Wednesday, June 28, 2017

PENTECOST IV 2017 (Proper 8)

The Sacrifice of Isaac - God Restrains Abraham's Hand.
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God Restrains Abraham's Hand -- 12th century mosaic

On this Sunday the continuous reading brings the story of Abraham to the unnerving episode of his setting out to sacrifice Isaac. It is such an extraordinary story that it has long prompted debate, and deep perplexity. God grants the aging, childless Abraham an only son-- Isaac. It is on Isaac that Abraham pours out all his love, and pins all his hopes. So how could he possibly be willing to kill the being he most loves, and thereby destroy all the hopes he has longed for? Even if we could leave the difficult issue of the boy’s own well being aside, it is exceptionally hard to understand Abraham's state of mind, still less sympathize with it.  We can say what it seems we are supposed to say -- that Abraham’s willingness to kill the child he adores reveals just how great his devotion to God is. But isn't this one step too far? Doesn't such devotion turn his 'faith' into fanaticism? And anyway, what does it say about the God who would demand such a sacrifice?

Abraham and Isaac return to Sarah.
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Abraham and Isaac Return to Sarah - 20th century mural
There is no easy answer to these questions. One thing worth noting, though, is that the story constitutes the essential Jewish background for understanding the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christian liturgies describe this as a ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice’, meaning thereby to underline the futility of human sacrifice. Even a sacrifice as overwhelmingly demanding as the one Abraham seems willing to make, will never bridge the great gulf between God’s divine holiness and our imperfect humanity. It is only an action in the opposite direction -- from God to human beings – that can ever do this. As things turn out, of course, Abraham is not in the end required to sacrifice Isaac. God provides a ram, and the boy survives to perpetuate his father’s lineage. This motif too, is reflected in the Christian narrative. It is only God who can provide the sacrifice.

Though he is writing in a different context and to a different purpose, in the Epistle Paul has a similar thought in mind when he asks, "So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death." "Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God", he adds, "the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life." As he says elsewhere, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Of course, though in sharp contrast to the demand laid on Abraham, the gift is free, we have to see that this is so, and accept it.

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