The life of faith leads to sacrifices—sometimes beyond belief, but finally as God provides.
Because Easter came so late this year, the Common Time (post-Pentecost) readings skip four weeks of texts that would appear here in other years, as they did in 2008, the last time through Year A.
- In Genesis we skip the Flood story, the Call of Abraham, the Visit to Abraham in Hebron (Genesis 18), and the birth of Isaac and separation from Ishmael (Genesis 21).
- In Romans we skip the sinfulness of all (chs 1-3), Abraham’s righteousness (ch 4), Christ as the New Adam (ch 5), and Dying and Rising with Christ (6:1-11).
- In Matthew we skip the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Call and two healing miracles, and two selections from Jesus’ Mission speech in Matthew 10, the very end of which, however, is heard this Sunday.
The readings now pick up, more or less assuming that we are familiar with all those preceding materials.
The Torah reading is the famous, or infamous, narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac. The opening phrase, “after these things,” marks a new beginning in the Abraham cycle. This phrase last occurred at Genesis 15:1, where it introduced the topic of getting Abraham a son of his own. That topic was completed in its fully developed form in Genesis 21, where Isaac was born to Abraham from Sarah and the other son, Ishmael, had been sent away. The promise of the heir was fulfilled.
Now, the whole heir-promise is jeopardized by a command from God (it is “God,” not Yahweh, until verse 11). This divine command is to sacrifice the heir—to bind him, cut his throat, bleed him, and burn his body on a mountain-top altar.
The specialness of the son is emphasized. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” (verse 2, NRSV). The story then draws out the details of Abraham’s actions, to build suspense. He “rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him… he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him” (verse 3). Abraham speaks to others as if they are simply carrying out a standard act of worship to God (verse 5).
Isaac is a dutiful son, carrying the wood on his back while Abraham carries the fire and the knife. The son asks innocently where the sacrificial animal is, which they will need to complete the worship. Abraham says that God will provide the lamb. After they get there, build the altar, and arrange the wood, it becomes obvious to Isaac how God is providing the lamb. It is he himself who gets “bound” with ropes (the traditional Jewish name of this passage is “the binding,” the ‘aqedah) and placed on top of the pile of wood. As Abraham is about to cut his throat, the angel of the Lord (Yahweh, not God) intervenes.
What the angel says shows that all this has been a test of Abraham’s faith. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (verse 12).
This is a powerful story, told remarkably well. However, it is an ancient story, not a modern one. The story is so well told that it constantly seduces the modern reader into projecting Abraham’s or Isaac’s thoughts during the action—though the story itself, in the usual style of Hebrew narratives, keeps us strictly out of the heads of the characters. The story thus has been modernized, psychologized, theologized, and apologized in a myriad ways, almost always to its loss as an ancient story.
Its one sheer, stark point, however, is the threat of the loss of all meaning to one’s earthly pilgrimage. What would it be like to lose all that you have held worthwhile? Or at least the key to the future on which you have staked your whole life work? And not only to lose it, but to destroy it with your own hand—because God asked for it. That is the horror. That is the despair. That is the ultimate temptation to apostasy—better no God than a God like this!
This text stands as an awesome model of Jesus’ saying, as given in the peroration of his Mission speech: “whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
To the great perplexity of the ages, Abraham proved worthy of the God who gave the one beloved heir.
Reading this psalm after hearing the story of the sacrifice of Isaac invites us to hear two praying voices, those of Abraham and of Isaac.
First Abraham, his interior dialogue despairing at what is about to become an empty and abandoned life.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
And have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Verses 1-2, NRSV)
And Isaac’s voice as he awaits his fate.
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. (Verses 3-4)
The final word of the psalm, however, is Abraham’s, after the release, after the “unbinding” of Isaac.
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Verses 5-6)
The reading from the Epistle follows the profound passage about dying and rising with Christ: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (6:4, NRSV).
Today’s reading, accordingly, presents the life of the new believer as dead to the bondage of past sin and now living as the creature of God, a creature belonging wholly to righteousness. The life of dying and rising with Christ is a life of becoming a living sacrifice.
“For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (verse 19). As in the past you presented your bodies to evil things for evil, so now present your bodies as sacrifices of righteousness. The verb “presented” is the one also used in Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
The life of the one raised to “newness of life” (6:4) is one of living as a continuing offering of righteousness in whatever places the Spirit leads one. This is the new life opened up by the new and greater sacrifice of Isaac, heir of Abraham, “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
The Gospel reading is the very last word of Jesus’ Mission speech, the discourse in which the disciples of Jesus were sent out as apostles to Israel, and in time to all the nations (chapter 10).
This conclusion is a warrant from Jesus that the work of the apostles is the work of Jesus, and of the One who sent Jesus. As the apostles go through the towns and homes of the people, they are in fact the coming of God to test those who wait for righteousness. “Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of [that is, simply as] a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (verse 41, NRSV).
This entire discourse about the mission among the needy, among the hospitable and the persecutors, among those who war among themselves—all of this enterprise concludes with a soft and gentle touch that is remarkable: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of [simply as] a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (verse 42).
What a quiet note on which to end! After vast challenges, trials, and sufferings anticipated for the faithful workers, a cool drink at the end of the day from a kindly stranger—the work of the gospel includes that also!