St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Sunday 28 June 2020
No more of this, no more of this. Remember me. ©Suzanne Grimmett
If there were a competition for the nastiest story in the Bible, this one we have heard today from Genesis- the near sacrifice by Abraham of his son, Isaac would have to be a front runner. If we hear the story simply as it is told, using our own cultural eyes and ears, the story is horrific and to my mind, irredeemable. Read at face value, God comes off as a pathological deity who could put us to the test by asking us to sacrifice our own child. But this is just how we must not read this passage. We should not be attempting to creep into the psyche of Abraham and wonder if we too could show this much faith. We must not think that a true sign of faith could ever be so violent, or that the God revealed in Jesus plays these kinds of psychological games.
So we approach this story carefully, thoughtfully and with an open-eyed acknowledgement that the cultural world in which this text was located is far removed from our own. Jesus lived in a religious culture of sacrifice, but in the beginning of the ancient stories we find in scripture, there was not only animal sacrifice, but human sacrifice, and indeed, sacrifice of the firstborn child. All over the world old religions practiced versions of this to appease the tribal gods and honour powerful deities.
This story therefore should be positioned with all its mythic power in the big story of ancient cultural practices, the Judeo-Christian tradition and all the scriptures; only placed in this wider context can we find a message of life, not death, in such a text.
For this seems to be what Jesus did. It is not difficult to hear a reference to this story in Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel of John;
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.” (John 8:39-41a)
Jesus here seems to be highlighting that what was unusual about Abraham’s story was that HE DID NOT sacrifice his son. That in plotting to kill Jesus, God’s son, those who conspired against him were imitating the age-old patterns of sacrificial violence which were evil in their origins. Jesus goes on to say, in that same passage, to those who sought to take his life;
“You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
Far from the willingness of Abraham being applauded, Jesus here is recognising that these murderous sacrificial impulses are not from God but from the beginning of time were the province of the father of lies. What we see here, and more forcibly still in the Genesis story, is an evolution in human understanding of the nature of God. If we look purely through an exegetical lens, the story of the almost sacrifice of Isaac reflects clearly this movement from the conventional view of hostile gods that need to be appeased, to an awe-filled realisation that the God who created and sustained life was merciful and filled with loving-kindness. A God, in fact, who is on our side, without requiring any action on our part to curry favour. It appears in the text that the god who demands the sacrifice at the beginning of the story is different to the one at the end who prevents the sacrifice. Elohim is the name used for God at the beginning of the story, a word that means the god or gods who are transcendent, mighty, to be feared as the governing, omnipotent, sovereign power. The story begins with “Elohim tested Abraham” and Elohim showed him the place for the sacrifice. In verse 11, however, it is Yahweh, the personal and relational covenant God, who commands that there be no sacrifice, and Yahweh again whose name is honoured on that mountain as the place where the Lord provides. That prophetic moment where Abraham says, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” provides a key to the startling revolution of understanding that occurs here. We can see a movement in Abraham from adhering to the demands of the ancient polytheistic gods for human sacrifice to a shocking and joyful realisation that there is a one true God who does not need to be appeased and wishes to stop all such violence. 1
Yet, these thousands of years later, I sometimes wonder how deeply that realisation has been accepted in our collective consciousness. How quickly we have ignored the prophets and psalmists who said repeatedly of God that “sacrifice and offering you did not desire”. How quickly we return to allowing the violence of sacrificial patterns to sneak back into our religious belief and cultural practices. Sacrifice permeates the way we narrate armed conflict and bloodshed, sneaks into our political and economic justifications, poisons marriages and family life and affects our ability to truly love ourselves and others. In times of crisis such as we now are living through, we start hearing different governments around the world voicing the idea of sacrifice as something necessary to economic recovery and the sustaining of lifestyle. Of course, being comfortable with the sacrifice of others is often all too easy for those in affluence and power. With death rates from Covid-19 reported to be the highest amongst the poorest communities, those who follow the Christ who calls us to tend to the welfare of “all the little ones” should be calling out those who would invoke the idea of sacrifice in this context of pandemic.
When we interpret Jesus death on the cross as a necessary blood sacrifice as atonement for our sins, we are regressing to the kind of god Abraham expected to hear asking him to lay his son on that altar. In calling Good Friday ‘good’ we are at risk of seeing the crucifixion as good and failing to see that the cross will always and can only be an evil instrument of torture. The cross was not ever a desire of God, but rather an instrument of the father of lies who whispered into the ears of humanity once again that a sacrifice was required. The work of God is resurrection, and we are reminded that “God’s only son” was given out of love, not retribution. Mark Heim captures this in the words of a beautiful hymn he wrote titled, “No More of This!”
Like Isaac, saved from sacrifice,
The Lord is risen from the dead with words of life.
The cross that should not be
Reversed by God’s decree:
No more of this, no more of this. Remember me.2
Sometimes it may seem that some ideas and human behaviours are too entrenched to possibly change. The great hope is that in the face of this intractable human preference for scapegoating violence, instead of asking for a sacrifice from humanity, God becomes the forgiving sacrificial victim who says, “Enough. It is finished.” The cross that should never have been was transformed by resurrection to offer us life beyond sacrifice. What instead is required of us? To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. We can stop believing the lie that has been told us that some sort of sacrifice is expected or required and instead step into the freedom of the life we have been offered, dedicated to the way of love.
When we are tempted to believe we hear the voice of God demanding a sacrifice, we need to hear the words of Jesus;
“No more of this, no more of this. Remember me”.
2 Mark Heim, No More of This, Hymn composed for the “Theology and Peace” Conference, May 2008