June 28, 2020
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Genesis 22:1-14||Psalm 13||Romans 6:12-23||Matthew 10:40-42||Jeremiah 28:5-9||Psalm 89:1-4,15-18|
by Paul Nancarrow
The Sacrifice (or Binding) of Isaac narrated in Genesis 22:1-14 probably originated as an etiological legend explaining why the People of Israel do not practice child sacrifice. Sacrifice of children was known throughout the Ancient Near East, documented in many different religious texts, histories, and archeological finds. It is referred to several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, though there is today considerable scholarly debate as to its actual practice by Israelites, either as worship of other gods or as worship of YHWH. Heath D. Dewrell says simply, “There is a general consensus that child sacrifice did indeed take place in ancient Israel, although there is little agreement on the extent to which the practice occurred or on other specifics” (The Ancient Near East Today). It is clearly the stance of the scriptures themselves that child sacrifice, and specifically the sacrifice of the firstborn, is not to be practiced in God’s name, even if some subgroups among the people were reputed to have resorted to it at one time or another. Representative is the commandment in Exodus 34:19-20, “All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.” The basic position that the firstborn belongs to God, adjusted with a statute to redeem that firstborn son with a lamb, is given narrative background, as it were, in this near-sacrifice story.
All of which is well and good for a scholarly understanding of the text. But when the text is simply read on its own, as presented in the lectionary, and is given without preamble or footnote as a live performance before a listening congregation, it is not the prevention of child sacrifice that is heard. What we today notice first and foremost is the horror of child sacrifice. What kind of a God could demand such a thing? What kind of a father could even contemplate granting such a demand? How could anyone with a conscience consent to worship a God who would put a believer to such an abhorrent “test”?
Is there a way to reconcile the two perspectives? Some commentators might argue that reconciliation is not the point, that any attempt to reconcile would simply paper over the deep flaws of the original text, and that a contemporary preacher would do best to look at this story and simply say “God is not like that” and move on. That is an option.
As a process thinker, however, I think it is valuable to make the attempt, at least, to move from contradiction to contrast, to find a larger set of prehensions or point of view that will hold together the apparent opposites of scholarly explanation and moral outrage. We are outraged by the beginning of the story, which poses the entire episode as a “test,” as if it were some sort of evaluative exercise posed by a disconnected and uncaring God to determine whether a believing follower is willing to abase himself enough. What if we were to focus on the end of the story, when Abraham finds a way out of his dilemma because God has allowed him to see something he did not see before?
For whatever reason, whether by direct command from God or because it was a pervasive cultural practice in his environment, Abraham feels he must acknowledge God as the source of life by returning his firstborn to that source. This is not easy or unemotional for him. The narrative does not describe Abraham’s emotional state directly, there are no adjectives marking Abraham as “sad” or “angry” or “resigned”; but the story is told with deep pathos, a lack of overt emotion suggesting an almost depressive condition, and bitter irony when Abraham says “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” knowing that Isaac is precisely what God has provided. This is not something Abraham wants to do, yet it is something Abraham must do. He is trapped in that dilemma, unable to find a way out and unable to allow himself to feel his own distress — until God stays his hand, affirms the totality of Abraham’s commitment, and opens Abraham’s eyes to see the ram caught in the thicket nearby. God provides for Abraham a new possibility, a way to honor God as the source of life both by returning life to God and by protecting and nurturing the life of the son given him by God. By receiving and actualizing this new possibility in his own occasion of action, Abraham learns yet more deeply that “the Lord will provide,” in this and in all situations.
Part of our present difficulty with this passage is our inheritance from Enlightenment thinking that God must be at least as rational as we are, at least as moral as we would try to be. Since we would find it wrong or repugnant to test or be tested by another human being in this way, we would not want to believe that God would act in this way. The ancient author(s) of this story had no such compunction; to them it was axiomatic that God’s ways are mysterious, that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord,” and that often we cannot know what God is doing until the thing is done and the meaning can be revealed in retrospect. If we can, for an interpretive moment, set aside our desire for God to be like us, and move beyond our outrage at the notion of divine testing, what could we see in this passage of the promise of a God who will provide ways out of the painful dilemmas in which we find ourselves? If we are caught in a dilemma between honoring life by practicing social distancing in a time of pandemic, and honoring life by restoring economic activity and meaningful work to people who need to support themselves — then what new possibility might we be able to see God offer? If we experience dilemma between doing what seems socially correct and accepted, and a deep commitment that there are better ways to honor life than current custom — then what new possibility might we be able to see God offer? In what way might we be able to look at the seemingly impossible choices of our own moment and yet trust that “the Lord will provide”?
Psalm 13 is a prayer for God to be revealed in action to rescue the psalmist in distress. “How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day?” the psalmist asks. Even in distress, even when God’s face is hidden, the psalmist still affirms “I put my trust in your mercy”; that trust is fulfilled with the appearance of “saving help,” whereupon the psalm can end with a burst of praise, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly.” The trajectory of the psalm parallels Abraham’s experience in the Genesis passage, from the perplexity of his dilemma to the final affirmation that the Lord will provide.
Jeremiah 28:5-9 begins, curiously, in the middle of the story; a preacher with the liberty to do so might want to extend the reading in church to include the first four verses of the chapter as well. These earlier verses set the scene: Hananiah, an official court prophet in the service of the Babylonian puppet King Zedekiah, at a public gathering in the Temple, has predicted that within two years God will break the power of Babylon, and God will bring back to Jerusalem King Jeconiah, the vessels taken from the Temple, and the people taken into exile in the first deportation. It is to this prediction that Jeremiah says “Amen! May the Lord do so.” Jeremiah, who has been in open opposition to royal policies for years, and who is no supporter of Zedekiah, would probably be delighted if Jerusalem could be freed and the exiles returned in only two years. But his “Amen” has more the tone of “If only it could be so” than of “Yes, I agree.” Jeremiah has been prophesying for years that the people will be in exile for decades, and he regards Hananiah’s prediction of two years as yet more propaganda and false optimism in support of the royal house. Prophecy, Jeremiah points out, is corroborated by history: prophets before Hananiah and Jeremiah have predicted wars and famines and pestilences, those disasters happened, and those prophet’s words were revealed to be true prophecies. This is what Jeremiah has been predicting. Prophets have also promised peace, as Hananiah is now attempting; but it is only “when the word of that prophet comes true” that “it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”
Prophecy is not automatic, not a revelation of a future that is already scripted and is bound to play out exactly as the prophet has described. Prophecy is a word from God to the people through the prophet: it may include declarations of God’s aims and ideals for future realization, but these aims can only be realized as the people themselves contribute their co-creative action and embody those ideals, to greater or lesser degree, in actual history. Jeremiah has been warning all along the Jerusalem will fall and go into exile because the people are not faithfully acting out divine covenant ideals of right-relationship with God and each other; this is indeed coming to pass as the first deportation has occurred. Hananiah, on the other hand, is simply saying “God will fix this without you having to do anything”; he makes no call to the people to be faithful to God’s promise of peace by enacting peace themselves. This, to Jeremiah, is no true prophecy. The outworking of events, Jeremiah says to Hananiah, will prove which prophet is true. What matters more than prediction, therefore, is the call to be faithful in embodying God’s ideals.
As a response to the Jeremiah passage, Psalm 89:1-4,15-18 reaffirms God’s faithfulness to the covenant and promise of peace to the house of David. Importantly, this promise is actualized in the faithful response of the people, those who “walk, O Lord, in the light of your presence” and “are jubilant in your righteousness.” The actual outworking of peace is a cooperative effort between God and the people who know that God is “the glory of their strength” and do not rely solely on their own political savvy or purchasing power. It is in receiving ideals from God and offering actions that embody those ideals in right-relationships of genuinely shared joy that faithful people reveal that God’s “love is established for ever.”
The controlling metaphor of Romans 6:12-23 is slavery, and that presents a considerable challenge to preaching on the text today. While it is certainly true that “slavery” in the Hellenistic culture for which Paul wrote was very different, it is inevitable that a contemporary congregation — and most especially a contemporary congregation in the US — will hear the word as reflecting racially based subjugation of entire peoples, and the continuing injustices and inequities suffered by communities of color as a consequence of the history of enslavement in this nation. Becoming “slaves of righteousness,” even if it is admitted to be a concessional “speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations,” is not an acceptable way today to speak of the liberating work of God.
Perhaps we can dig past the repugnant metaphor to the more genuine meaning by remembering that “slavery” in Hellenistic society was often a matter of being bound to a particular household. In functional terms, what Paul is attempting to describe here is leaving one sort of household or system of interpersonal relations, in order to join another. The Roman converts at one time belonged to a system of social interactions defined by sin, by patterns of distorted relationships characterized by taking and manipulating and greed. Such patterns are codified in the law; the purpose of the law, as Paul has previously argued, is to condemn such patterns; but by drawing attention to them, the law paradoxically gives these patterns more power. Grace, on the other hand, frees from the burdensome awareness of the law, and gives the believer the opportunity to join another household, to participate in a system of relationships in the society of the church, a system characterized by receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude. As participants in this new social system, believers can “present your members,” their concrete bodily actions, “to God as instruments of righteousness,” that is, as enactments of divine ideals for right-relationship in genuinely mutual well-being. Entering into co-creative relationship with God and neighbors in the social system of faith, believers engage a process of “sanctification,” in which believers’ enactments of divine aims in concrete moments give God more to work with, as it were, in offering even greater aims in succeeding moments. Thus sanctification is not simply a personal accomplishment, won by the believer’s own effort, but it is “the free gift” of grace that comes from God’s ever-widening offering of new possibilities, extending the individual life into “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
An image that always comes to my mind in connection with Matthew 10:40-42 is a magnet and paper clips. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus says to his disciples; and it makes me think of the way a magnet can take up a paper clip into its magnetic field, so that the clip also becomes magnetic and can pick up a second clip, which then also becomes magnetic, and so on. The disciples participate in Jesus’ field of force, insofar as they re-enact in themselves Jesus’ own pattern of receiving and offering; and Jesus participates in the divine field of force, in that Jesus re-enacts in his human life the pattern of receiving and offering that is the hypostasis of the Second Person of the Trinity. Therefore anyone who receives the disciples on their preaching mission, anyone who receives the disciples’ preaching and healing and offers in turn their own heart to the Good News, participates in the disciples’ field of force, which is also Jesus’, which is also God’s. The “reward” of participation in divine life always begins in “welcome,” in receiving openly and honestly and with a genuine appreciation of the other’s gifts and needs and identity. God does not accept a person because of anything that person has done to “earn” or “deserve” God’s love, but only because a person is open to welcome God’s love. For that reason one “receives a prophet’s reward” not for achieving the rank of prophet, but for welcoming a prophet and participating in the proclamation. One “receives the reward of the righteous” not for scoring righteousness points, but for welcoming a righteous person and participating in right-relationship. And the first step of discipleship and its promise of participation in Jesus’ Way of life is as simple as welcoming a disciple and giving them a cup of cold water, a simple gesture of hospitality and refreshment, in basic compassion for the “little ones.” This kind of “welcome” represents a receiving of divine ideals of right-relationship, and an offering of personal action to embody those ideals — and that is an inaugural and foundational participation in the pattern of life exemplified through disciples from Jesus from God. Such fully-lived life is the disciple’s “reward.”
The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest retired from full-time parish ministry. His theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at paulsnancarrow.wordpress.com. He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Upper Midwest.