Reflections for St Margaret Newlands
The readings set for this Sunday are challenging. Our Old Testament lesson gives us the story of Abraham’s binding, and near sacrifice, of Isaac, often read by Christians as a precursor of God’s giving his son to the cross. The reading from Matthew looks quite innocuous if you only read the second half (from verse 40), as the SEC lectionary suggests, but if you read the whole passage, from verse 37, then it too becomes difficult, suggesting that family ties are not as important as following Jesus. What are we to make of these passages?
The story of the binding of Isaac, the so-called Akedah, is one of the most commentated passages in the Bible. Jews, Christians and Muslims all find this story in their scriptures. Ellen Clark-King talks about its “larger than life, and darker than death, story-line,” and I can very much identify with that description. She asks: “An abusive father, a vulnerable son, an absent mother, and a God who orchestrates horrors – how are we to make theological or emotional sense of this? Where can we find meaning in the middle of this mess?” Her response is to think about the cultural setting:
The concept of sacrificing a child to achieve a ‘greater’ good, such as divine favour, would not have been an alien one to the original hearers of this tale. They may have been more moved by the fact that Abraham was giving up his only hope at a legitimate line of descendants than by the cruelty to Isaac. (Don’t forget that Abraham had just exiled his other older son, Ishmael, along with the child’s mother, Hagar.) The shock of the story originally lay in its ending rather than in its beginning – in the fact that the sacrifice was stopped rather than in the fact that it was asked for in the first place.
Clark-King therefore reads the story as a transformation in the theology of the Old Testament. In it, she suggests “we move … from an understanding of God as one who demands human sacrifice as proof of devotion to an understanding of God as the one who stays the knife from killing.”
This is an attractive interpretation, but it sits uneasily with the difficulties presented by this story in our own context and in the Christian tradition. Clark-King suggests that for us, in our own context, “the shock is in [the story’s] opening – that God could demand such a sacrifice of Abraham, and hold Isaac’s life as worth nothing compared to the proof of Abraham’s faith.” Russell Barr asks: “What kind of disordered, deranged man is this, about to murder his own child? And what kind of disordered, deranged God would ask it of him?” Barr connects the shocking demand made of Abraham with the crucifixion, but also with the expectations of discipleship:
Abraham is asked to choose. God does not simply ask for good behaviour, that we live honest, moral and law-abiding lives. He asks for much more. God demands that Abraham surrenders himself willingly and completely, trusting all that he is and has, including his son, that which he holds as dearest and most precious.
Are you willing to do that, to venture all, to risk all?
Isn’t this what God did at Calvary?
These questions resonate with Jesus’s words at the beginning of the gospel reading: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” The demands of discipleship are here presented as challenging, rigorous; not only the risking of all but the actual giving up of all.
To our ears this radicality may sound not only rigorous but also potentially warped, or even abusive. While I was pondering these readings, I came across an account of a man named Chris Flanders who joined a local yoga class which turned out to be a recruiting ground for a cult. He writes:
The tipping point was when I was told I should leave behind my “unconscious family” (my parents), as my “spiritual family” (the organisation) was more important. One master hadn’t spoken to his parents for five years. It was tough, he told me, but said that saving the world was far more important. I know he believed he was doing the right thing.
Others who have joined sects and cults have reported similar experiences. And it is also clear that one of the signs of an abusive relationship is often that someone has “stopped spending time with friends and family.” Is such a radical break with family and friends a healthy aspect of discipleship?
Morevoer, the consequences of such a break can be far-reaching. In a moving retelling of the story of the binding of Isaac, written from Sarah’s point of view, Sara Maitland depicts what happened at Moriah as toxic, not only for the relationship between Abraham and Isaac but also for that between Abraham and Sarah:
[Sarah] does not know what happened between Abraham and Isaac in the land of Moriah. She does not speak to Abraham any more and she knows that Isaac will never tell her. … Abraham came back from the land of Moriah smug, contented, smooth and sleek. Isaac came back from the land of Moriah like a wild animal, bound but not tamed. For months afterwards he would wake in the night screaming and his mother, in the women’s tent, would hear her boy child sobbing and could not go to him, comfort hm, hold him. There was a look in his eyes still, evasive, distant, the look of a man who uses pride to cover betrayal.
For Maitland, simply the fact that Abraham showed himself ready to do what God required of him had an horrific impact on his wife, on his son. It was, in Maitland’s account, a betrayal which also destroyed Isaac’s future, because Abraham’s actions destroyed Isaac’s future ability to trust others. Altogether we seem this week to be confronted with two passages which may lead us wondering what our faith could be requiring of us.
Clark-King sees the underlying transformation of the depiction of God in this passage as key to finding a way out of this dilemma:
we see a God who opens Godself to vulnerability and finitude, who takes death into the heart of the divine being, out of love for erring, vulnerable humanity. A God who does not consider any human life to be expendable and puts particular value on the most vulnerable, especially children.
Accordingly, she sees the death of the Son not as a betrayal but as choice: “the Son, an equal person within the Godhead, chose the vulnerability of the incarnation.” William C. Placher, citing Thomas Aquinas, agrees:
it is surely important that Christ is not the passive victim of suffering for the sake of keeping things as they are but one who actively accepts suffering for the sake of transforming the world. “It is indeed a wicked and cruel act,” Aquinas wrote, “to hand over an innocent man to torment and death against his will. Yet God the Father did not so deliver up Christ, but inspired him with the will to suffer for us.” Christ is not a scapegoat, dragged to the Temple for sacrifice, but a volunteer in the battle against evil.
The aspect of choice is key for Placher. Indeed, some patristic traditions (not that explored by Maitland) see Isaac as a willing sacrifice as in this way as a true precursor of Christ.
Not only choice is key, but also the underlying cause of suffering. Placher argues that in the world, “there is still suffering, and we celebrate it—but not because the suffering is a good; rather, because it is the agent of the transformation of the world.” He recognises “the protests of feminist theologians and others that women and other oppressed groups have been called too often by the Christian faith to endure suffering,” for instance women who have been told that it is their duty to endure abusive relationships. However, he worries that Christianity has become too comfortable: “as I look at our typical congregations, I think one could also make a contrary case: that we have created the kind of comfortable ‘Christendom’ Kierkegaard decried and often do not ask enough by way of suffering.”
Placher finds that there is a “crucial difference” between “whether we urge the endurance of suffering that perpetuates injustice, or the acceptance of suffering in the service of justice, peace, and liberation.” He here cites bell hooks, who makes “a definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as a site of resistance—as location of radical openness and possibility.” This seems to me also to be the difference between the demands of the call to discipleship, which may be radical, taking us to difficult places, including into conflict with our family and friends, but which will always call us to be attentive to the needs of the world, and the demands of the kind of cult described by Chris Flanders , or the kind of abusive relationship which focuses only on the one, abusive partner. Discipleship calls us to participate in God’s mission in the world. It might put us at odds with our families and friends; it might cause us suffering, but it will not close in on itself as an end in itself. Clark-King sees the story of the binding of Isaac as challenging us to consider our own behaviour:
None of us who are in our right minds would dream of sacrificing our children to prove our faith, but very many of us allow children in the third world to sacrifice their childhoods in the sweat shops that produce our cheap clothes. Most of us would speak strongly against any military action of aggression towards those who disagree with us on matters of faith, but are still able to turn a blind eye towards practices of torture that we believe protect our own security.
Those blind eyes are what we need to beware of.
A hymn by Kathy Galloway sums up what I am trying to get at. We should expect our faith to take us to difficult places, and places which might be disturbing and set relationships into quetion. But this is not about giving up on our families and friends for the sake of doing so. Rather it is about recognising that having an awareness of the wider needs of the world, and being called to respond to that, can take us – and those we love – to some difficult places.
Do not retreat into your private world,
That place of safety, sheltered from the storm,
Where you may tend your garden, seek your soul
And rest with loved ones where the fire burns warm.
To tend a garden is a precious thing,
But dearer still the one where all may roam,
The weeds of poison, poverty and war,
Demand your care, who call the earth your home.
To seek your soul it is a precious thing,
But you will never find it on your own,
Only among the clamour, threat and pain,
Of other people’s need will love be known.
To rest with loved ones is a precious thing,
But peace of mind exacts a higher cost,
Your children will not rest and play in quiet,
While they hear the crying of the lost.
Do not retreat into your private world,
There are more ways than firesides to keep warm;
There is no shelter from the rage of life,
So meet its eye, and dance within the storm.
 Ellen Clark-King, “26th June: Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14,” The Expository Times 122 (2011), 396-398, at 396.
 Ibid., 397.
 Ibid., 396.
 Russell Barr, “29th June: Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1–14,” The Expository Times 119 (2008), 400-401, at 401.
 Sara Maitland, “Sacrifice,” in Angel and Me: Short Stories for Holy Week (London: Mowbray 1995), 30.
 Clark-King, “Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14, 397.
 William C. Placher, “Christ Takes Our Place: Rethinking Atonement,” in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 53 (1999), 5-20 at 16; citing Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3a.47.3 ad 1.
 See, for instance, https://themotherofgod.wordpress.com/the-sacrifice-of-isaac/ (also the source of the icon).
 Ibid., citing bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End, 1990), 153.
 Clark-King, “Proper 8 – Genesis 22:1-14, 397.
 Kathy Galloway, in Janet Morley (ed.), Bread of Tomorrow (London: SPCK/Christian Aid 1992), 65