Last Sunday we reflected on our covenant relationship with the created world. Today we consider the covenant promises made to Abraham. Though often referred to as “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” the story might be better named “The Testing of Abraham.” The first line of the first reading identifies it as such.
This is a troubling story. Having promised Abraham descendants and land, both necessary for the indistinguishable group to become a great nation, God asks him to sacrifice the very son through whom the promise is to be fulfilled. This would be a national, not simply a personal, tragedy. Just what is God doing? How trustworthy are the promises?
In the recent past we have lost so many people of promise in whom we placed our hopes. They went to their offices or simply on a trip, and never returned home; they stood in defense of freedom, and never returned home. They soared among the stars, and never returned home. These were national, not simply personal, tragedies. Just what is God doing? How trustworthy are the promises in which we hope?
What value can we find in such a troubling story? What good can come from such disaster and heartache? The first reading sketches something of life itself—senseless, even cruel suffering. Though Isaac might be an innocent victim, he does not actually suffer. Abraham is the one put to the test, and from a human point of view, his response is terrifying.
Perhaps there is another way to understand this test. Might it be that Abraham was asked to choose either the promises of God as they would be fulfilled in Isaac, or the God who made the promises in the first place? Once again the story itself offers a clue. Abraham is told: “I know how devoted you are to God.” Without understanding how the promises will be fulfilled if Isaac is put to death, Abraham still trusts in God. We still might ask: Why should he and why should we trust a God who requires such great sacrifice? The other readings for today answer this question.
Paul insists that regardless of what we might have to endure in life, God’s love for us cannot be questioned. He goes so far as to say that God’s love is so great that for our sake, not even Jesus was spared suffering. Some people may see God’s willingness to sacrifice Jesus as simply another example of God’s cruelty. But this would be wrong. Just as the first reading demonstrates that out of devotion to God, Abraham is willing to sacrifice his greatest treasure, so, out of love for us, God is willing to sacrifice the greatest of all treasures.
The covenant that God made through Abraham was not for the sole advantage of Abraham’s descendants, to be hugged to their hearts in some exclusive way. Rather, the “chosen people,” however that phrase is understood, were meant to be a source of blessing for all the nations of the world. This passage speaks of obedience, but the covenant to which it refers is grounded in faith (see Gn 15:6). Without really understanding how God would fulfill the promise, Abraham believes in God. Here his faith or trust in God was tested, just as ours is time and again.
God does not call us away from our dreams into a vacuum. If we are asked to relinquish a possible future, it is only to be offered another possible future, God’s future. Our aspirations may be noble, but the possibilities that God offers will outstrip them. Do we trust enough in God to believe this? Abraham was promised an heir; he relinquished his hold on his heir and he was granted heirs beyond counting. In the Gospel, the disciples committed themselves to Jesus without realizing that he would allow himself to be handed over to death; he overwhelmed them when he was revealed as God’s own beloved Son.
Such trust may sound good on paper, until we are confronted again with the bleeding wound left in our hearts when loved ones are ripped from our arms, or when dreams for the future are dashed for no apparent reason. Rather than think that God is playing some capricious game, we are summoned by today’s readings to a different way of understanding, to the realization that the events of life are offering us a choice: Do we trust in promises as we perceive them, or do we trust in the God who makes promises that we may not comprehend?
While Lent can be rightly considered a time of testing, it is not a testing to see how much we can endure from or for God. Such a perception of God is found nowhere in the Bible. God’s testing of us is really our opportunity to make a choice, as did Abraham.
Finally, the question of suffering in the world, particularly the suffering of the innocent, has always been problematic, and we have never been able to discover an adequate answer for it. Sometimes all we can really do is cry out with the psalmist: “I believed even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’”