What kind of parents would meekly comply with an order to kill their only child? What kind of God would ask such a thing? Disturbing questions arise from today’s first reading, which opens: “God put Abraham to the test.”
In what follows, the narrative is more like a call story. God calls Abraham by name, and, just as Samuel did (1 Sm 3:3), twice Abraham responds “Here I am!” Call stories emphasize the eagerness of a person to respond to God, as well as the great sacrifices they are asked to make for the sake of the mission. Genesis 12 records the call of Abraham and his willingness, even at the age of 75, to leave his home in Haran to journey into the unknown. Already Abraham has shown himself responsive to all that God asks; he has committed himself fully to God in a covenant (Gn 15:1-21). Unsettling questions arise as we ponder why God would demand that Abraham sacrifice his precious son, an act that would seem to make impossible the fulfillment of God’s promise of numerous descendants.
Might it be that the biblical writer is relating how Abraham continued to experience trials and tribulations, even as he tried his best to follow God’s call? Having a mindset that whatever happens is God’s doing, the writer attributes the “testing” of Abraham to God’s intent. Did Abraham find, as we do, that even when we try to be most faithful, tragic things still happen? Or did there come a time when Isaac’s life was in jeopardy and Abraham felt responsible and helpless to protect him? What parent has not had such frightening experiences? Parents also know that loving their children demands that they be willing to let them go. All love relationships flourish only when there is freedom to let go what is most precious, so as to receive it back as a gift. Even if Abraham had lost Isaac, that would not have nullified God’s covenant of love.
The story of Abraham and Isaac invites us to reflect on times when, even though we try to be faithful, we do not hear correctly what God is saying. In rabbinic tradition, some sages have interpreted this text not as a test of Abraham, but of his misunderstanding: “What, do you think I meant for you to slay him? No! I said only to take him up...and now I say take him down” (Gen. Rab. 56:8). Practices of communal discernment offer an alternative model to that of relying on the decisions of one person who might misunderstand what God has said.
A different image of “trial” is found in the second reading. Paul paints a courtroom scene, where despite our shortcomings God acts as our advocate, the one who is on our side, arguing our case. This is a God who does not need payment or any proof of our loyalty. Instead, it is God who proves how much we are loved by freely “handing over” the Son and everything else for us all. God does not “hand over” Jesus to death; rather, God “handed over” the Son to embody in human flesh God’s love for us. Paul knows that there is nothing we can do to earn or prove our love in return. He knows that charges of unfaithfulness can be brought against any of us. Paul then shifts the image: God takes the position of judge, and the risen Christ becomes our advocate. God knows we are guilty, but always acquits us.
A love like this endures even beyond death; it is not disproved by death, as today’s Gospel shows. But love is costly. Today’s psalm speaks of God’s distress at the death of anyone. “Too costly in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his faithful” (N.A.B.) renders better the connotation of “weightiness” that the Hebrew adjective yqr (v. 15) has than does “precious” (N.R.S.V.). A glimpse of the fullness of God’s transformative and costly love is depicted in the Gospel as Jesus continues to choose faithfulness to the divine mission, even though it will lead to his death. By listening to and following Jesus, God’s faithfulness becomes our own.