The Bible (opened)
Sermon - Year B

2nd Sunday of Lent

The three-day-long journey was excruciating and exhausting, not so much physically as mentally. With every step closer to the destination, the weight of the inevitable was getting heavier and heavier. At the same time, there was nobody to share it with, to talk about, despite having his long-expected and dearly loved son as his companion for the journey. Abraham felt he had to keep it secret that, at the end of their journey, he would have to take his only son’s life in obedience to God’s demand. Then, at the final stage of their journey, Isaac, carrying wood for the sacrifice, asked a question that must have torn Abraham’s heart open: “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham’s evasive response would make many modern politicians proud: “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Although the story has a happy ending (no spoilers here; we heard it in the first reading), it may raise a few uneasy questions in our minds. Abraham’s readiness to commit murder in the name of God appears fanatical, something we cannot approve of in this day and age. And why did God test Abraham? It makes God look like a cruel tyrant toying with the life of Abraham and his family, an image that is impossible to accept. But there’s more to that story than there seems to be at first glance, and when we go deeper, we might find it much closer to home than we thought. In order to understand it better, we need to recall the story’s wider context.

The Book of Genesis presents Abraham as a man who believed in a single God, who didn’t have any visual representation, unlike so many gods of the ancient Middle East. His unwavering obedience to God led him out of the land of his ancestors and into a promised land. His attitude and actions were strongly influenced by his faith. However, there was one thing Abraham greatly struggled with all his life: he and his wife were childless. His longing to have a son was like a painful thread weaving through Abraham’s life and propelling him to say and do things that tarnished his near-perfect image. In response to God’s many promises of wealth, land and numberless descendants, he rather resentfully said: “Lord God, there is nothing you can give me that will make me happy because I have no son. […] You have given me no son, so a slave born in my house will get everything I have.” (Genesis 15:2-3) So, God gave another promise: “That slave will not be the one to get what you have. You will have a son who will get everything you own.” (Genesis 15:4) Abraham believed it… and nothing happened as the years went by. So, he took the matter into his own hands, and with – I suppose the extremely reluctant – approval of his wife Sarah, he made a slave girl pregnant, who then bore him a son. Predictably, that led to such almighty quarrels and fisticuffs between the two women that Abraham soon regretted the whole thing. The distressed slave girl and her son eventually ran away, fed up with persistent cruel treatment at Sarah’s hand, which in her case proved right the saying: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Eventually, a moment of enormous happiness came: “Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. Sarah said, “God has made me happy. […] No one thought that I, Sarah, would be able to have Abraham’s child. But I have given Abraham a son, even though he is old.” (Genesis 21:5-7) The given age was most likely exaggerated to emphasise the miraculous nature of having a son, Abraham’s “last chance saloon”. Having waited and longed for so long, he naturally became overprotective of his son Isaac. Such a relationship can easily develop into an unhealthy bond for both parties. This is the context of the story in today’s first reading.

The sacrificial death of Abraham’s only child and heir at his hand was not the purpose. God doesn’t need any sacrifice for his own pleasure because nothing can be added to or diminish his infinite greatness. Abraham’s test was about his ability and willingness to set Isaac free. As an overprotective father, he could have been very restrictive, consequently metaphorically killing Isaac slowly, stifling his aspirations and dreams “for his own good”, effectively stopping him from living his own life. Isaac’s sacrificial death at his restrictive father’s hand would be just a fitting ending to his privileged but stifled life. Paradoxically, the nearly completed murderous sacrifice set his father free, just as much as it did Isaac. Stopped at the last moment, Abraham was told: “Do not raise your hand against the boy. Do not harm him,” perhaps the instruction not just for that moment but for the future. The event set both father and son free. For Isaac, it meant he could find his own path and live his own life. That’s what we must do, too, as parents, catechists, and educators – prepare our children and equip them with skills and, in due course, set them free to forge their own fate, even if, in the process, they might get their fingers burnt.

The story of Abraham’s sacrifice has a broader meaning too. In Lent, we are encouraged to make sacrifices to restrict or limit things we normally enjoy having or doing. However, such practices are not to be carried out for their own sake but to gain freedom from sinful or unhealthy habits or to use everything at our disposal for the greater good. Think about what you would rather not give up. Then do give it up. You might lose it completely or get it back. You will certainly gain freedom, and as we know, in Scotland, freedom is everything – if you believe “Braveheart”!