We hear the deeply troubling story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. How do we reconcile God’s love with his asking Abraham to kill his own son? How should we take the fact that Abraham was willing to follow through with it? And what does this mean for how we must order our own lives?
I came across a sentence in a book I was reading recently which struck me very forcibly: ‘all love relationships flourish only when there is freedom to let go of what is precious, so as to receive it back as a gift’. It is not easy to let go of what is precious. The more precious someone is to us, the harder it is to let go of that person. The more attractive someone is to us, the more we feel inclined to possess that person. Yet, in the effort to possess someone we can easily lose them. At the heart of all loving relationships is the freedom to let go of the other, and in letting go to receive the other back as a gift. Parents know that there comes a time when they have to let go of their sons or daughters, even though they are more precious to them than anything else. They may have to let them go to another country or to the person whom they have chosen as their future spouse. Yet, in letting go of their children, parents invariably discover that they receive them back as a gift. Single people too have to learn the freedom of letting go what is precious so as to receive it back as a gift. In any good and healthy friendship, people need to give each other plenty of space.
In today’s reading Abraham is portrayed as being willing to let go of what was most precious to him, the only son of his old age. In being willing to let his son go to God, he went on to receive him back as a gift. Many people find it a very disturbing story, because it portrays God as asking Abraham to sacrifice his only beloved son as a burnt offering to God. We are rightly shocked by the image of God asking a father to sacrifice his son in this way. Abraham lived about a thousand years before Christ. In the religious culture of that time it was not uncommon for people to sacrifice their children to various gods. The point of the story seems to be that the God of Israel is not like the pagan gods. If Abraham thought that God was asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac like the people who worshipped other gods, he was wrong. God was not asking this of Abraham. Yet, the willingness of Abraham to let go of what was most precious to him if that was what God was asking remained an inspiration to the people of Israel. He had already shown a willingness to let go of his family and his homeland as he set out towards an unknown land in response to God’s call.
Today Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He knows his days are numbered, that he must confront injustice and that the ruling authorities are determined to kill him, so he makes one last side trip with three friends, and climbs a mountain for a few days of prayer and solitude. Suddenly, his clothes become ‘dazzlingly white,” which is a biblical sign of martyrdom. And Elijah and Moses appear at the scene and they start to encourage Jesus to walk the path of non-violence from the mountaintop to the cross. And how do the disciples respond? Instead of consoling and comforting Jesus on his journey to the cross Peter says: “Master, it is good that we are here.”
God expects us to listen to all of His messages. Not just one or two. Through our wonderful filtering system we try to listen, what we want to listen. Every time God speaks he reveals His will wholeheartedly and totally, as one package of salvation: It is a message of testing. This is what God offers to Abraham, to Jesus, and to his disciples. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son. Jesus is asked to go into the world and suffer and die. Jesus’ disciples were asked to suffer for His name. It is a message of salvation. Abraham was ordered to stop murdering his son. Abraham followed his contemporary tradition and culture of human sacrifice. Following his neighbors’ religious custom of offering one’s first-born he would please the Lord. Such a horrible act and costly sacrifice, was thought to the ultimate gift, one that could not overlooked by the deities. But God corrects Abraham and makes him change and renew his religious practices.
There, too, is a message of approving and recognizing. Abraham was told how he is in the eyes of God. God says to him: “I know now how devoted you are to God.” SO many times all the heroes and heroines of the Bible were patted on their shoulder, by God’s recognition of their worth in his eyes. To Abraham, god had said: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? To Moses He told as Moses himself acknowledges: “You have said you are my intimate friend and also you have found favour with me.” In transfiguration narrative and in the baptism story we hear, the heaves publicly recognize Jesus as God’s beloved Son.
St. Paul’s conviction is that God recognized us as His beloved sons and daughters by sending His Son and gave him for us all. Finally God’s message consists of promises and blessings. Again if we go back to the scene of Abraham on the high mountain, we hear God blessing him and promising posterity in abundance. He swears by himself and declares that He would pour down all possible blessings on him. The transfiguration of Jesus instilled in Jesus’ heart greater positive outlook about his journey’s destiny, namely his resurrection. Transfiguration was a foretaste of what would happen in the future as a blessing promised to Jesus and His disciples. We should know that God utters this fourfold message in different ways, at different times, and in different situations. He encounters us in every event of our lives. On part we should be ready to listen to Him.
“Step aside Moses and Elijah. We’re in charge here. Forget about the cross Jesus, and al that talk about suffering and death. Let’s build some houses here, maybe a retreat centre, maybe a ski resort, and stay forever, far away from Jerusalem and the Temple, from the world and its injustice, from the cross and death.” If only Jesus would listen! That’s what Peter says. And just at this moment, as Peter tries to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem. God speaks to the disciples: “This is my beloved Listen to him.”
Here we have one of the clearest and neglected commandments of the scriptures, the only time God personally, directly speaks to the disciples, and the message is very clear: “Will you all please be quieted down and listen to Jesus and hear what he has to say and do what he says?” God sounds like an exasperated parent who invites his children to active listening. It requires enormous discipline and concentrated effort.
Whether it’s our husband or wife, our husband or wife, our kids, or with a potential customer or our employer one of life’s great challenges is learning how to be a good listener. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give another human being.
May the dazzling light of the transfigured Christ shine radiantly in our hearts and lives, that we may be enriched with a clearer vision of God’s will for us; and, with boldness and faith, strive to accomplish our Lord’s mission. So, listen to Jesus in the quiet of prayer and look for him to shed his radiant light on you to make your life transfigured and more radiant and alive too.
Unlike Isaac, Jesus was aware of what lay ahead. “The Son of Man must suffer,” he had said. Shortly before the Transfiguration, when he first told the disciples what he was to suffer, Peter prayed that God would not allow such a thing to happen. The Lord’s response was instant and severe, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do” (Mk 8:33). In dealing with God we must have faith and trust. On the cellar wall of a bombed-out house in Cologne an unknown fugitive, obviously Jewish, left a testimony of trust that only came to light when the rubble was being cleared away after World War II. It read: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I do not feel it. I believe in God even when he is silent.” That is the faith of Abraham, and is the kind of faith we should seek as well.
We spend our lives listening to the Lord as he speaks to us in his word and in and through the circumstances of our lives; we listen to him as a preparation for that wonderful moment when we see him face to face in eternity and we can finally say, ‘it is wonderful to be here’.
God bless. Have a blessed day.