And it cometh to pass after these things that God hath tried Abraham, and saith unto him, `Abraham;’ and he saith, `Here am I.’ And He saith, `Take, I pray thee, thy son, thine only one, whom thou hast loved, even Isaac, and go for thyself unto the land of Moriah, and cause him to ascend there for a burnt-offering on one of the mountains of which I speak unto thee.’- Genesis 22:1-2
Everything was going well for Abraham. Faithful to God all his life. Successful in everything he did. Well-respected in his community. The only thing lacking to make his life complete was a heir and God surprised him with one in his advanced years. Isaac was not only his heir but he was a fulfillment of a promise that his name would never be forgotten in this world. It was the closest thing to an eternal life in Abraham’s time. God asked Abraham to sacrifice not just his son but everything he had worked for his whole life. It is a disturbing story even though we know that it has an happy outcome. The question remains; what kind of God would ask a father to sacrifice his son. Keeping also in mind that Isaac was God’s idea. Abraham did not ask for Isaac. He had consoled himself that he wasn’t going to have any heirs. He was happy when Ismael was born. However God insisted on Isaac and now Isaac was the desired sacrifice. This story has all the appearance of a cruel joke.
We read this story to children but in reality, it is a story for mature adults. It is a story that separates those who understand their faith and those who stand outside of it. Soren Kierkegaard, a famous Danish philosopher, wrote extensively on this story and he stated that this story only makes sense for those who have taken the leap of faith. For those who stand outside the realms of faith, this episode represents everything that is wrong with religion. They would say that it is a story that promotes blind faith. For those who have experienced the divine, this story is a challenge. It challenges us to take step further in our faith. This is definitely not a story for the novice.
Jesus said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”-Luke 14:26
I have heard preachers and Christians explain away this tough saying of Jesus. They say that this was specifically meant for the apostles and it does not apply to our present reality. We have modified Jesus to be someone who would never really say anything that would cause us discomfort. However, Jesus came to reveal the same God Abraham knew. This God hasn’t changed. He makes the same demand to those who want to be his disciples including all of us. Here again, this verse should only disturb those who have experienced the transformative power of the gospel in their lives. These are the only ones interested in being his disciples. For the rest, it would be utter foolishness. How can anyone demand that we hate our own flesh and blood? They would say. Then they can even further their argument to say that Jesus also tells us to love our enemies who despise us and hate those who have cared and nurtured us. This is not only inconsistency but it is ludicrous as well. They are right if they reason according to the wisdom of this world. However, there is a new wisdom that is working in those touched by the Holy Spirit. It is the wisdom according to the Spirit. The call of disciples is an invitation to participate in a new reality.
Abraham thought his longevity and promises depended entirely on Isaac. He was right but God wanted to introduce him to a more profound wisdom. This wisdom is not attainable unless we sacrifice the things that hold us back in this world. Usually, these are things and people that we love and cherish. These are the things make our lives worth living. As wonderful and important as they might seem to us, they also have the potential to rob from us the greater spiritual wealth God has for us. This is why Jesus used a strong words such as “hate”. They have the potential to deprive us of the greatest treasure in the world. Our enemies, on the other hand, do not hold us back. Our hatred of them might keep us imprisoned spiritually but loving them releases us from captivity. Every thing that Jesus commands us to do is about freeing our souls to know a reality that is greater and richer than we can ever imagine. Therefore, there must be something liberating about sacrifice.
I grew up in close contact with peoples of other religious traditions. Sacrifices are part and parcel of their ritualistic life. I remember seeing my neighbors sacrifice a banquet to their preferred deities. These sacrifices were offered in exchange for prosperity and longevity. Sacrifices are often seen as an exchange for something. They are not just limited to liturgical practices. This is just as prevalent in the secular world. We make sacrifices in our daily lives for something better or at least what we perceive as better. However, God changed this notion with Abraham. He asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and there were no promises given. In fact, Abraham already had everything he wanted in Isaac. As far as Abraham was concerned, he needed nothing else in his life. There was nothing better that God could promise to make him want to sacrifice Isaac. There was no exchange. It was just a sacrifice. Jesus made rigorous demands on those who followed him. In return he told them that they would endure hardship and persecution. They would not have a place to call home. Many of the apostles died terrible deaths. They never had a fixed place to call home except for John who was exiled to an island, not exactly an ideal place to call home. All of them got exactly what Abraham received when he sought to sacrifice the apple of his eye. None of them would receive this special gift if they had not been willing to sacrifice.
Abraham is known in scripture not as the father of Isaac but as God’s friend. Jesus revealed to us that the goal of discipleship is friendship with Him (John15:15). Friendship is voluntary and demands sacrifices. We can choose to live without friends but we cannot cultivate strong and lasting friendship if we are not willing to sacrifice time and energy. The things and people we might sacrifice for a friendship depends on how much we esteem it. Abraham valued God’s friendship above all else. The disciples valued Jesus’ friendship more than their own lives. In both cases, God did not offer His friendship to them because of their sacrifices. God had always been Abraham’s friend. Jesus was always the disciples’ friends. He laid down his life for them. Their sacrifices opened their eyes to see God for who He really is. It did not change God but it just changed them.
Abraham quietly went up the mountain to sacrifice his son. He must have thought that his God was the same as all the gods of his time. Human sacrifice was not uncommon then. He came down from the mountain with a new understanding of who God is. God did not change but Abraham’s concept of God did. Sometimes the very things we consider as special and precious can hinder us from discovering something greater and wonderful about God. It is not that God needs us to sacrifice these things but our love and affection for them might blind us from discovering God’s love. Abraham believed that Isaac was his heir who was going to make his name remembered in this world but we remember Abraham because his friendship with God.
You might be wondering what inspired me to think about this subject. It was a simple question asked by a fifteen year old, Kelvyn. It is not a Brazilian sounding name but it is the only one he has. Technically he is not a homeless teen. He is the streets all the time and he knows all our teens and children. Unfortunately, he is a drug dealer. He was born into it. His parents were in prison when he was born and this was the life he was exposed to all his life. He always was curious about us and he had a special soft spot for Mary. Recently, we had a rare occasion of spending almost a whole afternoon just talking with Kelvyn. One of the things he said struck me. He said that he hoped one day he could do what we do. He thought that it was a wonderful thing to sacrifice our time and energy to be friends with people like him. He asked what motivated us to do this. We thought about it for a while and then we said it is because of our friendship with God.