The story of Abraham and Isaac both fascinates and abhors. The choir sings, “what wondrous love is this” immediately following this reading, and you have to ask — huh? What are you doing, Peter? If this is what you say love is about — no thanks.
How, we ask ourselves, could a loving God be so bloodthirsty as to ask for the sacrifice of an only son? How, we ask ourselves, could Abraham be so emotionally disconnected and so morally bankrupt as to consider even for a second giving in to the demand of such a bloodthirsty God? The story today rouses us to seriously question any kind of devotion to religious authority that would make it seem easy or lead one to consider sacrifice of a person, in any way, to some “higher cause.”
I cannot believe that these are solely the questions of a modernist. In fact my purpose in putting Wondrous Love at this point was to highlight the tension that I believe is found in the story in its original context.
The story as it is told in Genesis is in the form of an etiological myth. Etiological myths are a fairly ubiquitous feature of pre-modern, culture formation. The term etiological myth is just a short hand way of describing those stories told by people to describe how something came to be. The seasons, for example, were explained by the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone who was captured by Hades. The only thing Demeter, who is the goddess of grain and growing seasons, can do for her daughter is to withhold her fecundity. Hades in response makes a deal that Persephone can return to visit for half the year, during which time Demeter relents and the earth blooms and grows, only to fade and die when Persephone returns.
Here the story concludes by noting how a certain mountain got its name, and how a certain proverb entered the common vocabulary of the tradition.
Quite often, these etiological myths explain something about the human situation as well. As Walter Pater notes in an essay on Demeter and Persephone,
[Demeter] and Persephone, alone of the Greek gods, seem to have been the objects of a sort of personal love and loyalty. Yet they are ever the solemn goddesses,–theai semnai, the word expressing religious awe, the Greek sense of the divine presence. . . . The myth of Demeter and Persephone illustrates the power of the Greek religion as a religion of pure ideas — [which yet maintain] their hold through many changes . . . [and afford] solemnizing power even for the modern mind.
So what about the story of Abraham and Isaac? What deeper etiological meaning lies hidden in its telling? Is there a theai semnai to which we are to attain?
Here’s one possibility — the story, aside from explaining the origin of the name of a certain moutain, is also meant to explain why the descendants of Abraham did not practice child sacrifice. More specifically, it is a story meant to explain, why, given the tradition that arose from the Semitic theological understanding that all life comes from God and belongs to God, the Israelites nevertheless did not sacrifice their firstborns. It seems some of their Semitic neighbors did. Why not the Israelites?
In fact, the Israelites were forbidden to sacrifice their children (see, eg, Exodus 13:13b). Instead they were required to “redeem” their firstborn males by sacrificing something else in their place, as for instance Mary and Joseph do for the infant Jesus in Luke’s story of the nativity. This story provides a theological explanation for the inconsistency — to be from God and of God and able to understand that fact means that one’s faith need not be tested, that a higher order of self-understanding reveals a moral code entailing responsibility toward the other.
Unfortunately this story is quite often read as a story of faith testing. To prove the point all you need do is turn to just about any commentary.
Sure enough, here’s one example:
People find this a difficult story – what kind of God would test someone in this way? What about Isaac’s mother Sarah who isn’t mentioned but who dies shortly after – are the two things connected? What about the tension in the story – Abraham had been assured that Isaac was the one through whom God’s promise to Abraham would be realised, but now God asks him to sacrifice Isaac. It may be worth recognising these concerns. But the point of the story is clear, indicated in verse 1 and verses 16. It’s a story of how faith is tested, of the radical obedience God requires, and the faithfulness of God to his promises which are to be trusted completely. The New Testament parallels are too numerous to mention.
I won’t mention them. But the author has in mind, specifically Jesus and his crucifixion. Jesus was tested and he passed and that’s why we worship him today.
If, however, instead of this being a story of the testing of one’s faith, it is a story explaining how the monotheistic tradition which grew out of Abraham’s lineage did not practise child sacrifice, did not succumb to the primitive idea that God needs to test us in order to accept us, then in fact it is urging us to think of Jesus in a different light to — to elevate our theological understanding of our experience of grace to a new level.
Let me turn briefly to our New Testament reading to see how it is Jesus does this for us.
The first one short verses from Matthew make the case for what we might call “the mystery of representation.” “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus says.
One way to read that sentence is simply to read it for what it’s worth; the disciples of Jesus represent Jesus, literally make Jesus present again.
Just as Jesus made God present again, or perhaps for the first time, to those he met and ministered to, so that those who welcome disciples are themselves welcomed into the kind of relationship with God that Jesus continually sought — a relationship of trust and loyalty based on a sense of being made right with each other — no matter the other.
Jesus in his life and ministry embodied divine ideals that represented God’s own creative love in the specific conditions of human life. Those who knew and followed Jesus discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, in him those ideals that have “solemnizing power even for the modern mind.” In other words, they come into relationship with a disciple of Jesus and find they have come into the very presence of God.
This central thought is repeated throughout the gospel in several variations. In our reading today, two variation are given — one about receiving a prophet and the other about receiving a righteous person: insofar as a disciple embodies the prophetic quality of speaking-from-God or the righteous quality of acting-from-God, those who welcome the disciple receive those qualities into their own self-constitution, and so receive their reward.
But here’s the thing — this is no reward given as the result of a test. This reward cannot be thought of as a report card for the future — good grades for heaven. To take Abraham’s etiological story seriously means we are called to see this welcome as itself the active embodiement of the God’s love that leads us to experience greater riches and greater death and breadth of love in our present live.
I tend not to like to use the word mystery, because it usually is an excuse for not thinking through what we say about God — But here mystery is appropriate — for the “mystery of representation” describes that certain je ne sais qua about human relationships that we know but cannot really describe. And when that relationship is rich and deep and rewarding than we embody the divine ideals for justice and peace and love in our families, our circles of friends, and our communities.
I’m an introvert. I’ve explained this to you before. While I enjoy being with other’s in social settings, and can usually get along pretty well. I find myself tired out by such settings — usually.
I say usually because Thursday afternoon, as I was sitting downstairs behind the Olan Mills table, signing people in for the photographer, I had a really nice time visiting with people. There were quite a few occasions, unlike on Friday and Saturday, when they were moving along without getting backed up, when several of us were sitting around in the lobby enjoying each other. I reflected back to my second year here when I was quite nervous about doing such things. The difference of course being that we hold a certain je ne sais qua now between us — a certain depth and breadth that goes beyond mere liking someone or not.
I was not worn out on Thursday by that time we had together — instead I sang inside. We’ve passed the test — and we didn’t even know it was a test because we were busy being for each other and with each other in ways that practise the welcome of Christ.