Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.“>
What kind of God demands a sacrifice like this? What kind of God inflicts a test on a favored son like this? “Take your son, your favored one, the one you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering.” What kind of God asks that?
Of course we could flip this around as well and ask, what kind of man…what kind of father…what parent could possible follow such a monstrous instruction? How can Abraham simply go along with it? Why doesn’t he say anything? How can he remain silent in the face of such an obviously unjust and bloodthirsty command?
The binding of Isaac is a well-known—but not well-loved story—from our ancestral tradition. It is hard to hear…just as much of the news these days is hard to hear…hearing any parent—but especially now black parents—talk about the fears of potentially sacrificing their sons…is hard to bear. It’s a difficult story, but an important one…because it asks us to wrestle with very real, very difficult issues.
We don’t hear this story often. (Sometimes at the Easter Vigil, and then once every three years). Our Jewish siblings hear it much more frequently—every Rosh Hashanah. Last week we heard a story that parallels this one…the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.
There’s another related story which we almost never hear (*because it only appears in track 2 of year C, and we follow track 1 of the RCL). That’s the one that takes place right after the three mysterious visitors show up and tell Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child. You’ve undoubtedly heard this story. The three visitors leave and Abraham goes with them to see them off…They come to the top of a hill overlooking Sodom and Gomorrah, and God says: “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, I will go and see to them.” Meaning…they’re toast. And Abraham interrupts and says, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” What if there are 50 innocent people there?” And God says, fine. I won’t destroy the place if there are 50 innocents. And Abraham says, “what if there are 40?” And God says, “fine.” And Abraham says, “what about 30? what about 20? What about 10?” “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25. The Jewish Study Bible). That’s a question we all have at times…What are you doing, God? Where’s the justice in…pick your tragedy…
When God threatens to destroy an entire city, Abraham speaks up, and challenges God, appeals for justice…appeals for forgiveness for all so that the innocent will be saved.
Even last week, when Sarah demands that Abraham “drive out the slave girl (Hagar) and her son (Ishamel). Abraham balks. “It seemed evil in Abraham’s eyes” the text says, (Genesis 21:11 The Five Books of Moses Robert Alter trans), so he clearly has a conversation with God, because God reassures him, that both his sons will become a nation.
But today. In this face of this horrible, unthinkable, barbaric test…Abraham is silent. “Here I am,” and “God will see to it—God will provide”—that’s it. How can he be so vocal—so impassioned—about the lives of people—strangers—in Sodom…and so silent…so compliant…when it comes to his own child?
We rarely hear these stories together, and that’s too bad, because it’s important to read them together. Separately they are both terrifying. Together they create a powerful paradox that invites us into a deeper contemplation of our own moral positions.
First, when I ask: how can Abraham be so vocal about protecting strangers, and so silent about protecting his own child? I’m forced to reflect on how often I, as a parent make a very similar choice. How often have parents let careers, work, teachers, coaches, community responsibilities take precedence over my their own kids? How often do I prioritize my needs and the needs of others over my own kids? And how often am I silent in the acceptance of that? Just like Abraham, we don’t always get the balance right. These stories operate as a check on where our own priorities lie.
A deeper question is how do we both discern God’s will and interact with God. Rabbi Irwin Kula, says that the first story, where Abraham questions, argues, is based on the “radical presumption that God must follow a standard of justice comprehensible to Abraham”—comprehensible to us. We know it’s not right to kill innocent people just because there are some bad actors. That’s not God’s will…that can’t be God’s will…not the God of love. Which means, Rabbi Kula argues, that “human judgment over and against God is valid and [we play] an active role in determining what is right and wrong.”
On the other hand, the Binding of Isaac shows just the opposite, and drives home the point “that there is no alternative to the acceptance of God’s will and that the human role in the covenant is submission.”
So which is it? Must we simply bow before God and do God’s will, or can we…must we…actively question, challenge, probe, and become active partners in building up God’s reign, and maybe even changing God’s mind? And how are we supposed to know when to stand up and when to sit down? When to speak up, and when to hold our tongue?
Scripture isn’t going to give you an answer….It holds both of these powerful and paradoxical truths out to us and insists that we hold them in creative tension.
Yes, we must be willing to stand up and give voice to what is unjust. But we must be careful not to reduce God’s will to only those things we are willing to tolerate. Rabbi Kula says that leads to religions that are “synonymous with whatever human beings want. Every person would decide what is right and wrong.” [source]. We have wandered pretty far into that wilderness, where God “hates all the same people you do” [Anne Lamott], and supports all the same policies you do…that’s a problem.
On the other hand…when we wander down the road of total submission it leads to “a fanaticism in which no act, no matter how repugnant, [can] be ruled out–[source]“ because it’s God’s will…not up to me…that kind of mindless obedience destroys our God-given dignity.
We’re faced with numerous complex, and difficult moral choices. Our scripture, and our tradition help us face these difficult moral choices, not because they give us clear cut answers…but because they insists that we hold these paradoxical truths together…that we welcome both of them…
Challenging God and submitting to God can both be faithful responses; the key question is when to act which way? Paul, writing to the Romans, will have more to say about that next week…and I may as well…What I invite all of us to do this week, is to pick just one news item (don’t overwhelm yourself with too many—pick one), and welcome the dilemma…welcome the paradox…spend some time with it…listen to God…challenge God…and listen again…and try to discern what the right thing for you to do is…speak up, act out, challenge? Or listen, obey, trust that God will provide.