- Genesis 22: 1-14
The Abraham/Sarah narrative reaches its climax: God instructs Abraham to take his and Sarah’s only son, miraculously given to them by God long past their child bearing years, and offer Isaac as a sacrifice. God gives instructions for the sacrifice down to the last detail. In all innocence, the young boy Isaac carries the wood and knife to be used for his own murder. Abraham follows the Lord’s instruction fully. Just as Abraham raises his hand with the knife in it and prepares to thrust the knife into Isaac, an angel stops him at the last possible second and says, “now I know you fear God.”
- Psalm 13
The psalmist shifts in just a few verses from desperation caused by God’s absence to joy, singing his memory of God’s kindness.
- Jeremiah 28: 5-9
In contrast with Jeremiah’s gloomier prophecy, Hananiah prophecies an early return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon as well as the return of the sacred vessels to the Temple so ritual sacrifice can be renewed. Jeremiah replies that he hopes Hananiah’s prophecy is correct, but reminds all that the tradition “from ancient times” is that all past prophecies foretold “war, famine and pestilence.”
- Psalm 89: 1-4, 15-18
The psalmist recalls God’s covenant with David as cause to trust God’s faithfulness, justice and mercy.
- Romans 6: 12-23
Paul offers a corrective to his emphasis on grace over the Law. It is not a license for disobedience. Rather his gospel teaches that grace changes the heart. Now we voluntarily become “slaves” to God so that we can, paradoxically, know real freedom.
- Matthew 10: 40-42
Having just shocked his listeners by suggesting that following him could cause alienation from family and friends, Jesus now offers the identifying trait of the new community he is founding– “whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” And you will know the members of this new community by even the most basic, simple acts of thoughtfulness, such as “a cup of cool water” to a child.
The seventeenth century priest and poet, George Herbert, declared “the godly are exempt from the Law,” but not from obeying God. This idea that there is religion beyond “religion,” a morality that supersedes “morality” and an obedience that is more about relationships to all others than mere duty has captured the imaginations of many writers regarded as “postmodern.” A major influence for many of these writers throughout the Twentieth century was the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. In Fear and Trembling (1843), Kierkegaard was obsessed with the story of Abraham and Sarah. He calls Abraham “the Father of faith, because, he writes: “By faith Abraham went out from the land of his fathers and became a sojourner in the land of promise.” (All citations are from the Princeton University Press re-issued by Doubleday/Anchor in 1954; p. 31) Abraham “believed for his life. (p. 34), “believed the preposterous,” (p. 35). Throughout his life, from his leaving the security of his extended family and homeland until this frightening and awful moment when he is actually in the act of murdering his only son, reveals that “the first movement of faith [is always] infinite resignation.” (p. 48) What Abraham reveals, which makes him “the Second Father of the human race” (p.31) in Kierkegaard’s eyes, is that anyone who dares accept God’s invitation to relationship encounters the “impossible,” dares to stand “in an absolute relationship with the absolute….” (p. 129) “Everyone shall be remembered, but each shall become great in proportion to his expectation.” “One become great by expecting the impossible, by expecting the eternal, but he who expected the impossible became the greatest of all.” (p.31)
First, conventional standards and expectations are not biblical expectations. Conventional morality makes sense; obeying God can get a little crazy, go against everything we hold “sacred.” As John Caputo writes: “the sphere of absolute responsibility is beyond duty, because in doing one’s duty, what ought in principle to be done, one is related to a universal principle, not to God.” (The Prayers and Tear of Jacques Derrida, p. 200) Matthew’s Jesus at first utters the expected terms of dutiful hospitality, but then undermines the whole system of expected ethics by going to the absurd: anyone who gives a child a glass of cool water is ready for God’s “reward.”
Secondly, the location of the dilemma between conventional morality and the biblical emphasis on obligations forged in expected and unexpected relationships is not on the periphery, but at the very center of one’s moral, psychological, spiritual and social identity. (See comments for Proper 7A.) Thus, it inevitably causes crises, choices and previously unimaginable expectations.
Thirdly, very unexpectedly, choosing loyalty to relationship over “morality,” — the man was in the act of murdering a child!–as Abraham was prepared to do, creates a crisis out of which comes this paradox: by being willing to take the unexpected risks of true relationship with God, we can at last discover the juice of life more fully than in any other way. (Or, as Paul writes dramatically, become “slaves” to God so that we can finally know what genuine “freedom” is like.) In The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida writes about this discovery which Abraham made (and caused Kierkegaard to call him “the Second Father of the human race”):
“…this is the moment when Abraham gives the sign of absolute sacrifice, namely by putting to death or giving death to his own son, putting to death his absolute love for what is dearest, his only son; this is the instant of absolute imminence in which Abraham can no longer go back on his decision, nor even suspend it. In this instant, therefore, in the imminence that no longer even separates the decision from the act, God gives him back his son….” (p. 95)