June 28: Genesis 22:1-14 and Psalm 13 • Jeremiah 28:5-9 and Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18 • Romans 6:12-23 • Matthew 10:40-42
This week's Genesis reading begins with God's strange command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. Stranger still is Abraham's response, going along wordlessly with every detail of God's instructions. Just a few chapters ago, in Genesis 18, in a conversation where God had told Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham responded very differently. Abraham asked for wiggle room, so to speak, if righteous people were found in those towns, politely bargaining God down from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 to only 10 righteous people needed to save them all.
This time, though, Abraham is asking no questions, and seems to be no longer in conversation with God at all. He seems similar to many parents, who are so busy with the baby that they have little time for spiritual conversation. When people get too busy for prayer, too distracted for contemplation, and too worried for reflection, they begin to lose self-understanding and their own inner compass. Often, people seem to avoid inner reflection precisely when they are worried, ramping up their anxiety more, while at the same time, reducing their capacity for emotional self-regulation.
The mention of Isaac as his 'only son' (in v. 2) might have hit a raw nerve with Abraham, who had recently banished his other son, Ishmael. Trying not to think about it - using distance to manage his emotions – may have been his strategy. One question his mind is refusing to address is clear: Does this kid Isaac, this one you are so close to, come first, before everything, before God? After all, (see last week's post), there was little that he and his wife Sarah would not do for Isaac.
A lot of families find ways to sacrifice a child. The process can take many forms. Sometimes it is a family favorite, the star, the child who can do no wrong. Sometimes it is a family's black sheep, the one who can do only wrong. Sometimes there's both! But whenever there is family discord, attention can be diverted to the latest achievement of the star or infraction of the black sheep, thus bringing peace to all others at the expense of the focused-on child.
Abraham and Sarah had focused on Isaac, who for his part, was showing all the signs of the focused-on child: interested in pleasing others and without enough self to run away from his 100+ year-old father when he's about to be sacrificed. In a sense, both son and father are bound to the same family yoke. The emotional sacrifice of Isaac had been happening from his life's beginning, as his over-protective parents had shielded him from the challenges that help a person to grow up. Perhaps all of us who, as parents, sometimes get confused about being responsible for rather than to our children as they grow towards adulthood can take some solace here. The patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam made the same error!
During that three-day walk to the place where the burnt offering was to occur, Abraham had time to reflect on how he had made his son Isaac into a god. At some point, a conversation with God began, signified by an angel who revised the instructions for the offering. In my view, conversation with God – also known as prayer, contemplation, and reflection – can work to move a person towards more mature functioning. It takes time. It takes calm. Last, it takes courage to reflect on emotions, noticing the anxiousness as well as the energy, sifting the wheat from the chaff, and gradually increasing one's ability to consider feelings without being overwhelmed by them.
Although this story is often understood to mean that Abraham was rewarded for his blind, child-like obedience, I think it was the opposite. When Abraham took adult responsibility for himself, re-ordering his life according to his true priorities, child sacrifice was no longer a consideration. It was a difficult journey before he got there. Many of us, I'm guessing, can look back over our lives and difficult journeys that led to growth. With that growth comes some freedom to stop trying to please others, instead becoming more of a person in one's own right, one who can be genuinely interested in others.
Morning: What are my responsibilities for myself today? When might I get focused on others instead?
Evening: What emotions did I distance from today?
Psalm 13:2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?