This week’s contribution to our lectionary blog is offered by Celia Paterson, Reader in St George’s Church, Madrid. Celia draws on the Old Testament reading, Genesis 22.1-18, and the Gospel, John 13.31-35, set for this Sunday.
‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.’ (Genesis 22.2)
God asks Abraham to kill the son he and Sarah had waited for, for so long. God had asked him to leave his country, his people and his home to travel to an unknown land (Genesis 12.1) and he had obeyed. God promised him offspring like the dust of the earth, but he and Sarah were old. How could they have a child after all those barren years? God told him that he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17.4), but he was 99 years old and Sarah well past child-bearing age. Yet, the impossible happened, Sarah bore a son, Isaac.
Now God was commanding Abraham to kill that much desired, much loved and long-awaited son. Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Ishmael, was his first son, but Isaac was the first born of his wife. It was Isaac that would give him the grandchildren who would be the foundation of the family of nations, the family that would become Israel.
How could God be breaking those promises?
However, Abraham obeys God’s command without questioning it. He gets up early to prepare for the journey and they set off.
The three days must have been torture for Abraham, an unimaginable situation. Three days knowing what you must do at the end of the journey. Three days walking beside the son you must kill. Yet Abraham never wavers. And what must Isaac have thought? They carried all the necessities for a sacrifice, but no lamb. He was obviously puzzled when he asked his father where the lamb was. He must have been truly horrified when he realises he is the sacrifice.
God stops Abraham from killing his son and provides a ram, but I wonder what Isaac’s feelings were towards his father on the journey home.
Abraham has proved to God his tremendous love and obedience and is told that he would have as many descendants as stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore, but did his family understand the great sacrifice that he had been prepared to make? For the Jews the first-born always belonged to God, so God was asking for his own, but that would not have made it any easier for Abraham or his family.
Would we be able to love and obey God to that extent?
If what God asks of Abraham could appear cruel, with the sacrifice of his own Son, God’s love for humanity is beyond doubt.
In the Gospel of John (13.31-35) we are again reminded of the importance of love.
At the Last Supper, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment:
‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ (John 13.34)
Leviticus (19.18) tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves, but this new commandment is much more. Jesus is about to be betrayed. He knows what is about to happen. God sacrifices his only Son for all of us. There is no last minute reprieve as there was for Abraham and Isaac. Jesus Christ’s death will glorify God as it will the Son, but first that horrendous death must be suffered. Jesus was asking his disciples for a completely sacrificial love.
The traditional location of the site of Jesus’ Last Supper, Jerusalem (José Andrés Sánchez Abarrio)
If only we could all love as deeply and sacrificially as this.
What could God ask us to sacrifice today?
Perhaps in Europe we are too attached to our comfort, resulting in fear of the other, those different. We see a rise in racism and intolerance, as refugees seek shelter in our countries. Brexit has resulted in a wave of xenophobia and reportedly in Germany there is a high level of violence in extreme right-wing groups. Bishop Philip Mounstephen, once chaplain in Paris, has reported on the persecution of Christians bordering on genocide in some areas of the world.
So much hatred.
However, in Sri Lanka a mosque offered their premises to Roman Catholics after their church had been bombed. A sign of hope, but most of us have a very long way to go.