REV. ROGER KARBAN
Sunday's Genesis passage (Gen. 22:1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18<+>) always evokes questions. How can an all-loving God tell a father to kill his child? And why does Abraham, Yahweh's "friend," even attempt to carry out the murder? Doesn't he realize Yahweh could never command something so atrocious?
Homilists and exegetes, looking for light at the end of the tunnel, have traditionally zeroed in on Abraham's total dedication to God. By killing Isaac, Abraham knows he's destroying any chance of Yahweh's promises to him being fulfilled. Yet, in an heroic act of faith, he obeys.
Scholars, concerned with exploring how the tunnel was constructed, remind us that there's more here than just an act of faith. This narrative comes from an oral tradition written down during the eighth century, B.C.E. Composed by prophets, it was originally directed to Jews living in the northern part of the Holy Land, a place in which idolatrous, pagan practices had infiltrated true Yahweh worship, a place where parents often sacrificed their children.
Challenge to change
Students of Scripture know that our sacred authors constantly challenge God's followers to change the actions through which they show their discipleship. Some who decide to give themselves to God latch onto one or more outward manifestations of dedication and stick with them the rest of their lives.
Because most of us falsely believe the moment at which we enter a movement or respond to a call is the ideal moment, we think our actions should always remain the same. If we believe God wanted us to do certain things in a certain way then, God must want us to do the same things in the same way now.
Our sacred writers often contradict that belief. Convinced that no human being can ever totally comprehend God's mind, they look at faith as a gradual deepening of our understanding of God's intentions for us. We're constantly called to replace "pagan" elements which have infiltrated our faith with elements which were in the mid of God from all eternity, items which our limited, human minds couldn't comprehend all at once.
In the case of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, prophets are faced with a pagan fertility practice so embedded in Israelite faith and worship that its practitioners honestly believe they're doing Yahweh's will by killing their first-born males.
On one level, the prophets praise the people's heroic dedication to what they conceive of as God's command. But on another level, they demonstrate that Yahweh is more than willing to accept a goat in place of the boy -- as long as the animal symbolizes the sacrificer's total commitment to Yahweh. The commitment remains, the sign changes.
Paul reflects on God's commitment to us in the second reading (Rom 8:31-32). Knowing that the Father is willing to sacrifice everything -- even His Son -- for us gives us a security which no human doubts can ever wipe out. Jesus' death and resurrection are signs that "God is for us."
Eyes of faith
Yet, most signs of God's care can only be perceived through eyes of faith. Faith-filled eyes see things which other eyes overlook. That seems to be what happens to the three disciples in Mark's transfiguration narrative (Mk 9:2-10). Their commitment to Jesus helps them glimpse Him not only as someone who fulfills everything they believed Scripture had promised, but also as Yahweh present among them. Once they give themselves over to Jesus, everything and everyone, including Jesus, is transfigured.
Though discipleship revolves around commitment - God to us, we to God - we must carefully choose the actions which show that commitment. Our track record as Christians demonstrates that we've frequently integrated pagan elements into such actions, believing God willed them. We stopped burning our children long before Jesus' arrival. Yet, it's good to remember that next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Giraloma Savonarola's burning in Florence. And we must never forget that Pope Leo X's 1520 proclamation excommunicating Martin Luther contained the statement, "It is heretical to say that to burn heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Spirit."
Five hundred years from now, which of our present "religious" actions will our descendants judge to be parallel to burning our children?