Year A, Proper 8
The story of the binding of Isaac is, for me at least, and for many people of both the Jewish and Christian tradition, one of the most frustrating and least accessible pieces of Holy Scripture. It is undoubtedly one of the stories that leads the casual reader of scripture to wrongly believe that the God of the Old Testament was a god of wrath and judgment while the God of the New Testament was a god of Love and peace. Setting aside the obvious and glaring exceptions to that premise (Jesus’ cleansing the Temple, or his many teachings on the fiery judgment of God), one cannot simply discard this story as though it isn’t a part of the canon. We must contend with it. Yet, part of our aversion to this text, no doubt, is that none of us is able to put ourselves into the mind of Abraham. There is no satisfying answer to the question of how one could come to ritually sacrifice their son or daughter. The text confounds us until we are able to set aside our modern psychological assumptions. If there is any historical truth in the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, it is that in the historical context of the Ancient Near East out of which this story springs, the notions of blood sacrifice, and even child sacrifice would have been both accepted and commonplace. In that light, if we find any condemnation (say, in the commandment, “Thou shalt not Kill”) of the practice of human sacrifice, we might understand that scripture is wrestling back and forth to arrive at this place of non-violence. In that way, the Binding of Isaac is perhaps best seen as a rebuke of ritual violence. The text tells us that the story is about God testing Abraham, and how he, Abraham, passes the test. In that light, we have been led to believe that it is Abraham’s willingness to carry out the sacrifice, his willingness to obey God’s demand for blood, that accounts him faithful to God. But, to come up higher out of the specifics of this text, to see it in the sweep of the whole narrative of the people of Israel, working over time to reject sacred violence, we might see instead that, as one theologian puts it “Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done.”
Such a reading of the text is indebted to the late French philosopher, Rene Girard, who, when writing on this subject related it, as is often the case, to the image of who Christian’s regard as the ultimate victim, Jesus on the cross. For Girard, Jesus’ willingness to take on the cross echoes the story of Abraham and Isaac. He writes:
“When Isaac asks his father: The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering? Abraham’s answer is extraordinary, and one of the most significant points in the whole of the Bible: God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering. This sentence announces the finding of the ram that will replace Isaac, but Christians have always seen a prophetic allusion to Christ as well. God, in this sense, will give the one who will sacrifice himself in order to do away with all sacrificial violence…However, in the prophetic texts, we are a step further: it is the moment in which animal sacrifices will not work any more, as expressed, for instance, in Psalm 40: Sacrifice and offering you did not desire…burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. In other words, the Bible provides not merely a replacement of the object to be sacrificed, but the end of the sacrificial order in its entirety, thanks to the consenting victim who is Jesus Christ.”
For Girard, the world thrives on sacrifice. It is, as he believed, the only way humans know how to achieve peace. He contended, humans desire what they do not have. That desire is mimicked by others, caught, he said, almost like a contagion of want. Wanting the same thing, humans naturally competed with one another for that thing in a cycle that usually and almost inevitably culminated in violence. In order to end that conflict, a victim is picked, and through the brutality of some ritual of violence – war, genocide, lynching, or stoning – the victim expiates the whole community, and peace is found again. The victim becomes a place where the whole community can place their anger and frustration over not getting what they want.
So it is that from time to time we send our sons and daughters off to war in a ritual act of violence to appease our want for the scarce resources of this world – oil, water, land – or to distract us from the frustrating realities of our own lack at home – income inequality, economic stagnation, loss of work, lack of access to education, healthcare, and prestige. Though we might struggle and outright reject the story of Abraham and his seeming willingness to sacrifice his son to God, we would be hypocrites to do so when we so easily and often accept the sacrifice of our own sons and daughters in the name of much lesser gods. We have too often accepted, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote, that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” So too, we are hypocrites if we don’t see things like the mass incarceration of African Americans and persons of color and the shooting of unarmed civilians as necessary to achieving peace in our communities. As Christians who hold the story of Jesus as our guide and stay, these beliefs must be rejected. Freedom from sin and peace from the vicious cycles of violence which we are prone toward, was achieved once for all by the willingness of Jesus to go to the cross. Freedom came to us in the form of vulnerability not strength. Peace is achieved by our willingness to live as Jesus did, as those who are vulnerable in the world.
After our back porch series this summer, which, we all acknowledged was far too brief, and which needed to go much deeper, I was, nevertheless, left with the resounding question from the majority of participants: What are we going to do? What do we do in light of the cycles of victimization and marginalization that we are all too often a part of? What do we do when we are the beneficiaries of systems of oppression that single out our black and brown neighbors? What do we do when we hear our problems pointed at immigrants and refugees and Muslims?
I believe the story of Abraham and Isaac sets the very beginnings of an example. Trust that God will provide. Indeed, we must trust that a way forward has already been made in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That truth is echoed for us in this morning’s gospel. Jesus is teaching his disciples again on the nature and cost of discipleship, and he returns to his original message – that discipleship will spring forth from the biblical mandate of welcome. Hospitality, acceptance, welcome – these will be the hallmarks of following the one whom the world rejected. These are the very opposite of the kinds of exclusion and scapegoating that keep the world turning. But, even more than the hospitality of disciples, the text seems to imply that the disciple also must enter the world trusting that there will be welcome enough even for them. The attitude of the disciple, will be shaped by trust and modeled through vulnerability. In this passage, more than the givers of a cup of water, we are to be one’s who trust that it will be given.
What can we do? We can follow the teaching and leading of Christ and enter the world with vulnerability, trusting that God, in the face of another, will provide our basic needs, and trust that what we have, our truth, our story, our need for human connection and presence, is enough. The way forward in a world that demands blood, is not the posture of defensiveness, nor the mode of further exploitation and conquest – it is to step forward in hope that God will be known to us in the loving presence of another who is different.
In her book about the Rule of St. Benedict, Joan Chittister quotes Ram Dass, writing, “In India, When people meet and part they often say, ‘Namaste,’ which means: I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides; I honor the place in you of love, of light, of truth, of peace. I honor the place within you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us….’Namaste.'” This, she argues, is the place from which Christian hospitality springs. I would contend, it is the place from which the worlds violence is ended – it is the example of Christ.