Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent
Readings: Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Pslam 115 (116):10, 15-19; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10
28 February 2021
Today’s first reading is truly shocking. I’ve usually managed to avoid preaching on it. But I think the time has come to give it a go. God decides to put Abraham to the test. God commands Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah where you are to offer him as a burnt offering.” If this came to our attention today, we would immediately report to the police and seek psychiatric help for the father, committing the child to the state welfare authorities.
Let’s remember that in the story, Abraham has already undergone quite a number of tests in a long life. When originally called by Yahweh at the age of 75, he was ordered to leave his country, his kindred and his father’s house for an undisclosed destination on the promise ‘I shall make you a great nation’. Abraham and his childless wife Sarah set off for the land of Canaan.
After 10 years living in Canaan, Sarah agreed to Abraham having sexual relations with her Egyptian slave girl Hagar. Hagar fell pregnant. Needless to say, the old power relationship between Sarah and Hagar changed significantly, and not to Sarah’s liking. Sarah complained to Abraham, ‘I count for nothing in her eyes.’ Abraham gave permission for Sarah to treat Hagar however she pleased. Sarah treated Hagar so badly that she fled. The patriarchy and class exploitation in the scene are chilling. An angel then appeared to Hagar urging her to return and submit to Sarah. The angel made a promise which is all too familiar to us Christians who know the story of Mary’s annunciation: ‘You have conceived and will bear a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for Yahweh has heard your cries of distress.’ When the boy was 13-years-old, Yahweh made a covenant with the 99-year-old Abraham and Abraham circumcised the boy and all the males in the household.
A year later, the aged Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Sarah could not bear the sight of the 14-year-old Ishmael playing with her treasured baby son. Sarah insisted that Ishmael and his mother be banished. Abraham was greatly distressed but Yahweh said to him, “Do not distress yourself on account of the boy and your slave-girl. Do whatever Sarah wants, for Isaac is the one through whom your name will be carried on. But the slave girl’s son I shall make into a great nation, for he too is your child.”
So here we are some time later, and Yahweh is telling Abraham that Isaac is his only son. The circumcised Ishmael, who is to be made into a great nation, has been dropped from the book of life. On receiving the order to sacrifice his son, Abraham sets out without a fight, without so much as a word of demurrer. This is the same man who earlier had taken on Yahweh when He threatened to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the same wily advocate who bartered with Yahweh: If you would not destroy the city on account of 50 upright people, what if there were only 40, or 30, or 20, or just ten? Yahweh yielded, “I will not destroy it for the sake of 10.”
But when it comes to his own son, Abraham meekly accepts the outrageous command of Yahweh and sets out on a three day journey with Isaac going to the place where he will sacrifice his son. Imagine his thoughts over those days. Imagine the conversations between father and son. How ghastly! Approaching the site for the sacrifice, Isaac asks the only sensible question: “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies with a touch of hope and ambiguity open to the readers and hearers in the believing community who know that the story all turns out for the best: “My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” And eventually he does!
Abraham passes the test. The boy is spared. A ram caught by its horns in a bush is on hand for the sacrifice. Using the same language as Yahweh when putting the test, “Take your son, your only son”, the angel of Yahweh when proclaiming that Abraham has passed the test says, “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” In the book of Genesis, Yahweh and Isaac never exchange another word together. But Abraham receives the further promise that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.
Rembrandt did a superb painting of the scene. Inspired by the painting, the American poet and essayist Marilyn Chandler McEntyre wrote this poem Abraham and Isaac with a distinctly Christian motif in the closing verses:
He really meant to do it.
All it took was an angel’s merest touch
to stop him, but the boy’s hands
were tied, the father’s fingers
wrapped around his jaw
(perhaps to smother him — one paltry act
of mercy before the fatal slice?).
What kind of God would require
such appalling fidelity?
What kind of father could bear
to imagine the blade
leaving its trail of red
in the tender skin of a throat
no beard has covered?
What would it take?
What must be the magnitude
of a love that would go this far?
The look in Abraham’s eye
is crazed. The angel’s message
relieves him (though all his life
some madness will haunt him,
and Sarah will follow his steps
with darkened eyes).
You don’t have to do this
any more. Another father
will take your place
Another son will be led to slaughter.
The promise will be fulfilled,
Israel’s seed will be planted.
Let him grow old and die.
Just as Abraham travelled to the place of testing with Isaac and two servants, so too in today’s Gospel from Mark, we find Jesus transfigured up a high mountain in company with Peter, James and John and a voice from heaven declaring, ‘This is my son, the Beloved’. In Mark’s Gospel, these are the same three who accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus faces his own test declaring, “Abba Father, for you everything is possible. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it.”
The Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai was born in Germany in 1924 and immigrated with his family to Israel in 1936. He fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. This is his poem Jewish Travel:
Every year our father Abraham would take his sons to Mount Moriah
The way I take my children to the Negev hills where I once had a war.
Abraham hiked around with his sons. “This is where I left
The servants behind, that’s where I tied the donkey to a tree
At the foot of the mountain, and here, right here, Isaac my son, you asked:
Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?
Then, up a little further, you asked for the second time.”
When they reached the mountaintop, they rested a bit, ate and drank,
And he showed them the thicket where the ram was caught by its horns.
After Abraham died, Isaac started taking his sons to the same place.
“Here I lifted the wood, this is where I got out of breath,
here I asked, and my father answered: God will see to the lamb
for the offering. Over there, I already knew it was me.”
And when Isaac’s eyes were dim with age, his children
Led him to that same spot on Mount Moriah, and recounted for him
All that had come to pass, all that he might have forgotten.
As people of faith, we entrust ourselves to our God and we recount the stories of faith. Whether in sickness or in health, in war or in peace, in prosperity or poverty, in a situation of order or chaos, we, like Abraham at Moriah and like Jesus at Gethsemane, entrust ourselves to God and trust that God will provide. We trust that God will be always at our side. And as Christians, we are consoled that in Jesus we are accompanied by one like us who endured suffering, the passion and death with the Father and in the Spirit.
The writer Jordan Peterson is back in the news with his new book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules which is a follow up to his previous book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and his own personal melt down from which he is now recovering. He says his 24 rules are “predicated on the idea that the two fundamental elements of reality are chaos and order, and that people find meaning in optimally balancing them.” In his latest book he writes:
“When you are visited by chaos and swallowed up; when nature curses you or someone you love with illness; or when tyranny rends asunder something of value that you have built, it is salutary to know the rest of the story. All of that misfortune is only the bitter half of the tale of existence, without taking note of the heroic element of redemption or the nobility of the human spirit requiring a certain responsibility to shoulder. We ignore that addition to the story at our peril, because life is so difficult that losing sight of the heroic part of existence could cost us everything. We do not want that to happen. We need instead to take heart, and to take spirit, and to look at things carefully and properly, and to live the way that we could live.”
Let’s hope and pray that our faith will sustain us even in times of great trial. In situations of conflict, let’s ask what it looks like from the perspective of Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, and not just from the perspective of Abraham and Sarah. I will always be shocked beyond words if anyone tells me they are convinced that God wants them to kill their child. It will always be salutary to know the rest of the story. No matter how bleak things be, remember that Peter, James and John recalled after the crucifixion that they had already seen the rest of the story on that mountain at the transfiguration of Jesus, beholding him with Elijah and Moses, the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. As people of faith we are consoled that no matter what the circumstances, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering. No doubt there’s more to life than Jordan Peterson’s 24 rules. But his last one is a good start. No matter what your destination or world view: “Be grateful in spite of your suffering.”
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).