadness. Jesus might not get an eleventh hour switch like Isaac, but instead he accomplishes something much greater. Through his death, he defeats death. He rises again to die no more. All of us are invited to participate in his sacrificial death, but also to participate in his resurrection.
Next time you sort through your old clothes or clean out the basement, you might think back to Abraham’s test. What would it be like to be so profoundly tried by God? Thank goodness, Abraham passed the test! Even better than that, Jesus defeated the test and we can take part in his triumph by grace. With his help, we can shake off those pesky earthly things that attach themselves to us. Letting go and letting ourselves trust in God is something we will never regret.