Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 22: 1-2, 3A, 10-13, 15-18; PS 118: 10, 15-19; ROM 8: 31B-34; MK 9: 2-10
Question most Americans -- perhaps the majority in this congregation -- and they would profess pride to be able to sacrifice their sons and daughters to defend "American interests" even in far off places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Question the Christians among us, and many would shed no tears over the innumerable children incinerated by our drones, napalm, and white phosphorous. Of course, we'd rather avoid such casualties, but collateral damage is collateral damage.
Question most of us benefitting from our present economic system. Tell us that it causes 30,000 children to die each day from perfectly preventable causes like starvation and diarrhea, and most will simply shrug. We accept such deaths as the inevitable cost of doing business. It's preferable that children die rather than interfere with the out-workings of the global free market. (Even though it ends up giving 85 men as much wealth as the world's 3.5 billion poorest.)
In other words, most of us -- even the most "pro-life" among us -- have little problem with most forms of child sacrifice. In fact, it's not far off to say that most who identify themselves as pro-life are not really pro-life, but simply anti-abortion. Otherwise, child sacrifice is perfectly acceptable and even celebrated.
Today's liturgy of the word (centering on the "transfigurations" of Abraham and Jesus) calls all of that into question.
First of all, consider the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac, its rejection of child sacrifice, and how it transfigured or transformed the roots of Jewish faith.
At first glance, the text seems to praise the great patriarch for his readiness to plunge a knife into Isaac's heart. It has God saying, "For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me." It's as though Abraham's readiness to do violence to his son were a unique proof of his faith.
Such understanding however is to forget that in ancient Mesopotamia it was required of all parents to sacrifice their firstborn sons. So despite the text's claim, there would have been nothing remarkable about Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. Everyone in Abraham's culture had that sort of primitive "faith."
Scripture scholars conclude that the words just quoted ("For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.") represent an editorial addition inserted centuries after the reported event, when people no longer remembered the ancient and universal requirement of tribal gods to sacrifice the first-born of family and flock.
The editors were priests and scribes in service to Israel's royal family. They adjusted the Abraham story to suit their employers' needs for patriotic cannon-fodder. This explains the addition of the words indicating God's pleasure at parents' willingness to sacrifice their children.
In contrast to that textual adjustment, and as originally told, the Abraham-Isaac tale was about the ancient patriarch's transfigured understanding of God. It was about his discovery of Yahweh as the God of Life who prohibited rather than required child sacrifice. [Note that even in this morning's English translation, it is "God" (meaning Baal, the biblical name denoting foreign idols) who gives Abraham the order to sacrifice his son. But it is "the Lord" (meaning Yahweh, the God of Abraham) who tells the patriarch to stay his hand.]
So Abraham's real merit is found not in his willingness to sacrifice his son, but in his unwillingness to do so. In that sense, Abraham in this instance is like Yahweh, the non-violent God of life, who (Abraham discovers) never endorses child sacrifice. That realization should have transfigured Abrahamic faiths forever. Unfortunately, it did not.
Jesus carries on and expands Abraham's insight. He rejects violence of any type. He is the one who said: "love one another. Love your enemies. Forgive one another. Be compassionate. Be merciful. Seek God's reign and God's justice. Put away the sword. Rise and do not be afraid."
Today's gospel about Jesus' "transfiguration" concludes with a voice directing us to "Listen to him."