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Abraham's Trial

by Barbara E. Reid, O.P., Ph.D. | February 29, 2012

Scripture Reflection for the second Sunday of Lent (March 4, 2012)

Scripture Readings:
Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Psalm 116
Romans 8:31b-34
Mark 9:2-10

"If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom 8:31)

What kind of parents would meekly comply with an order to kill their only child? What kind of God would ask such a thing? Disturbing questions arise from today's first reading, which opens: "God put Abraham to the test." In what follows, the narrative is more like a call story. God calls Abraham by name, and, just as Samuel did (1 Sam 3:3), twice he responds "Here I am!" Call stories emphasize the eagerness willingness of a person to respond to God, as well as the great sacrifices they are asked to make for the sake of the mission. Genesis 12 recounts the call of Abraham and his willingness, even at the age of seventy-five, to leave his home in Haran to journey into the unknown. Abraham has shown himself responsive to all that God asks; he has committed himself fully to God in a covenant (Gen 15:1-21). Unsettling questions arise as we ponder why God would now demand that Abraham sacrifice his precious son, an act that would seem to make impossible the fulfillment of God's promise of numerous descendants.

Might it be that the biblical writer is relating how Abraham continued to experience trials and tribulations, even as he tried his best to follow God's call? Having the mindset that whatever happens is God's doing, the writer attributes the "testing" of Abraham to God's intent. Did Abraham find, as we do, that even when we try to be most faithful, tragic things still happen? Or did there come a time when Isaac's life was in jeopardy and Abraham felt responsible, and helpless to protect him? What parent has not had such frightening experiences? Parents also know that loving their children demands that they be willing to let them go. All love relationships flourish only when there is freedom to let go what is most precious, so as to receive it back as a gift. Even if Abraham had lost Isaac, that would not have nullified God's covenant of love.

The story of Abraham and Isaac invites us to reflect on times when, even though we try to be faithful, we do not hear correctly what God is saying. In rabbinic tradition, some sages have interpreted this text not as a test of Abraham, but of his misunderstanding: "What, do you think I meant for you to slay him? No! I said only to take him up . . . and now I say take him down" (Gen. Rab. 56:8). Practices of communal discernment offer an alternative model to that of relying on the decisions of one person who might misunderstand what God has said.

A different image of "trial" is found in the second reading. Paul paints a courtroom scene, where, despite our shortcomings, God acts as our advocate, the one who is on our side, arguing our case for us. This is a God who does not need payment, or any proof of our loyalty. Instead, it is God who proves how much we are loved by freely "handing over" the Son and everything else for us all. God does not "hand over" Jesus to death; rather, God "handed over" the Son to embody in human flesh God's love for us. Paul knows that there is nothing we can do to earn or prove our love in return. He knows that charges of unfaithfulness can be brought against any of us. Paul then shifts the image: God takes the position of judge, and the risen Christ becomes our advocate. God knows we are guilty, but always acquits us.

A love like this endures even beyond death; and is not disproved by death, as today's Gospel shows. But love is costly. Today's Psalm speaks of God's distress at the death of anyone. "Too costly in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his faithful" (NAB) renders better the connotation of "weightiness" that the Hebrew adjective y~q~r (v. 15) has, than does "precious" (NRSV). A glimpse of the fullness of God's transformative and costly love is depicted in the Gospel as Jesus continues to choose faithfulness to the divine mission, even though it will lead to his death. By listening to and following Jesus, God's faithfulness becomes our own.

 

This reflection first appeared in America magazine and in Abiding Word. Reflections on the Sunday Readings. Year B (Liturgical Press, 2011) 26-27.  

© Copyright 2012 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved.

Image: Abraham embraces his son Isaac after receiving him back from God, 1927 by O.A. Stemler (public domain)

Author information Barbara E. Reid, O.P., Ph.D.

Professor of New Testament Studies
Vice President and Academic Dean

M.A., Aquinas College; Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Barbara E. Reid, O.P. is a Dominican Sister of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She holds a Masters from Aquinas College in Religious Studies and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Taking Up the Cross: New Testament Interpretations Through Latina and Feminist Eyes (Fortress Press, 2007), The Gospel According to Matthew, New Collegeville Bible Commentary Series (Liturgical Press, 2005), Parables for Preachers (3 volumes; Liturgical Press, 1999, 2000, 2001), Las Parábolas: Predicándolas y Viviéndolas (Liturgical Press, 2008, 2009), Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical Press, 1996), A Retreat With St. Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000), and many journal articles. Currently she is writing Sophia’s Table: An Introduction to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures (forthcoming from Eerdman’s Press) and is General Editor for a new 60-volume feminist commentary on the Bible (forthcoming from Liturgical Press). She writes the weekly column on “The Word” forAmerica magazine.

breid@ctu.edu

Books written by Barbara E. Reid

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