God's word on Sunday: Abraham's offering is a lesson in trust

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  • February 24, 2018

Second Sunday of Lent, Feb. 25 (Year B) Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Psalm 116; Romans 8:31b-35, 37; Mark 9:2-10


The sacrifice of Isaac is a chilling and disturbing story. A father believes he hears a voice telling him to sacrifice his son and sets out to fulfill the “command.” It sounds all too familiar. We read about those tragedies in the media all the time. How could any parent obey such a command? 

Human sacrifice was not unknown in the ancient world, even among the early Israelites. The request would not have seemed as bizarre as it does to modern sensibilities. 

Ironically, this account is a foundational story of both Judaism and Christianity. For Judaism, Abraham passed the final test, becoming not only Israel’s patriarch but a source of blessing for the world. Christians have always found in it a pre-figuring model for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. 

What sort of spiritual lesson can we take away from a never (hopefully!) to be repeated divine test? Rather than focusing on the sacrifice itself, it would be more helpful for us to consider motivations and intentions. 

Abraham was considered a friend of God. His entire life was guided by this close relationship and absolute trust, and this incident occurred after many years of journeying under God’s guidance. He must have been utterly convinced that God would not allow harm to come to Isaac. There are few people who can legitimately claim a faith as pure and tested as Abraham’s. 

The second part of this test was one of non-possessiveness. Isaac was the most precious thing in the world to Abraham. Not only was Isaac his beloved son, he was also his assurance of descendants and immortality. He was a gift from God, not Abraham’s possession. By offering him back to God, Abraham was placing Isaac in God’s hands and relinquishing control. 

When we offer God our lives, or as in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius our “memory, intellect and will,” it does not mean that God is going to snatch these things away from us. We are merely acknowledging the sovereignty of God and the fact that all that we have and are is a gracious and unearned gift.

God is certainly for us, but not in the way that many people have and still do suppose. God does not stand by our prejudices, nationalism, fears, ideologies, opinions or egoism. God desires our growth, healing, happiness and redemption, and does everything possible without infringing on our free will to open this path for us. 

God did not hold back, giving even His only son for our sake. That is proof enough that there is nothing in this life or on this Earth that can separate us from the love of Christ. We will still have to struggle and we must walk the path that God has laid out for us, but God is with us and for us every step of the way.

Peter, James and John must have been frightened out of their wits. Perhaps they wondered if they were dreaming or hallucinating. Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the herald of the final days. It was clear that Jesus was the summation and fulfillment of both. 

The voice from the cloud was like that heard at the baptism of Jesus. It affirmed His status as the beloved Son and commanded listening and obedience. That command is always needed — far too many people claim allegiance to Jesus, but do not really listen to Him. Their Jesus is often a projection of their own fears, wishes and strongly held opinions. 

Peter showed his lack of understanding by trying to capture or institutionalize the experience by building three shrines or dwellings. He was unable to interpret the significance of what they had just witnessed. After the vision vanished, Jesus typically commanded those with Him to say nothing until He had risen from the dead. Interestingly, they discussed among themselves what rising from the dead could mean. In the first century, there were many things that were not yet clear, just as there are unanswered questions today. 

Most of us will not have an experience like the transfiguration, but we can have moments of insight into the divine radiance and power of Jesus, and surprisingly, of each one of us. It all begins with listening. 

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