Ars praedicandi: II Lent, Year B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

It is not unusual to have the Sunday lectionary provide us
with some gospel story about Jesus in action,
be that moving into the desert
to struggle with his own demons,
or ascending a mountain
to commune with the prophets.

What is less common, however,
is an accompanying first reading
that also relates some notable tale.
More often than not, the first reading
offers a prophetic text or ancient wisdom
bolstering some key point in the Gospel.

For two weeks in a row, however,
we are treated to compelling stories
from the Old Testament.

Last week that came to us as the closing segment
of the story of the great deluge
with God establishing a new covenant
with Noah and his descendants.

This week, we are again immersed in Genesis
and offered another covenant story
in which God reconfirms his promises to Abraham
to bless him abundantly
and raise up from him innumerable descendants.

In all honesty, I find these stories
quite disturbing.

Last week, scripture recounted how
the creator who breathed his own life into Adam and Eve
chose to erase virtually all evidence
of his first attempt to shape a human race
in the divine image.

For me, this is not a comforting image of a benevolent God
who in next week’s first reading
will command all to worship and love him
while threatening those who do not appease
his admitted divine jealousy.

How do we love a God who not only has the capacity
to eradicate the human race at will,
but according to sacred revelation
has actually almost done the deed?

Then there is this week’s heartrending story
that comes to us in a highly edited version.

Earlier in Genesis, when God first called Abraham
and promised to raise his descendants into a great nation,
the patriarch was already 75 years old and childless.
As was the custom in those days
his barren wife gave her slave-girl, Hagar, to Abraham,
and Hagar conceived his first son, Ismael.

When Sarah eventually did conceive Isaac
she was very old and Abraham was already 100 years old.

But Sarah was jealous of Ishmael
and Abraham eventually dispatches his first born
with his slave-girl mother
into the wilderness.

So as we approach today’s story,
it comes with the weight of Abraham’s & Sarah’s age.
Abraham has already pushed out his first born
and now God wants him to sacrifice Isaac –
the lynchpin of the promised innumerable descendants.

The ordinary approach for preaching on this distressing text
is to focus on the amazing faith and steadfastness of Abraham,
whom God keeps promising a glorious future,
a nation rising from his offspring,
while the same God appears to keep jeopardizing that promise
with the dismissal of Ishmael
and the impending sacrifice of Isaac.

The exact nature of Abraham’s faith is unclear.
At one point in the story
he tells the servants who accompanied him and the boy
to stay while he and his son go off to sacrifice,
noting that “we will worship and come back to you.”
Did he expect God to resurrect the child after his death?

And what about Isaac?
He is no infant here, for he carries the wood up the mountain.
He was old enough to resist, but why didn’t he?
Is this really a story about his faith as well?

While it might seem a little odd, maybe even self-serving,
for me to use this preaching moment
to try to make sense of this reading
for my own sanity and spirituality,
Pope Francis seems to suggest that this is okay.

No, he didn’t send me an email approving my homily,
but in his first great instruction about preaching
the Pope actually encourages homilists to ask questions like:
What does this text say to me?
What is it about this word that moves me? and
What troubles me about this text? [1]

Well, what troubles me is an apparent definition of faith
as blind obedience
to what could appear to be a jealous even vengeful God.
For my spiritual well-being, I need another message here.

One way out of this dilemma is by reimaging this Genesis tale,
not as an ancient commentary on faith
but rather a wisdom teaching about sacrifice.

This so-called sacrifice of Abraham
is acknowledged by Jewish scholars as the most perfect sacrifice
in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Yet, ironically, it is a sacrifice without destruction.
God is not appeased by death,
but as the Psalmist notes, by a contrite heart (51:17).

One could even suggest that this tale
is an anti-sacrificial one,
a moral injunction against killing –
especially against the killing of children,
a practice the Hebrew scriptures themselves document. [2]

But maybe there is even more in this perplexing text
that can lead us to a deeper meaning of Lent
and shed light on Jesus’ own transfiguration.

Scapegoating is a practice employed by folk
as a strategy for addressing sin, rivalry and violence.

In the Bible, a scapegoat was literally a young goat
upon whom the people symbolically cast their sins
and then dispatched the goat into the wilderness
to carry away the community’s transgressions and guilt. [3]

More generally, in contemporary theory
scapegoating is a social mechanism we employ
to deflect some blame,
especially one that endangers the stability of a group
by placing it at the feet of some designated troublemaker.

By banishing or socially erasing,
imprisoning or even executing that individual,
social order is restored
and a community settles back into contentment,
believing that they have eradicated the problem
by eliminating the offending individual,
regardless of whether they are actually guilty of anything.

Our criminal justice system regularly scapegoats the innocent
so that someone can be blamed and incarcerated
and the offended segments of society appeased.

More generally, scapegoating is a common political tactic,
and whether it is the failure of the power grid in Texas
or a failure of the security at the Capitol building in DC,
finding someone to blame,
rather than discovering and fixing the root cause,
is a favorite pastime.

Now you might be asking yourself
what this digression into sacrifice and scapegoating
has to do with a gospel about Jesus’ transfiguration,
or even the Lenten journey that lies before us?

For me, the connections are clear and multiple.
First, Jesus is not some unknowing or unwilling victim
duped into sacrifice.
Rather, he is wise in the ways of God and the ways of the world.
He knows that he is being set up as a scapegoat
to divert heat away from Jewish and Roman authorities.
He even recognizes subversion among his closest followers
and yet willingly enters into the circle of death.

But even more, in his willingness to take on the sin –
to take on the prejudice and derision and animosity
ordinarily heaped upon the outcasts and powerless –
Jesus breaks the cycle of violence,
for he chooses to pass it on to no one.

The crucifixion, in all of its ghastly horror,
was God’s rejection of sacrificing or scapegoating others.
Jesus’ transfiguring gift, therefore,
was not simply a singular conversation
with law Moses and Elijah.
Rather, it was rather a prophetic transfiguring
of the commandments themselves,
transforming duty to care,
obligation to commitment
and legal requirements to love.

In the process, disciples are called to a similar transformation
that does not allow us to leverage privilege or piety
in order to sacrifice or scapegoat others.

Rather, in the image of the paschal lamb,
we are commissioned
to absorb the violence and destruction and prejudice
without passing it on to others.

There are no more Isaacs in our midst,
no more unknowing victims to scapegoat,
but only God’s beloved to uphold and embrace.

There is a striking memorial in Haman-gun in South Korea
dedicated to the Protestant saint Son Yang-won. [4]
He was a remarkable Christian in many ways:
ministering to lepers,
refusing to abandon his religion
during the Japanese occupation,
and imprisoned as an enemy of the empire.

An apostle of reconciliation,
he led a movement to reconcile other pastors
who had submitted to Shinto worship
during that same occupation.

The most amazing story about him, however, concerns
the killing of his own sons by communist sympathizers in 1948
for defending each other and their Christian faith.
When the murderer of his sons came up for trial,
he sent word through a surviving daughter
that he did not want the boy, Chai-Sun,
to be prosecuted or punished.

Instead, he adopted the murderer of his children,
taught him of Christ,
and this new son became a Christian minister.

In 1950, in the midst of the Korean war,
Pastor Son refused to abandon his flock in the north
and was eventually arrested by the communist army.
On September 27, 1950, he was executed for his faith.

A few weeks later, a procession took his body
to its final resting place on a small island,
where he was buried next to his murdered children.

Leading the procession, as oldest son and chief mourner,
was Chai-son,
atheist transfigured into Christian,
murderer transfigured into minister,
and criminal transfigured into a beloved son.

The voice from the skies in today’s gospel
proclaims the belovedness of God’s only son,
a belovedness that may seem totally beyond our frail natures.

But as Pastor Son made clear,
there is parental pride not only in children
who sacrifice their own lives for Christ,
but also pride in a son who turned from his own instincts
for scapegoating and sacrificing others
to become a beloved child,
birthed of reconciliation and love.

We pray that in this holy season
we too might be likewise transfigured
to a way of life
that is only self-sacrificing,
never scapegoating of any sister or brother
and so more clearly reveal our own belovedness.

In this transfiguring journey, we pray
that our Eternal parent might be even more
proud of those of us who profess to be
children of the font, children of the Light,
even more proud of these daughters
and proud of these sons,
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Joy of the Gospel, no. 153
[2] E.g., Judges 11:30-9, Leviticus 18:21
[3] Leviticus 16:21-22
[4] Park Hyun-jung, White Flame: The Story of Rev. son Yang-won, trans. Kim Myungjun. Kindle Edition.

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