FEBRUARY 25TH, 2018: SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am!" he replied.
Then God said:
"Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
on a height that I will point out to you."
When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD's messenger called to him from heaven,
"Here I am!" he answered.
"Do not lay your hand on the boy," said the messenger.
"Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son."
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.
Again the LORD's messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
"I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing—
all this because you obeyed my command."
Brothers and sisters:
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?
Who will bring a charge against God's chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?
Christ Jesus it is who died—or, rather, was raised—
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.
Many regard today’s second reading as Yahweh’s cruelest biblical trick. How can any god command a father kill his son, and then only tell him he was “kidding” just before he strikes the fatal blow? There must be more here than meets the eye. Why is such a narrative even in Scripture?
It’s important to know this passage comes from the “Eholistic” source: an oral tradition written down in the Northern half of the Holy Land in the middle of the 8th century BCE. The authors of this particular source seem to have been prophets, disturbed by constant pagan pressures inflicted on their readers.
Many of these non-Jewish people actually sacrificed their children to the fertility gods and goddesses they worshiped; often taunting their Israelite neighbors that such atrocious practices proved they were more dedicated to their deities than the Israelites were dedicated to Yahweh. This is where the Eholistic author seems to step in.
This prophetic writer creates a story with which all his readers agree: if Yahweh were to actually demand they sacrifice their children, they would do so, no matter the cost. But the writer reinforces their belief in Yahweh as a God of life by reminding them they’re to “redeem” any child they’d sacrifice with an animal. Today’s narrative is the “official explanation” of that practice. In Abraham’s case, Isaac is redeemed with a ram. (Remember, Joseph and Mary redeemed Jesus with some pigeons.)
In narrating this story, the Eholistic author is more interested in Abraham’s dedication to Yahweh than in the psychological harm such a scenario can inflict on the participants. Though most of us today go beyond the writer’s focus and zero in on other aspects of the narrative, as good “exegetes” we have to see the event through his eyes, not ours.
Abraham, as the first Jew, sets the example for all other Jews. He’s depicted as someone totally loyal to Yahweh. The constant intent to do whatever Yahweh wants is what sets him and his descendants apart from all others. Certainly makes them “holy,” deeply different from those around them.
Each of us is somehow changed by the relationships we form. Every time this happens we become a different person. Nowhere is this more the case than in our relationships with Yahweh and the risen Jesus. Abraham becomes the initial member of Yahweh’s Chosen People; and all other Christs become the new creation their mentor has become.
It’s important to keep the latter in mind when we hear today’s transfiguration pericope. Not only is Jesus transfigured, Mark presumes everyone who imitates Jesus’ dying and rising is also transfigured. It’s possible the evangelist actually began his transfiguration narrative by first reflecting on what happened to him once he dedicated himself to following Jesus of Nazareth. If he’s been transfigured in the imitation process, then Jesus also must have been transfigured when he began the process. The link can’t be broken. What happens to Jesus happens to us, and vice versa.
Paul realizes our commitment to the risen Jesus is the most important aspect of our lives. He reminds the church in Rome that their unique relationship guarantees they’ll experience a “fearless” life. “If God is for us,” he writes, “who can be against us? . . . Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us.” No one can do better.
The Elohistic writer, along with his fellow sacred authors, is convinced Yahweh is a God of life. But he’s also convinced the only way to get the most out of life is to give ourselves over to Yahweh. It’s by sacrificing ourselves to his/her will that we’ll actually reach the depth of that life, no matter the cost.