The first reading for the Second Sunday of Lent is the story of Abraham and Isaac. It is an immensely rich story. Often we hear of Abraham’s faith and this was its demonstration par excellence. We also hear of the parallels to Christ and His own sacrifice, which are striking and many. But why was Abraham called by God, the All Sufficient One, to sacrifice his son? It’s easy to get lost in the typology (as important and necessary as it is!), but typology is founded on history. Abraham was not called to sacrifice his son simply so Christians approximately 1,900 years later could recognize Christ hidden in the Scriptures. The connection between Isaac and Jesus is real, but this means nothing for Abraham in the immediacy of the moment. He has been ordered by God to offer his son in sacrifice. Why? A test of faith. Yes, but why this test? Why not another test? Because this would have been the hardest thing for Abraham to do. Not necessarily; this is the answer of a modern who isn’t surrounded by children being offered to pagan idols on high places. No, Abraham was called to sacrifice his son as a test of faith, precisely because the son of the promise is the one thing concerning which Abraham was consistently faithless.
The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you. (Gen 12:1-3)
The call of Abraham was tied to a promise: “I will make of you a great nation.” Later the Lord God makes clear that this nation will come from Abraham’s own line: “… your own offspring will be your heir.” (Gen 15:4) Even though a son was not promised with the initial call to leave his family and go to an unknown land, the promise of a nation coming from him does strongly imply this. It is on this point that Abraham again and again falls into doubt, even after the Lord God explicitly states that this nation will come from Abraham’s own son.
The great father in faith who left his family and home at the age of 75 for a foreign land, trusted El Shaddai in all things – all things but one. Before the promise of a son was made explicit he gave Sarah to Pharaoh in Egypt and he made plans to have his servant’s son made his heir; after the promise was made explicit he conceived a son with his wife’s maidservant, Hagar, and once again gave his wife away to another, Abimelech, the king of Gerar. These are not just minor failings in faith. This is repeated faithlessness concerning one particular promise and consisted of willful actions that worked in direct contradiction to the realization of that promise. When one is called to prove their faith it means nothing at all to ask of them what they have been consistently faithful about. If faith is to be tested, it must be shown through obedience concerning that which one has been constantly faithless.
Does the above painting disturb you? What about the painting above that? They should. Faithlessness is ugly. Deep-seated faithlessness leads people to do horrible things. As for faithfulness, it is more often than not a sign of contradiction to the world, so much so that it is seen as abominable. The world is far more comfortable with the actions of a lack of faith than it is with the actions of faith. It’s all well and good to help the poor, but to become a beggar yourself? It’s all well and good to help those in need, but at the expense of your own financial security? The world doesn’t see this as generosity; it sees it as insane. As much as the world would deplore (for a time) an Asa Hawks, it finds incomprehensible at best, and often more deplorable than Hawks, a Hazel Motes (HERE for reference on Asa Hawks and Hazel Motes). For as perverse and monstrous as we may find the reduction of Hagar to a sex-slave for the sake of producing an heir, from the perspective of the world it’s not that hard to have some understanding toward Abraham and Sarah when one truly takes into account the times and the weight of heredity in the ancient world, and the psychological stress that could accompany that. But to be willing to sacrifice one’s own child? Admittedly, even keeping in mind how widespread and accepted child sacrifice was at that time, it is a challenge to understand this. Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac is not just disturbing; it is practically unimaginable.
Is it really so unimaginable though?
It is the act of faith which the modern world finds incomprehensible at best if not absolutely condemnable. The same people who denigrate Christians for worshipping One who called Abraham to sacrifice his son are, very often, the same people who affirm and even celebrate a woman’s so-called right to choose whether or not she will sacrifice her child to any myriad gods of material pragmatic secularism. In a society truly flipped upside down, it is not uncommon for the woman who chooses life to be looked down upon, abused, or abandoned by family, “friends”, and the world at large. Is the modern who rejects the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob willing to look with eyes open and willing to take their earbuds out that they may listen? How is it they do not hear the cry of the woman who has suffered abortion; of the women who have spoken out concerning their treatment, their life, and their real desires? How is it they do not hear the voices of abortion priestesses speaking of money and quotas? How do they not hear the voices of those who worked in the industry, left, and are sharing their story? But most of all how do they not hear the voices and see the incredible beauty of the women who choose life; of the women who stood alone and stalwart against doctors, social workers, family and friends, and gave life to their little one, loved their little one, and entered into great happiness with their child as they grew. These women acted in faith. By doing so they inserted love into pain, dejection, oppression, and death, and by love begot love. How is it that the modern does not see the love, affirm the love, celebrate the love, and fight for love? Perhaps a reason is that arriving at that love means passing through death. The woman who chooses life and the man, Abraham, who was willing to offer a life in sacrifice have a commonality: the dark journey of faith, the transformation of their self through seeing what is not seen, and entry into a life unimagined.
The modern, however, is not the one who has the greatest difficulty with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. It is the modern Christian who has the greatest difficulty with this story, which is why they do not grapple with it. If challenged on the truth of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, the Christian often dismisses the challenge by saying, “But God stopped him.” This may be followed by an explanation of what God wanted to teach Abraham and perhaps even a good bit of typology to show it’s proclamation of Christ and our salvation. However, none of this addresses the fact that God allowed him to go right up to taking the knife, and this is accorded to Abraham as good. Let me say that again, it was accorded to Abraham as good that he was willing to carry out this act. If an act is intrinsically evil (and child sacrifice is) how can we speak of one being good and affirm their being rewarded for being willing to carry out such an act? This question should haunt Christians. If we aren’t willing to grapple with the horror of this event, then we will never have anything better than a superficial understanding of test and type, no matter how “theological” that understanding is, nor a profound understanding of the human, divine, and the relation between the two.
Yet just as from the heavens the rain and the snow come down and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. (Is 55:10-11a)
Abraham and the inhabitants of Canaan around him are the earth, the land; a land that is dry and fruitless. Abraham is accorded good because he allowed the word of God to come upon him and seep into him. What is accorded as good is his willingness to do as the Lord commands, not a willingness to kill his son; for, in fact, he did not have a willingness to kill his son. But it was precisely because he did not have willingness to kill his son that he endured the dark journey of faith. In this way, Abraham also has a commonality with the woman who chooses to kill her child though she does not want to. In Abraham, the two different journeys of the darkness of faith and the darkness of forsakenness meet. He has faith in the One who has always provided for him in great abundance; but can we not also speak of his feeling forsaken by this very same One in knowing that his greatest love will be taken?
The image at the top of this post, “Isolation”, expresses the reality of both journeys. In the midst of the world and everyone going about their lives, the faithful and the forsaken stand alone. Abraham acts in faith: he gathers the supplies for the sacrifice, makes provision for the journey, and is accompanied by two servants. There is nothing unusual in this. He is an inhabitant of Canaan preparing to make a sacrifice. The servants think nothing of it, his wife, Sarah, thinks nothing of it, and his son, Isaac, thinks nothing of it. It is a normal act, not out of the ordinary. Abraham is forsaken: he tells no one the true nature of the sacrifice, he carries an oppressive secret within himself and it pulls him further away from those who are with him. How somber all the actions of preparation must have been. How hard it must have been to move his feet though move them he did. How must he have withdrawn further into himself as they made the journey, becoming more silent with each passing day. Did he walk with his shoulders hunched? Could he look the son whom he loved in his eyes? What great interior tears he must have cried (and physical tears?) as they came closer to doom, the extinguishing of all the dreams and joys bound to his son. Confusion. Exasperation. And no one to lean upon. I cannot imagine the constriction of heart he must have endured. He suffered the darkness of faith while bearing the weight of abandonment.
The dryness of Abraham’s heart came from his living in a dry land – living in the midst of a people who believed that child sacrifice was good. Even though he did not believe this, he was surrounded by and interacted regularly with those who did. This is the situation of Christians living in the West today. We may disagree with the world in matters of sex, marriage, and children, and be horrified by such hateful acts as abortion, but if we are being honest with ourselves most of us have learned to settle with it. We go about our days giving it hardly any thought, if any at all. We go to sleep without conviction for those suffering violence, for people flogged by gnawing dread, or subjected to the nihilism of a frenzied torpidity.
The world has entered our hearts and rages to unseat the Light within. We are Abraham living in Canaan. He received the Word of God, let his dry heart soak it in, and from it God produced a magnificent and succulent bounty. It was not Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son that was accorded good. The word he received, that he allowed to root and flower within him, was a question: Do you love Me, or do you love what I have promised you? Do you find satisfaction in Me, or do you find satisfaction in what I have given you? Am I alone your heart’s possession? What was accorded good was his “yes”, and through Abraham’s “yes” the Lord reveals the horror of human sacrifice, the horror of the taking of a child’s life by their parent. (The killing of children by their parents still happens and is accepted in some parts of the world, and I am not only talking about abortion.)
The Lord God who gave His Son asks the same question of us. He requires proof of our love just as He required it of Abraham. But never again did he command someone to offer their child in sacrifice; and never again will He make such a command of anyone. What may He command of us in our own time though, in the dry land of our own day aching for the rains of faith?
I will never forget the first time I watched the movie, Bella. I was shaken from the monotony of my thought and notions of right action. He sat in the abortion facility with her. He refused to abandon her no matter her choice. He wanted her to have love and life, but that was only possible if he was that love and life in the midst of her darkness. Love only comes from love, and life only comes from life. What does God require of us. Perhaps…
- Entering those places of death (called “clinics”) with someone – a family member, friend, co-worker, a stranger God puts in your path – holding their hand being the presence of Christ in their tenebrosity, offering love and life.
- Embracing her, crying with her, and continuing to be the presence of love and life even if she commits such a horror.
- Inviting into our home the one we do not know, the stranger – the homeless, the refugee, the immigrant – giving a place of rest and care.
These are radical actions that Christians, who have been given something greater than Abraham was given, are scared to do. These are things for which we will unroll a litany of prudential negation. These actions, however, are nothing more than the exercising of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Faith requires courage. Are Christians a courageous people? Do we have the courage of Abraham, the faith to let God’s Word sink into the depths of our hearts and there produce thriving jubilant life? May Gad grant it be so. Amen.