Thursday, July 2, 2009

Questions Of Trust -- Old And New

Genesis 22:1-19

God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"

"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.

"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.


Today’s reading from Genesis raises some serious questions: How can an all-loving, merciful God ask Abraham to offer his Isaac as a sacrifice? How can Abraham place his trust in a God who would ask him to kill his son? What did Isaac understand of what his father was doing, and how would he ever trust Abraham in the future? There are so many problems with this story, how can we derive any benefit from reading it? Is this story from Genesis a prophetic image of the sacrifice by God the Father of his only-begotten Son as redemption for our sins? Can we more easily take this New Testament sacrifice in stride once we know its outcome in the resurrection of Jesus?

This reading raises a host of questions for me, any one of which can begin a meditation that dissolves in to meanderings of the mind. The most difficult for me is related to Abraham’s attitude of trust in God. My first reaction is to think that, if it crossed my mind that God was making a similar request of me, I would dismiss it as a nightmare, and when I woke up, I would remember that I don’t have a son to offer as a sacrifice to God. On the other hand, there is also a message in Abraham’s complete confidence that everything would turn out all right, because God is in charge, and he will be faithful to his promise. After all, Abraham has been through this exercise in faith before, with the birth in his old age of Ishmael, his son with Hagar, and again, with the birth of Isaac, his son with Sarah, his spouse.

How and where in my life can I apply this lesson? For me, it is to remember that I don’t have a son in the usual senses of this word: conception and adoption. On the other hand, people call me Father because I am called to be a reflection of the Fatherhood of God, and “Another Christ”, Alter Christus, because at the altar, I make present the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, in reparation for the sins of God’s human children.

These are not goals I can accomplish on my own. I am reminded by this reading from Genesis that hope and trust in God’s providence are the gifts I need to accomplish the mission He has given me to the best of my ability; faith and confidence in God’s mercy to forgive my human failings in that endeavor.

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Matthew 9:1-8

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven."

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, "This fellow is blaspheming!"

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." And the man got up and went home.When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.


In 1986, Dominican Father Fergus Kerr wrote a book entitled Theology after Wittgenstein, which I admit that I have never read, but was mentioned by my source for this meditation, Jesuit Father Donagh O’Shea. In his book, Father Kerr indentified two great pathologies of the western mind: the divide between the individual and the community, and divide between the individual’s body and mind. He described how Wittgenstein’s philosophy represents the healing of these divides – and I, for one, will take Father O’Shea’s word for that, it’s way out of my league!

In today’s gospel, we can see how similar this psychology is to the healing ministry of Jesus, and how he bridges both of these divides.

A. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic....” He did not enquire about the paralytic’s own faith. Saint Peter Chrysologus had this to say: “God does not inquire into the wants of those who are seriously ill…. A doctor does not inquire into or examine the wishes of such a patient.” The point, it seems, is that we are a community of faith. For several centuries, the western world has labored under philosophies that are profoundly individualistic. The meaning of life – indeed, all meaning – is grounded in the individual, not the society as a whole or even the family. It was on this basis that the theory of Limbo, which has recently been disowned by the Church, was based. Even new-born babies, dying at birth or soon after, were thought to be on their own before God; the faith of their parents had no bearing on their destiny, and they could not be buried in consecrated ground. This, even though St Paul, writing about marriage between believers and unbelievers, had written: “The unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). We need not imagine that we have entirely cast off the individualistic mindset.

B. The other great divide in western philosophies has been that between body and soul (or, depending or if you will, body and mind, or body and spirit). St John Chrysostom (4th century) wrote, “[Christ] heals the paralysis in both soul and body. The healing of the soul is made evident through the healing of the body, even while the body still remains a creature crawling on the ground.” The affirmation that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us is central to the Christian faith. It is puzzling that as a portion of the world that has been shaped in large measure by Christian faith, we should have ever been tempted to divide body from spirit.

These two great divides are expressed together in leaflets often passed out a parish missions in the early and mid 20th century. In them were written words such as these: Remember, man, you have but one soul to save.” No community, no body, just one soul. And – a sign of the times – no women! It was a far cry from St Paul’s teaching that we are the body of Christ and members of one another: see Col 1:18; Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:13). Pius XII attempted to reinvigorate this teaching in 1943 in Mystici Corporis. "The unbroken tradition of the Fathers from the earliest times,” he wrote, “teaches that the Divine Redeemer and the Church which is His Body form but one mystical person, that is to say, the whole Christ." We still have much need for healing at these two sick places of the soul.

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