During the mid and late 40s, my parents never doubted the shoes they bought me actually fitted. Before they made the purchase the sales person simply positioned by newly-shod feet in the store’s X-ray machine. Peering through the eyepiece, I could see the exact distance between the end of my toes and the front of the shoe.
We no longer use such machines in shoe stores today. Sixty years ago we just didn’t understand the danger to which those X-rays exposed us. What seemed good for one generation certainly wasn’t good for another.
Abraham discovers this truth in today’s Genesis reading. Our disturbing narrative only makes sense against the background of the 8th century BCE child sacrifice practiced in the northern part of the Holy Land. During that period, the Elohistic author of Genesis not only attacks the pagan fertility cults which demand such sacrifices, but also tries to defuse the accusation that Israelites - who don’t sacrifice their children - are less dedicated to Yahweh than their pagan neighbors - who engage in such rituals - are dedicated to their gods.
The passages in II Kings condemning those Israelite kings who forced their children to “pass through the fire,” confirm that some of Yahweh’s people also engaged in these disgusting practices.
Abraham and Sarah are the first Jews. Because of their relationship with Yahweh, they feel called to take faith in a new direction. Though their pre-Jewish ancestors probably participated in child sacrifice, they gradually discover the God they follow doesn’t front for a system which demands people take a life in order to guarantee life. They concentrate on the harm of child sacrifice instead of its benefits. Our sacred author assures us that Abraham and Sarah are willing to sacrifice their only child if Yahweh actually demands it. But (to the chagrin of PETA) an animal substitute provides the same benefits as a first-born son’s death.
Through the centuries we Christians have developed practices which today seem just as unchristian as child sacrifice. Some followers of Jesus once thought spending their entire lives living on a small platform 50 feet in the air was the epitome of faith. Fortunately these “stylites” disappeared after a few centuries. Neither can we forget the church’s 200 year crusade experiment; a period when discipleship revolved around killing as many Holy Land Muslims as possible. More recently, my great aunt once confided in me that when she entered her religious order’s novitiate she was given a hair shirt and a discipline (a small whip), and was frequently expected to use both on her body as proof of her dedication to Jesus.
To avoid such aberrations in the future, we must listen to today’s other two readings. Paul reminds the Romans of one of our faith’s fundamental truths: God always plans for our good. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” There’s no place in real faith for the bizarre practices mentioned above; no reason to think Jesus ever wants us to take another’s life, or inflict meaningless physical or psychological pain on ourselves.
Note the two people appearing with the transfigured Jesus: Elijah and Moses. In the Bible the Bible is never called the Bible. The only Bible known to the authors of the Christian Scriptures was the Hebrew Scriptures - which was called the “Law and the Prophets.” By positioning Jesus between Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet, Mark informs his readers that Jesus represents all of Scripture. That seems to be why he mentions that, after the transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples “no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.”
As a Scripture scholar, it bothers me that one of my faith heroes, Francis of Assisi, knew almost no Scripture. But he certainly knew and imitated Jesus of Nazareth, a practice we never have to worry about changing.