"Faith or Sacrifice?"
June 28, 2023, 6:00 AM

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. Genesis 22:9-10

Most of us know the end of this story. God tells Abraham to stop the atrocity. He then points to a lamb caught in the thicket as a substitute sacrifice. Despite this story’s unsettling line, through the ages this narrative has been watered down to focus on the great faith of Abraham – faith so loyal to God that Abraham would even go so far as to sacrifice his own son. Sound strange? It does to me.

The historical context of this story sheds light on another possible interpretation. Most cultures at the time of Abraham were sacrificing their first-born children to calm the vengeful nature of their gods. Such sacrifices were thought to prevent calamity and ensure bountiful harvests. This shocking custom became a way of life.

Abraham was no exception to following the local customs of his time. In tying up Isaac and taking out his knife to kill him, Abraham bowed down to the practices he saw around him. The intervention of God by saying, “STOP!” changed this ongoing cultural narrative. No longer would sacrifices now be made from killing children. Instead, a lamb would suffice.

The prophets and authors of the Psalms further expand the paradigm. They focused on the real issue, that being the depravity of a person’s heart. The Psalmist would write, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) It would be centuries later that Jesus put to death the need for sacrifices altogether since he was the ultimate sacrifice. At least, that was supposed to be the lesson.

We find it hard to believe that anyone would sacrifice a child as Abraham was willing to do. Sacrifices have certainly been eliminated – that is, until we take a closer look at our own culture.

Abraham was driven to sacrifice Isaac because of his own ego (self-preoccupation with looking good in front of his neighbors). This meant going so far as to kill his own son just like the neighboring tribes. Only God could show Abraham a way out of this predicament. He provided a lamb caught in the thicket.

Ego, akin to Abraham’s, is still alive and well today in our own culture. We recently saw the consequences of ego in the tragic story of OceanGate. An extravagant father, most likely driven by ego, took a reluctant son on an attempted 2.4-mile-deep exploration to visit the Titanic. Both died. Was that not a sacrifice? Likewise, the captain of the vessel gave evidence of being held captive to an ego that offered the trip of a lifetime on a vessel that was not certified for deep-sea exploration, and charged each passenger $250,000 only to dive to their death.

While OceanGate is but one recent example of sacrifice, sacrifices are ongoing. Our children continue to die in random mass shootings around the nation. One in ten adolescents will experience homelessness this year leading to death for some. Twenty percent of adolescent youth have considered suicide, and forty-five percent of gay, lesbian, and transgender adolescents have considered or attempted suicide. When we allow our ego and self-preoccupation to rule, we sacrifice our youth.

What our youth need more than anything else is to have someone listen to them with the deep compassion of Christ. That is the work of the church. The responsibility of the church is to act as listening posts for those who do not fit in. Until the rhetoric and consequences of the ego die as Christ died, there will be no listening posts.

If we have trouble listening, it may be that we have forgotten how to listen, to slow down, and to spend quiet time with Christ – the Christ who alone can give us the patience and wisdom to demonstrate unconditional love. Only by embracing this Christ, the Lamb in the thicket, are we able to leave behind our ego and begin to restore a right relationship with our youth AND ourselves.

Prayers and Blessings,

Fr. John