Second Sunday of Lent

March 4, 2012

Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Rom 8:31b-34; Mk 9:2-10

The binding of Isaac has been the source of centuries of moral consternation.  And as we continue our Lenten journey, this story of sacrifice can leave us wondering about the depths of surrender required to be true people of faith.  How can the willingness to kill one’s own child be a sign of commitment to God?  Can we commend Abraham’s obedience even when it seems to demand the shedding of innocent blood?  If we take this story from Genesis as a model for our response to God’s commands, then it seems we cannot avoid an unsettling explanation, one way or another. 

However, the lectionary comes to our aid this Sunday.  With the story of Abraham and Isaac placed alongside Romans 8 and Mark 9, we are encouraged to see the First Reading in a different light.  Rather than an ideal of obedience to divine commands, the binding of Isaac emerges as a window into the nature of sacrificial love, especially as it is modeled by God toward God’s children.

While the First Reading concludes with a reference to Abraham’s obedience, the story itself seems dominated by other language and descriptors.  First, we are told that Abraham loves Isaac (Gen 22:2).  Next we are told that Abraham is also devoted to God (Gen 22:12).  And Abraham’s ready answer to both God and son when they call out to him is the identical response, “Here I am.” (vv. 1, 7). 

When Abraham takes up his knife as his son lays on the altar, this is not narrated as an act of obedience; it is not fundamentally about choosing the love of God over and against the love of one’s offspring.  What Abraham is actually doing is not withholding his son from God.  Love is compatible with love and it holds back nothing.  Indeed, this idea of “not withholding your son” is twice offered by God as the characterization of the act and is ultimately the rationale for Abraham’s blessings (vv. 12, 16). 

In the Gospel reading about the Transfiguration, God’s voice clearly identifies Jesus as the beloved Son.  And in Paul’s letter to the Romans we encounter this notion of “not withholding” the beloved son: 

He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? (Rom 8:32)

The question for us to dwell upon this week is whether we are striving to model our love for God and for one another on the model given to us in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.   Do we love with a love that holds back nothing?

It’s important to register here a caution about self-sacrifice, along the lines of the commentary of number of feminist theologians.  For example, in her essay “Parenting, Mutual Love, and Sacrifice,” Christine Gudorf argues that the paradigm for agapic Christian love is not disinterested self-sacrifice; rather, sacrificial love is always aimed at mutual love and so preserves a level of self-regard. 

It is true for Isaac as it is true with Christ, the story of sacrificial love does not lead to ultimate destruction.  God loves without holding back and it is resurrection that completes the story.  Through a willingness to surrender our tight hold on what is most dear, new ground is laid for a relationship that is mutual and life-giving. 

This Lenten season, let us remember that we are called to a love that does not withhold and that it is this love that leads to new life.