I can’t ignore it… today’s first reading. Maybe it’s because this is my first reading of Genesis 22 as a parent; maybe because the violent request of Abraham so clashes with the affirming words at the Transfiguration. I can’t ignore it.
William Loader, an Australian biblical scholar, entered this passage by way of the heart and his artistic imagination honored all that perplexed me. He wrote a reflection imagining the scene as if Abraham did sacrifice Isaac. Interestingly, he uses the name “Bildad” for the voice Abraham mistakes for Yahweh’s voice. The reference is to one of Job’s three friends (from the tragic book of Job) who told Job that God uses violence to punish and that his children died because of their sin. Suddenly, Yahweh isn’t God, but an imposter posing a God.
There have been lots of victims of misplaced devotion, of zealous beliefs. Sacrifice has been mislabeled as holy. Isaac’s near death is not too different from the actual death of Jesus, as William Loader alludes. Jesus was killed by those whose gods of power, status, and religion required obedience over compassion. Still today, people die every day around the world because of someone else’s beliefs.
But it comes closer to home, too. And this is the part most challenging to me. We’re asked to choose to whom and what we are devoted; and we indeed find ourselves making sacrifices, choosing one thing over another. As a new mom I’m increasingly aware of the challenge to know if what I do is out of faithfulness to the God of life or some other god I’ve concocted. I sympathize with Abraham. What do I choose now, in this moment, God or my child? Work or my husband? Prayer or another load of laundry? What is most important to me? And sometimes I just have to trust that what I choose today is what will bring me into more faith and more life. Because the truth is sometimes I, unknowingly, walk what is most precious to me up the mountain for the sake of perceived obligation or devotion.
This past week when I was mulling this story over with Frank, he gave me an illustration that he uses in his drug and alcohol trainings. When an addict is asked by his or her daughter, “Will you come to my tee-ball game tonight?” That person, knowing that it’s important to be there for her, already begins planning how they might be able use before the game so they can do both, feed their addiction and be there for their child. As the game approaches and it’s clear that the parent is in no shape to go to their daughter’s game, they tell her, “Sorry, honey, mommy/daddy is just too busy with work. I’ll come next time.” Now, if one were to ask that same person, “What is the most important thing in your life?” they would unhesitatingly respond, “my daughter.”
Even for the sake of the “good” or “God” we find important pieces of our lives bound to an altar of wood. Sometimes our own faces stare back at us from the place of sacrifice. We give up our health, our integrity, ourselves for the sake of doing “God’s will,” “Doing what’s right,” or “doing what needs to be done.”
For me, this reshapes the character of Lent. Lent is no longer about making a great sacrifice; for God does not require sacrifice (Micah 6:6-8). Lent is about salvation… or saving the precious, the holy, the neglected, the beloved from the mountain of sacrifice. It’s time, after many centuries where religious and non-religious people alike have put Isaac back on the altar, to pull him close, hold him tight and walk with him back down the mountain.
This is an abridged version of a homily I preached on March 7, 2009 at Sts. Clare & Francis on Genesis 22’s Sacrifice of Isaac. It was so interesting living out the liturgical cycle as a priest/pastor. The lectionary forced me to wrestle with texts every three years, whether I loved them or hated them. The sacrifice of Isaac from Genesis 22 always haunted me. I gave two vastly different homilies on that text. The one you read above works against the text, but read “Touchstone of Pain and Wisdom” to see how an interpretation can work with the text. I find both interpretations still ring true for me. Biblical interpretation is fun 🙂