Sunday's first reading (Gen. 22:1-2, 9a,10-13,15-18) demands an understanding of the eighth-century BCE Israelites for whom the author originally wrote. Unless we take the time and make the effort to appreciate their popular religious practices, we're hard-pressed to explain why we continue to relate to a God who plays such sadistic tricks on faithful followers.

Though homilists often use this passage to emphasize Abraham's great faith, the narrative only makes sense when we remember that, 27 centuries ago, devotees of pagan fertility cults frequently engaged in child sacrifice. They believed that if they offered one of their children to the fertility gods, the gods would grant them many more children.

These practices, horrendous if perpetrated by pagans alone, eventually were copied by Jews. We hear in II Kings 17:17, "They (the Israelites) immolated their sons and daughters by fire." Some "well-meaning," but misdirected Jews actually believed Yahweh wanted them to sacrifice their children! We're to listen to the first reading against that backdrop.

Prophetic role

Scripture scholars believe the author of the Genesis passage was an early Jewish prophet: a person trying to bring the Chosen People living in the north of the Holy land back to true Yahwistic faith. In doing so, he faced a task reformers throughout history have faced: eradicating non-faith practices from religion, practices which run counter to true faith.

Often, as in child sacrifice, these practices make huge demands on the faithful. Yet, prophets realize that no matter how demanding, such actions are against God's plan for God's people. They must go.

This seems to be why the author praises Abraham's generous faith, yet at the same time, teaches that God prefers people offer animals in place of children. The generosity behind misguided actions never stops prophets from proclaiming the truth God wants proclaimed.

Following the same theological line of thought, Mark places the Gospel narrative of Jesus' transfiguration (Mk 9:2-10) immediately after the confrontation generated by Jesus' initial prediction of His passion, death and resurrection. Peter, the leader of the Twelve, reacts badly when he discovers Jesus is about to suffer and die, forcing Jesus to give the first of three explanations of how His followers are to imitate His death.

Real Jesus

Scripture scholars surmise that some in Mark's community falsely believed they could reach the life Jesus promised without undergoing the death Jesus demanded. They introduced "death-avoiding" practices into their religion. That's why Mark has Jesus reveal Himself as God only after He first corrects His disciples' misguided faith. Jesus can't be transfigured for those who refuse to copy His lifestyle. Dying with Jesus permits one to experience Him as He really is.

It's no accident that "as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant." Those confused about death will also be confused about life.

Paul expresses the same truth, but from a different direction (Rom 8:31-34). For him, following Jesus means to be completely focused on Jesus. Nothing should distract us from that task because nothing or no one else in our life is as important as Jesus. Our imitation of Him convinces us that "God is for us." No one, not even God, would dare "bring a charge against" someone who daily dies and rises with God's Son.

No wonder God continually sends prophets to critique our religious practices. Those who believe any religious practice is good just because it's religious had best confer with Isaac.