Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Radical Disobedience
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February 28th, 2021: The Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 22: 1-2a, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Romans 8: 31b-34
Mark 9: 2-10
Reflection from Rev. Richard P. Young
Abraham has always been seen as the founding father of the original great covenant between God and humankind. He is revered in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – presented to us as an example of steadfast faith and virtue. So, you may be surprised to learn that, in the original version of the Abraham/Isaac story, Abraham disobeys God. The story underwent at least two revisions, and we hear that revised version in the readings this Sunday. But some scholars suggest that, before those changes, the story went something like this: as a test, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, whom he loved. Abraham raises his knife, believing that God would stop him, but God does not do so. No angel appears in this version of the story. Abraham decides on his own that this command should not be followed, and he sacrifices a ram instead. He disobeys God! The story was used in biblical times to drive home the point that God hates human sacrifice. It was something that Israel’s neighbors did in their service of false gods. The message is, “Don’t be like your neighbors. You’re better than that.”
In his book, The Binding of Isaac, A Religious Model of Disobedience, Omri Boehm, an assistant professor of philosophy at the New School in New York City, notes that various medieval commentators on the Abraham/Isaac story did look at its original version and commented on Abraham’s disobedience. They concluded that Abraham’s disobedience was, in fact, the basis of his true affirmation of faith. In other words, his faith was made manifest IN his disobedience. He was righteous, BECAUSE he disobeyed. So, there is still hope for us disobedient troublemakers.
Believing that Abraham was disobedient creates a lot of problems. Was it the true God that Abraham disobeyed? The original passage says yes. But the true God hates human sacrifice, and we have come to know God as one who needs no appeasement and loves, forgives, and blesses freely. How do we make sense of God acting like a false god? Surely, we think, God didn’t really mean it and wanted Abraham to disobey, to discover for himself the foolishness and evil of the order and just say no. Is Abraham rewarded because he took the time to discern what the true God would ask of him? If that is the case, God risks Isaac’s severe emotional distress, or worse, just to make a point. Either way, God doesn’t come out looking very good. And what about the blessing? The angel, in the standard version, says, “Because you (Abraham) acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly” – suggesting that Abraham would not have been blessed if he had disobeyed. But, if you believe the earlier version, he did disobey and was blessed anyway – blessed, I believe, BECAUSE he disobeyed.
Still, regardless of what the angel says, in spite of all the theological problems it causes, I like a disobedient Abraham. I would like him even more if he had disobeyed right away and not at the last second. I want an Abraham who is self-actualized and self-assured enough to argue with God and to respect his own conscience.
Christian thinkers have always seen a parallel between God sacrificing Jesus and Abraham sacrificing Isaac. But a disobedient Abraham, an Abraham who was unwilling to engage in human sacrifice, flies in the face of a common understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death. Anglican bishop John Spong wrote, “I do not believe that modern [folks] will ever find appealing a God whose will is served by the human sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.” Spong makes sense to me. The sacrifice analogy just doesn’t work. I say Jesus’ death should not be seen as a sacrifice, something done in some kind of bizarre fix of the human condition that says, “I will kill the child so that you will have my favor and your sins will be forgiven.”
So, is there another way to interpret Jesus’ death? Of course. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “This is why Abba God loves me – because I lay down my life, only to take it up again. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely.” Isaac was tied up. His freedom was taken away. Abraham felt compelled to make the sacrifice of his son, so he didn’t feel free either. But the Jesus of John’s gospel freely makes an offering, and is not sacrificed. Jesus is free to embrace death, not because God demands a sacrifice, but because Jesus can let go freely through the power of disobedience. Jesus can disobey the rulers of the day; threaten the Roman system; anger the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus can make enemies by challenging the whole reward/punishment system and replace it with a beautiful new ethic of love. Jesus is free to face the consequences of all that defiance, and lovingly offer this life – not have it sacrificed.
So, we have a story about an allegedly disobedient patriarch, and the gospels tell us of a disobedient Christ. Our gospel account of the transfiguration is a story featuring Jesus hobnobbing with Moses, the great lawgiver, and shooting the breeze with Elijah, the boldest of God’s prophets, who were known for rebelling against authority. Jesus belongs in their company, because as one who disobeyed the law in favor of charity – healing on the Sabbath, for example. Jesus, too, is righteous IN disobedience. And the divine voice in the story says, “This is my beloved. Listen!” God approves of this disobedience.
Sacrifice is about giving up; offering is about stepping up. Lent should not be about giving up (sacrificing) sweets (or whatever) in the hope that God will bless us. Lent should be for stepping up – offering ourselves in justice and love. To do so, we have to follow Christ’s example and disobey the false gods among us. We have to not be what Joan Chittister calls “docile attendants of oppressive and unjust systems.”
Human sacrifice is still going on in those systems, and the true prophets of the true God still condemn it. Our gun laws, designed to enrich the gun industry, lead to tragedies in which our fellow citizens are sacrificed to the gods of greed and consumerism, the gods who accept as normal the “collateral damage” of their demands that any gun can be sold to practically anyone who wants one, with little or no regulation.
Human sacrifice still goes on, when thousands die each year for lack of health insurance. The gods served by the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry don’t seem to mind that the poor have a lower life expectancy, largely due to the greed in these businesses.
Many of the same millionaire and billionaire worshippers of false gods are also among the biggest polluters in the world, standing in the way of clean, renewable energy. They accept the sacrifice of those who die of asthma or led poisoning or cancer, because of the trashing of the environment. It’s just the cost of doing business.
The followers of the false gods of capitalism place their insane profits above human life and buy politicians who will support their goals and cut their taxes at the expense of those in need. They want to privatize everything, to make a business out of all that adds value and beauty to our lives: education, energy, healthcare. If you can afford their goods and services, great. If not, too bad. To be fair, not every business leader is so crass and uncaring, and many sincerely try to conduct their affairs in a way that is ethical and moral. But systems of greed that make a buck on the suffering of others are the false gods we must disobey.
To step up, instead of give up, we have to get creative about how to offer our lives in solidarity with those who are on the altar of sacrifice. Like Abraham, like Jesus, we must get creative about how best to resist, how best to disobey.
Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He co-chairs the Social Justice Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity chapters since the late 70s.
He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981. He is married to DignityUSA’s national secretary, Bob Butts.