Feb. 24, 2018

Second Sunday of Lent, 2018

ABRAHAM’S FAITH AND OUR TEST

Readings: 1st- Gen. 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; 2nd- Rom. 8:31-34; Gospel- Mk. 9:2-10

Saint Paul asks, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). That sounds rhetorical. Paul is reminding us of God’s steadfastness. We often find ourselves at crossroads, and the question becomes whether God is still for us at those moments. It’s always a dilemma. Maybe, we can put the question in another way, “Where is God when I suffer?” “Why does he let me suffer?” Or, as in the first reading, “Is God the one testing me?” Saint Paul stretches it further, “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not give us everything else along with him?” (Rom.8:32). God would give us everything along with Christ. Giving us everything means a lot. It can be seen as giving us everything that we need. It can be seen as God letting us experience everything as Christ did, including suffering. It can also be seen as giving us Christ which is everything we need, God’s beloved Son.

Abraham’s trial and faith are placed side by side in the first reading. The invitation to go to the land of Moriah to sacrifice his only son follows a pattern that Abraham exhibits regularly in his relationship with God. The land of Moriah is unknown to Abraham. In this case, it signifies a leap of faith. The beginning of his journey was the same; “God said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country I shall show you; and I shall make you a great nation” (Gen.12:1-2). Abraham does not doubt God; he obeys God’s invitation and moves. It is important to see the relationship between this journey and the call to go to sacrifice his son in today’s reading. In the course of his journey, Abraham asks God, “What use are your gifts, as I am going on my way childless?” God’s response to him is, “...no, your heir will be the issue of your own body”. Then God takes him outside and says to him, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can. Just so I will make your descendants be” (Gen. 15:2-6). So, it’s clear in today’s reading what God is asking of Abraham, “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust…” (Gen. 22:2). The promise of making his descendant as numerous as the stars is yet unfulfilled, then he is asked to sacrifice his “only, beloved son”. That’s a hard demand.

This passage reminds me of the recent suggestion made by Pope Francis about the line in the Lord’s Prayer that says, “And lead us not into temptation”. The pope remarked that “the French have changed the text and their translation says, “don't let me fall into temptation,” . . . It's me who falls. It's not Him who pushes me into temptation, as if I fell. A father doesn't do that. A father helps you to get up right away. The one who leads into temptation is Satan”. But scripture says today, “God put Abraham to the test” (Gen. 22:1). There is also the debate about the temptations of Job and God’s place in the whole story. We read in the book of Job, “Very well, God said to Satan, all he (Job) has is in your power. But keep your hands off his person. So, Satan left the presence of the Lord” (Job 1: 12). Who is really tempting, God or Satan?

We can look at temptation in two ways: temptation to sin, and temptation as the test of faith. Saint James writes, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas. 1:13-14). This is the temptation to sin. In the case of Job, we notice that God does not abandon Job even though he allows the devil to tempt him to see if Job would sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the “Lead us not into temptation” line this way, “This petition goes to the root of the preceding one, for our sins result from our consenting to temptation; we therefore ask our Father not to “lead” us into temptation. It is difficult to translate the Greek verb used by a single English word: the Greek means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation” (CCC 2846).  Primarily, God protects us from sinning and cannot lead us into sin. It supports Saint Paul’s statement, “If God be for us, who can be against us”.

However, the test of faith is what we see in the case of Abraham. That God tests Abraham means that he stretches him; he tries Abraham’s faith. God wants to prove to Abraham that he is still God, faithful and steadfast. He’s the God who calls him into service. This is seen in the climax and anti-climax of the story. As soon as he takes his knife to slay Isaac, the Lord’s messenger calls from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy. Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son” (Gen. 22:12). Think about what would be happening at this moment- Abraham’s reaction vs Isaac’s expression. Shock, surprise, relief, satisfaction, fulfilment, maybe anger and disappointment! Every emotion could be found in this moment. Then the Lord provides a ram to replace Isaac. Abraham still performs the sacrifice.

This connects with the transfiguration incident in the gospel. The moment in the life of Christ when he reveals his mission and identity. He takes his closest disciples- Peter, James and John to the mountain. He plans to give them a different understanding from the others. Jesus “charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mk. 9:10). The appearance of Moses and Elijah also explain the connection between the Law and the Prophets; Jesus is the fulfillment, and the transformation of the Law and the Prophets.

God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only one, your beloved Isaac”. The voice comes from heaven at the transfiguration, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him”. Eventually, God gives us his only Son to be sacrificed for our sins. That’s what Saint Paul refers to in the second reading, that God does not spare his only Son. By the death of Christ, God has acquitted us from the deadly effects of sin. We must prove our faith by listening to God. Abraham listens to God’s voice and expresses his faith. As Christians, we must be ready to face temptations too. Sufferings, pains, disappointments, frustrations, failures, losses, griefs, are all realities of life. They occur at different places and at different stages in life. They occur to us as students, in search of relationships, as business men/women, employees, etc. They occur to us in marriage, in the priestly and religious vocations. They occur to us in the single life. They occur everywhere. No one is exempt from the test of faith. God is not absent at those critical moments. He is watching. He is waiting for the right time. He wants to test your faith. At the end, like he provided the ram for Abraham, God will always provide a rescue.

God intervenes at the appropriate time. He blesses those who stand firm in trials, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you acted as you did… I will shower blessings upon you…” (Gen. 22:15-16). May God strengthen and bless you as you go through the trials in life.