Sunday, March 1, 2015 - Click here for the Readings
Who is Abraham?
Abraham is considered to be the first patriarch, the person God chose for the purpose of beginning an ongoing covenant relationship involving humanity. Jews, Muslims, and Christians all consider Abraham to be the “founder” of their religious tradition, insofar as God is the source of our faith, but religion is a response to this Divine invitation. In the Book of Genesis, the first book of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible, we hear the story of how God called Abram--whose name was later changed to Abraham--and promised to make Abraham’s descendants, as included in today’s reading, more numerous than the stars in the sky.
Abraham, we are told, hailed from Mesopotamia, a region familiar to us as modern-day Iraq and Syria. It was there, in “the fertile crescent” between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, that civilization, as we now think of it, first came into existence. It was in this region that the domestication of wheat gave rise to intentional agriculture--from previous iterations of gathering wild plants and berries to deliberately planting seeds in a particular, maintained location. That is, farming. And along with the domestication of grains developed the domestication of animals such as sheep, goats, and cattle. Once a tribe put down roots (literally and figuratively) in a given location, and the number of persons who could be sustained increased, due to a reliable food supply, towns emerged. At the time of Abraham, humanity was evolving from wandering hunter-gatherers into semi-nomadic tribal leaders with designated home regions--the birth of the modern city-state.
What does God want with Abraham?
As Jews/Christians, we believe that God is revealed to all humans through what we refer to as “natural revelation.” That is, we can come to know things about God, not because someone has told us, but because we can study the created universe. This is what St. Paul references in his letter to the Romans, when he writes, “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” (1:20) Such revelation includes truths not only about science and nature, but also about morality and human flourishing. This forms the basis of what later philosophers and theologians will dub, “natural law.”
But there is a limit to what we can deduce about God using only the blueprint of the created cosmos and our own finite faculties of reason. And so, to provide us with greater knowledge of God, we believe God chooses to reveal God’s self through various “explicit revelations” throughout human history. God communicates directly with Moses on Mount Sinai to deliver the Law. God puts words on the lips of prophets such as Nathan, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, in order to articulate a more pointed message to a particular person or group of people at a unique moment in time. And, of course, as Christians, we believe that the ultimate instance of God’s explicit self-revelation is in the person of Jesus, who is God become human.
We trace all of these moments, which, strung together, form what we refer to “Salvation History”--that is, the story by which God interacts with the human race in order to offer us the opportunity to serve God in this life and join God in the next--back to God’s first invitation to Abraham, several thousand years ago. In exchange for Abraham’s fidelity, God promises to form an everlasting covenant with Abraham’s offspring, a covenant that will endure beyond the rise and fall of nations or kings. This covenant is premised upon Abraham’s descendants--the chosen people--adhering to God’s guiding precepts and demonstrating faithfulness to God alone. At a time when the overwhelming majority of humans practiced some form of polygamy, asking a person to put all his trust in one Supreme Deity was no small item! It was to cast one’s whole life, one’s whole well-being, in one basket. It was a risk!
Why does God instruct Abraham to kill his son?
As noted, the whole covenant was based upon faithfulness, and absolute faithfulness at that. We refer to marriage as a covenant for the same reason--one must be “all in” for it to work. Promises are often one-sided, and contracts can be broken, but covenants entail endurance, trust, love, and a single-mindedness about the partner. We cannot be half-hearted about it, or we will fail.
In order to convey that all-in-ness required of covenant, God asks Abraham to do the unthinkable--sacrifice his firstborn son. Now for any parent, that would be an unimaginable horror. But for an ancient tribal leader, it would have been an incomparable atrocity. The single most valuable thing in the ancient world was a son. A tribe was only as strong as the number of healthy adult males it could use to till fields and wield swords. And the firstborn was designated to inherit leadership of the tribe upon death of the father. There really is no adequate way to communicate the significance of a firstborn son to a contemporary reader; suffice it to say that a father who lost his firstborn son would see himself as having very little reason to go on living.
Thus, what we are to conclude is that God is asking Abraham if he is willing to go all-in. Nothing held back. Will Abraham be faithful to God, no matter what? The answer, we hear, is yes, and so God calls off the sacrifice, his point having been made (both to Abraham himself, and to all those who hear the story thereafter). A similar example exists in the Gospel, when a man wishing to follow Jesus asks to first bury his father. Jesus replies with the seemingly very harsh, “Let the dead bury their dead!” (Matthew 8:22) The Gospel author is attempting to tell us that God’s invitation is always an absolute, unqualified, “Yes!” not a “Yes, but...” To be called is to be called on God’s terms. Not ours.
So what does this have to do with us?
God continues to call us, each, as individuals, to be in a relationship with God. Abraham’s “Yes” foreshadows the “Yes” that each of us is called to provide when God reveals God’s self in our own lives. But how often is it the case that we wish to respond, not on God’s terms, but on our own? “Yes, but...”
“Yes, I’ll go to Mass, unless I don’t finish this assignment in time...”
“Yes, I’ll make time to pray, unless I have exams to study for...”
“Yes, I’ll listen to the movement within me that makes me think I’m called to be a teacher/nurse/ lawyer/social worker, so long as I can find a job that pays me enough to live comfortably and afford a decent car.”
Today’s first reading drives home the point that, in order to be faithful to God’s presence in our lives, we must be willing to give up literally everything we hold dear, and to trust in God’s plan. Think of the one material possession you own--your laptop, your iphone, your car--and think of the single most important person in your life--your boy/girlfriend, your parent, your sibling--and think of the single life goal you most desire--being a doctor, finding a spouse, having children. Now imagine God asking you to give that up, in service to God. To be a priest. Or religious sister. To teach English in Micronesia or to provide flu shots at a community health clinic in Detroit. Would you be willing to do that, if you felt like that was what God was calling you to? Would you be willing to put aside your own plans, and to trust that what God has in store for you is far greater than anything you could possibly imagine?
This is at the heart of today’s readings. Not that God IS going to ask us to sacrifice that which we hold most dear, but that being a person of faith demands of us that we be willing to, should it be what God asks of us. It’s a scary thought, relinquishing that much control. Abraham must have been absolutely terrified of God’s plans, and yet, here we are, three thousand years later, still talking about Abraham... so clearly things worked out. Our challenge, now, as it has been for all persons of faith throughout these many centuries, is to ask God to take that same fear off of our own hearts, so that we may respond, “Yes!” without any “ifs, ands, or buts.”
Questions for Reflection
1. What do you remember of the story of Abraham? Can you recall any other details from the Book of Genesis? What do you think those stories have to do with us today? Anything?
2. What do you think of God’s instruction that Abraham kill his own son? Did Abraham misinterpret the message? Was God trying to make a point, but never actually wanted Abraham to go through with it? Was the story merely symbolic, to make a point to the listeners about Abraham?
3. What, in your own life, would be most difficult for you to sacrifice?
4. How do you experience God’s call? What sacrifices does it entail?