2 Sunday in Lent March 1, 2015 10 AM & 12 Noon Liturgies

2nd Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2015
10 AM & 12 Noon Liturgies
J.A. Loftus, S.J.
About a dozen years ago an enigmatic and somewhat
controversial Anglican Bishop, John Shelby Spong, wrote a book
called The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to
Reveal the God of Love. As you might imagine, Bishop Spong had a
field day with our first reading, often called simply the sacrifice of
Calling this reading a “text of hate” might seem a bit strong to
you, but then again, perhaps not. It certainly is a text that calls for
very careful interpretation. There is a lot at stake here. Violence
in the name of God is, unfortunately, enjoying resurgence in the
21st century. And children are, oddly enough, still a preferred
target in many places.
The violence in the book of Genesis has, in fact, been
repeated frequently by all three great monotheistic religions. That
includes us! God’s “testing” of Abraham is a revered story in
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. That’s more than three billion
people who all share this story in common. I repeat: this is a
crucial text to get right. Lives depend on it.
Do we really believe in this “testing” god? What kind of a god
would ask such a thing? I have tried several times in preaching on
this text to conjure a verbal description of a Caravaggio painting
that hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It captures the
horrifying violence of this scene graphically.
Abraham is holding his son down on the ground by his neck.
Isaac’s mouth is open and he seems to be crying in astonishment.
Abraham just looks away with an agonized and perplexed gaze.
And then there is a half-naked angel pulling Abraham’s arm back.
It is a terrifying image. It was then, and still is today. For me, it is
even more painful today as we hear of almost nightly beheadings
taking place in that same geographical part of our world.
Can a god really be that cruel and sadistic? To some, the
answer seems to be yes. And that’s frightening! Another Anglican
Bishop, N.T. Wright, suggests why this is all so scary. He says: “One
of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you
worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the
object itself but also outward to the world around” (Surprised by
Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the
So Genesis has to be dealt with somehow. The issue becomes
are there ways around this violent face of god? There are. Let me
suggest three.
The first is exegetical, i.e. from a careful study of the text
itself. Here one realizes that there are actually two gods named,
two different faces of god. The god who asks for Abraham’s
sacrifice is called Elohim. That is an ancient name for a Jewish god,
but it is also the name given to all the pagan gods, the “false” gods
of the heathen. The God who stops the sacrifice is called Yahweh,
the distinctive Hebrew name for God that the Jewish people use to
this day, and never say or write. Not an accident, most likely: two
different faces of God, one stopping the violence.
The second way of interpretation is anthropological and
cultural. The very influential French anthropologist and
theologian Rene Girard and his followers pick up this theme. They
realize that at this juncture in human history there is an epochchanging shift taking place. Human sacrifice, long a mainstay of
religious worship, was becoming intolerable.
However else one interprets this sacrifice story, it is also
about the end of human sacrifice to any gods. The most significant
moment in the story is (in this view) when Abraham substitutes a
ram for his son, and does it in the name of the “real” God. The face
of this God actually helps shift human history away from violence
in any form. That’s why the story is told.
The third interpretation just takes us on a journey with that
“real” God. And the journey takes us directly to today’s gospel
passage. For here, high on a mountaintop, God shows God’s face
directly to human beings. The person of Jesus from Nazareth is
“morphed” (the Greek word for transfigured really is
metamorphase) before their very eyes into the face of God. And
that face is human!
This is the “real” God before their very eyes. And then the
voice of the real God: “This man—this human being just like
yourselves in all things—is my Beloved! Listen to him! Watch him!
Learn from him!” He is here to end all violence once and for all.
The face of God, it seems, was all along human. And the face
of God remains so—even today. The face of God that they saw on
that mountaintop is here as well. Just look around. It is forever us!
It is in us! It is us! The body of Jesus reveals in that moment not
just who he was and is and will become. He reveals what we were,
are, and will become as well.
There are no texts of hate to be found here. So Peace be with