The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Second Sunday of Lent||March 12, 2006|
As I mentioned in introducing the first reading this morning, theres probably hardly any other passage in the scriptures that presents such a troubling picture of God. A God who could be so cruel as to demand that a parent kill his or her own child, and somehow that would be giving worship to God. Im sure none of us can really accept that -- that God could be so cruel. What kind of a God could ever demand that of any parent? Most you are parents. You know that would be the most cruel thing you could ever be asked to do -- harm your own child. And so how do we understand this passage?
Well, first of all, we need to know that this happened at a time about 700 and some years before Christ when the chosen people, or the people of Abraham at the time, in the northern part of what became the holy land, were mixed in with many, many other peoples, tribes and individual groups of people, where the practice of child sacrifice was very common. There were other religions where this was the situation. Where a god, according to the peoples insights, would demand child sacrifice. Abraham was living among them and must have begun to wonder if God would be asking that of him and Sarah.
And there probably were people who were saying, Well, if you really loved your God, you would give up anything for your God. And were willing to give up our children because we love our God. Abraham had to be challenged by that. Did he truly love God? The God who had been revealed to him? Who had called him to found the new people? Did he really love that God enough to be willing to give up anything? As he was reflecting upon this, probably, he began to think that yes, God was asking this of him.
One of the things that we should notice or remind ourselves of is the way its written, its almost as though God is speaking right out loud to Abraham. Wouldnt that be good if God really did speak? Just say, You must do this or You must do that or Dont do this and we could hear Gods words. But that isnt true for us, and it wasnt true for Abraham. He had to discern within his own heart, his own spirit, what God was asking of him. So for a while he thought, This is what God is asking. All these other peoples are doing it. If I really love God perhaps I must do it.
So he begins that very difficult trek up the mountain with Isaac, telling Isaac theyre going to go offer a sacrifice. And even when Isaac says, Well, wheres the victim? He answers very ambiguously, Well, God will provide. They go on. But as Abraham gets close to doing it, as the story is told, with his hand uplifted, ready to strike Isaac, he stops. In his heart he knows that this cannot be right. And so he wont kill Isaac.
As I was reflecting upon this, I was wondering to myself, What changed in Abraham? Where did he get the insight that No, God could not be asking this. He probably remembered how gracious God had been to him when God first called Abraham. When God said to Abraham, Leave your country, your family, your fathers house for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great and you will be a blessing. God was generous to him. God was loving to him. He must have been remembering that. Thats how God is -- generous and loving. Its articulated much later, the kind of God that Abraham might come to know is the God described by Isaiah. Isaiah tells us, Sing oh heavens and rejoice oh earth, break forth into song oh mountains, for Yahweh has comforted his people. Taken pity on those who are afflicted. But Zion said, Yahweh has forsaken me my lord and forgotten me. And then God says, Can a woman forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child of her womb? Yet those she forgets I will never forget.
Thats the kind of God Abraham knew. And he began to think about God as this loving, totally compassionate, generous God. But I think probably what finally convinced him, I must not kill my son -- what convinced him was that he probably looked directly into the eyes of Isaac and saw this beautiful child so vulnerable, so lovable, and he knew he could not kill that child. Maybe as he was walking up the mountainside, he had refused to look at Isaac, but then when he was about to strike he looked at him, and he knew he couldnt do it. This lovable, beautiful, vulnerable child. Abraham stopped and then found a ram and offered the sacrifice.
This is the kind of God, then, that we worship. A God who is love. A God who showers us with love and asks us to be loving also. Thats probably the most important thing we should learn from the Gospel.
Thats an interesting incident in the life of Jesus -- where he takes Peter, James and John and goes up the mountainside and then the Gospels say Jesus was transfigured or transformed in their presence. And they had this experience somehow of Jesus discussing with Moses and Elijah. Mark is very careful in the people that he puts into the scene. Moses would have represented all the laws -- the Torah of the Jewish people. Elijah -- the prophet. And then they disappear and its Jesus whos left. Mark is telling us that everything weve learned from Moses and Elijah, from the law and the prophets is now come to its fullness in Jesus. We turn to Jesus now to learn the full revelation of who God is.
In their discussion, what were they talking about? They were talking about the passing of Jesus. His torture, his execution and how he would act throughout that terrible ordeal. Of course, as we know, Jesus showed us an extraordinary kind of love when he was tortured and executed. No vengeance, no violence in response. Nothing but love and forgiveness. This is the message that Jesus shows us.
Sometimes I think we talk about Jesus as being a sacrifice that God demanded as the price for our sin, but thats wrong, anymore than God would have demanded the life of Isaac. God doesnt demand that Jesus pay a price for our sins. No, Jesus puts himself into the situation of being in the midst of evil, and then he shows us how we change evil, transform it into good, its through love, compassion, and forgiveness. God says, listen to him. Thats what we must try to do this morning. Listen to Jesus who in this incident of the transfiguration tells us ahead of time, in a way, of what was going to happen to him and how he would respond.
If we truly listen to Jesus, one of the first things, it seems to me, we would begin to understand is that we do have to abolish the death penalty. The program that I spoke to you about before Mass that were going to begin to try to complete or develop our understanding that this is wrong. To kill someone out of vengeance, out of vindictiveness, out of hate, even if that someone has wounded us or harmed us in a terrible way, its wrong. Listen to Jesus, who while he was dying prayed forgiveness. He loved those who were putting him to death. Thats a difficult message. Its an important message, one that we must begin to try to hear.
It also seems to me that if we listen to Jesus, well be very careful during the next few weeks and perhaps months as our government once more prepares us to go to war. Maybe you havent noticed, but the same kind of statements that President Bush was making and Vice President Cheney before we went to war on Iraq, theyre making now. Some political analysts say its going to happen before the end of this month. That we will be bombing sites in Iran.
Whats going to happen is that well begin to hear all the terrible things about these crazy people. Theyre not to be trusted with nuclear weapons. We can be trusted with them even though we have used them, but they cant be. So we have to destroy them, and as we bomb these sites where they are building these weapons, we will be killing people. But itll be OK, because we will learn to consider them as terrorists, as fanatics, as evil people. We have to resist that.
I really believe that what changed Abrahams heart and conviction about killing his son, was looking into his sons eyes, seeing him as a lovable person. If we being to do the same thing with the Iranian people, we wont let our government deceive us into thinking that they are fanatics, that they are crazy people and that they will use these weapons to destroy the world. Again we must listen to Jesus, reject the use of violence, find the creative, loving way to resolve the problems that we face in the world not just because Iran will be getting nuclear weapons, but because eight other nations already have them. We will begin to find a way to resolve this terrible problem, not by using violence, but by trying to find the loving way, out of our terrible situation of danger to our whole planet. Again, we must listen to Jesus. His way is the way that can show us how to avoid violence and killing and destruction and to bring peace both within our own hearts, if we abolish something like the death penalty, and within our world, if we can prevent another war.
Listen to Jesus. But itll take great trust. And so the words of St. Paul today are very important. If God is for us, who can be against? What do we have to fear? If we are following the way of God, then we will be finding the way to peace. Thats what Paul is telling us, and its true. God is for us, Gods love is with us. We have nothing to fear. And so we must listen to Jesus and follow his way.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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