2015 – Cycle B
Genesis 22: 1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Psalm 116; Romans 8: 31b-34; Mark 9:2-10
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
[The Parable of the Old Man and the Youth, Wilfred Owen]
Riffing on the story of Abraham and Isaac, British 2nd Lt. Wilfred Owen’s poem, reflecting on his World War I battlefield experience, raises uncomfortable questions embedded within this frightful biblical tale.
Do you believe God deliberately tested Abraham?
Do you believe God intentionally tests us?
If that be so, what Owen’s poem raises is the question, what if we fail the test?
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,…
What if Abraham, in a period in which child sacrifice was still prevalent, failed the test and slaughtered Isaac? What would have happened to God’s promise to Abraham and us of “descendants as countless as the stars and the sands of the seashore” [Genesis 22:17]? Or are God’s promises made of tin that can be crumpled in our hand? [See Leonard Bernstein, Symphony #3, “Kaddish]
In the light of the barbarity we have seen from ISIS; the beheading, burning and crucifying of journalists, Coptic Christians, and Jordanians – despite their age – all are children of despairing and inconsolable parents; or having heard and seen the terror of parents pleading with their radicalized teenagers to return home having fled through Turkey to join ISIS in Syria, we must reflect. We humans may treat each other this way but what kind of God expects such a sacrifice from a parent, for any reason?
What parent would carry out such an act? Abraham is about to. Would you?
I do not believe God tests us; purposefully putting obstacles along our life’s path or placing burdens on our shoulders to “test us”. Life and more often how we treat and neglect each other, deals out enough burdens in the deck of life’s cards. We surely do not need a God stacking the deck against us. The saying that God never gives us more than we can bear is a lie. I have crossed the paths of people whose life burdens are too heavy and they have fallen under its weight and unlike Jesus there is no Simon of Cyrene to lift the burden or Veronica to console them.
So what is happening in this story?
God is said to speak three times – but how does Abraham know it is God speaking? Religious extremists believe they are hearing and following the will of God. How does a person know the difference?
Listen intently…The dispassionate tone of: “Take your son Isaac…offer him up as a holocaust…” The visceral cry of: “Abraham…do not lay your hand on the boy…” The apologetic: “because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you…” Would you want a blessing from such a schizophrenic God?
Some Jewish interpreters believe it was Sarah who suspected something and followed her husband and son up the mountain. That it was she who shouted: “Abraham…do not lay your hand on the boy…!” If that be so, the members of ISIS and the adolescents and young adults going to Syria are not the children of Sarah! Sarah will not tolerate such violence! And what of Isaac? What about the test for Isaac? Will he ever again trust his father?
The story is most disturbing and no amount of theological maneuvering and biblical scholarship can release us from struggling with this passage. Struggling with ourselves. Where is our faith? In whom is our trust? What motivates how we treat each other? Are we willing to offer up the “Ram of Pride” instead of our sisters and brothers? It is not about what is going on inside of Abraham but about what is going on inside of us.
It is struggling with discerning how we recognize God’s voice and what may be asked of us by this incomprehensible God. A God for whom there was no voice shouting “…do not lay your hand on the boy…!” when his only Son, Jesus was offered in holocaust.