3/5/2009 WORD OF FAITH God reveals truths for the present
REV. ROGER KARBAN
"God put Abraham to the test. He called to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am!" he replied." Genesis 22: 1
During the mid and late 1940s, my parents never doubted the shoes they bought me actually fitted. Before they made the purchase, the salesperson simply positioned the newly-shod feet in the store's X-ray machine. Peering through the eyepiece, I could see the exact distance between the end of my toes and the front of the shoe.
We no longer use such machines in shoe stores today. Sixty years ago, we just didn't understand the danger to which those X-rays exposed us. What seemed good for one generation certainly wasn't good for another.
Abraham discovers this truth in today's Genesis reading (22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18). Our disturbing narrative only makes sense against the background of the eighth-century BC child sacrifice practiced in the northern part of the Holy Land.
During that period, the Elohistic author of Genesis not only attacks the pagan fertility cults which demand such sacrifices, but also tries to defuse the accusation that Israelites - who don't sacrifice their children - are less dedicated to Yahweh than their pagan neighbors - who engage in such rituals - are dedicated to their gods.
The passages in II Kings condemning those Israelite kings who forced their children to "pass through the fire," confirm that some of Yahweh's people also engaged in these disgusting practices.
New needs new
Abraham and Sarah are the first Jews. Because of their relationship with Yahweh, they feel called to take faith in a new direction. They gradually discover the God they follow doesn't demand people take a life in order to guarantee life. They concentrate on the harm of child sacrifice instead of its benefits.
Our sacred author assures us that Abraham and Sarah are willing to sacrifice their only child if Yahweh actually demands it. But (to the likely chagrin of PETA) an animal substitute provides the same benefits as a first-born son's death.
Through the centuries we Christians have developed practices which today seem just as un-Christian as child sacrifice. Some followers of Jesus once thought spending their entire lives living on a small platform 50 feet in the air was the epitome of faith. Fortunately these "stylites" disappeared after a few centuries.
Neither can we forget the church's 200-year Crusade experiment. More recently, my great aunt once confided in me that when she entered her religious order's novitiate she was given a hair shirt and a small whip, and was frequently expected to use both on her body as proof of her dedication to Jesus.
To avoid such aberrations, we must listen to today's other two readings.
Paul reminds the Romans (8: 31-34) of one of our faith's fundamental truths: "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but handed Him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him?" There's no reason to think Jesus ever wants us to take another's life, or inflict meaningless physical or psychological pain on ourselves.
Note the two people appearing with the transfigured Jesus: Elijah and Moses. By positioning Jesus between Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet, Mark (9:2-10) tells us that Jesus represents all of Scripture. That seems to be why he mentions that, after the transfiguration, Jesus' disciples "no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them."
As a Scripture scholar, it bothers me that one of my faith heroes, Francis of Assisi, knew almost no Scripture. But he certainly knew and imitated Jesus of Nazareth, a practice we never have to worry about changing.