Thursday, June 23, 2011

Obedience's Rewards -- A Lectionary Meditation

Genesis 22:1-14


Romans 6:12-23


Matthew 10:40-42


Obedience’s Rewards


The old hymn goes: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”   Then, in Hebrews 11, we read that “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance” (Heb. 11:8).  Abraham is supposed to be our example of faithful obedience.  When God called, Abraham said “here I am” and obeyed, and therefore, he was deemed faithful and righteous, because of that obedience (Rom. 4:1-8).   The question is: if we’re to follow in Abraham’s footsteps what does this obedience require of us?  Is it blind obedience?  Following God’s lead without question, submitting fully and completely to these directives?
Blind obedience is not part of our general cultural make up.  We ask questions and push the boundaries.  What then do we make of stories such as the one told in Genesis 22, where Abraham follows God’s command to sacrifice his son, seemingly without flinching, even though this is the very son whom God had provided to him and his wife Sarah in their old age to be his heir, and thus the means of God’s blessings to the nations?  Should this be an example to us as well?  I mean God called the bluff just in the nick of time, but Abraham was ready to go through with it, so what do we make of such obedience?  

When it comes to obedience and its rewards there are other questions to be asked – what kind of God would deserve our obedience?  I mean, what kind of God would demand that a father kill his son as part of a test of faith?  

Of course, it’s possible that we will end up obeying someone or something, as Paul seems to say, so to whom will you enslave yourself?  To sin or to God?  And as Darth Vader reminds us the dark side is powerful!   

Finally, there’s the question of reward.  Is there no reward for our faithfulness?  Jesus seems to suggest one – but he does state it in terms of his followers being the source of the reward.   So, is it simply “trust and obey, for there’s no other way!”

Do you find the text of Genesis 22 to be troubling?  Does this passage fit with your vision of God?   And, what of its picture of faithful obedience?  Is it an appropriate one, as I asked earlier?   It could be that this simply explains why and when the practice of child sacrifice ended – God simply provided an alternative – a lamb – so you don’t have to offer your first born son anymore.  Of course, there’s the Christological interpretation, where this act prefigures Christ’s sacrifice – he being the lamb who dies for our sins.  But that may read too much into the text, and besides, doesn’t that idea still prove troubling?  And what of the idea that God would  test a follower in this way, doesn’t this present a problem to our understanding of God?  Of course, this isn’t the only place in scripture where God tests his people – think of the story of Job (even if Satan is the one delivering the test, the test was authorized by God).    

Soren Kierkegaard famously wrestles with this in his book Kierkegaard: Fear and Trembling (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). In one scenario, Isaac pleads with God to save him from his father’s murderous intent.  In the story Kierkegaard pictures Abraham murmuring to God: “Lord in heaven, I thank you; it is surely better for him to believe I am a monster than to lose faith in you” (p. 9).    In other words, Abraham is willing to take the rap for God’s monstrous request.  But as the story goes on, even though the lamb was provided, “from that day on Abraham became old; he could not forget that God had demanded this of him.  Isaac flourished as before, but Abraham’s eyes were darkened, he saw joy no more” (p. 9).  I wonder what kind of questions this passage raises in our hearts and minds about the nature of God and God’s expectations of us.  What do we make of this suggestion that God “tested” Abraham.  Does God really do such things?  If so, did someone tip Abraham off so that he needn’t flinch since he knew God wouldn’t make him do it after all.  Or, did he take solace in the belief that Isaac would be going to heaven anyway?  Kierkegaard reminds us that for Abraham the afterlife was to be found in the blessing provided by his posterity, and the only way he would have such a blessing was if Isaac lived.  Thus, according to the Danish theologian, Abraham “believed the preposterous,” and had he doubted, “he would have done something difficult, something great and glorious.” (p. 17).    Yes, in the end God provides and Abraham and Isaac return home together, but I imagine something did change in the relationship.  So, what is the moral of the story?  Could it be that doubt is an important part of faith?  That questioning God has its place, even if it could be called sin?  I wonder.  And if obedience has its rewards, might doubt have it’s own rewards? 

If Abraham seems to have blindly obeyed God, even at the cost of his own legacy, Paul seems to double down on the benefits of obedience.  Indeed, he makes this dualistic contrast between two forms of slavery – to sin or to God.  The choice is ours.  To be a slave is to give up control of our lives – it is to live in obedience to another.  Paul even suggests that if we are slaves of sin, then we are free with regard to righteousness, which has no control of our lives.  For Paul, the choice is whether we’ll let sin reign in our bodies through our passions.  The euphemisms seem hard at work, suggesting that Paul is concerned here about sexual morality.  We can use our “members” as “instruments of wickedness” or instruments of righteousness.  If we choose to be slaves to God, then righteousness will take hold, and the reward will be sanctification (holiness) and eternal life.  Then, in closure, the chapter offers us one of those memorable passages, the kind that we tend to memorize, if we’re going to memorize a scripture text: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:23).   Death, it would seem is earned, while eternal life is a gift.  Wouldn’t you rather have the gift than have to work?  But of course, the gift implies slavery and obedience.  The choice, however, is yours – will you let sin reign in your bodies, or will you put yourself at the disposal of righteousness.

In the gospel reading for this week, Jesus suggests to the disciples, that they will be a source of blessing to the broader community.  How that community receives them, will demonstrate their receptiveness to him and to the one who sent him.  There is a word about the rewards that come from receiving the prophet, the righteous one, and the little one – the disciple.  It is important to note this final comment about the ones through whom blessings will be derived – the little ones.  It is a reminder that those called of God are not called because they are powerful, but they are called to be humble.  And obedient?    

 This brief passage is a meditation upon hospitality, something that is so deeply ingrained in the biblical story.  The idea that one might entertain angels in disguise is always present, going back at least to the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three travelers at the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-8).  There is much talk in the prophets about welcoming strangers and foreigners – it is incumbent upon the people, if they wish to enjoy the blessings of the covenant, to remember that they once were strangers and they should then act accordingly.  Ultimately, to receive God’s people – the church, the body of Christ – is to welcome God’s presence.  If one does this, one will not lose the reward of experiencing that presence. 

In many ways the gospel reading fits awkwardly with the lections from Genesis and Romans.  It’s less about obedience than the other two, but maybe here too there is a word about obedience.  In our obedience, in our faithfulness to the calling of God, we put ourselves in a position to bring blessings (rewards) to the community.  For surely, to be a disciple, is to be obedient to the call of God.  But, is this blind obedience?  Might there be a place for asking -- are you sure about this God?  Even if obedience is part of the calling, could doubt be as well? 

10 comments:

John said...

Isn't this story really about faithfulness? When God calls for the sacrifice of Isaac, isn't God saying: do you love me? And when Abraham speaks with Isaac is he not asserting: God loves me enough to find us a way through this.

God asks Abraham to do the impossible, and to do so with his eyes open to the reality of the situation. Abraham loves God so much that he will do as God asks, confident that God wil find a way through the awful situation - Abraham is certain that God will provide.

This is not an act of blind obedience, but an act of faith-filled reliance on God's loving kindness.

On another tack, is this not a metaphor for sending our children off to fight in wars? We knowingly offer up our beloved children on the alter of war, trusting that our coountry is in the right and praying that our country will provide a safe way for them to return home?

How tragic when our country betrays our trust and wastes the lives of our children on needlesss and petty adventures.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

I think that the story, as Kierkegaard demonstrated raises a number of possibilities. One is blind obedience. We have read it as faithfulness to a loving God, but in context, does Abraham really know this to be the case?

On the other hand, it does raise issues about how we treat/use our own children as sacrifices for our own agendas.

In the end Genesis 22 is fodder for a lot of contemplation about God and humanity.

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

John and Bob, you both raise interesting points about this Old Testament fable. One aspect often missed is God's declaration, "Now I know!" The point of this test was to discover the exact degree of Abraham's faithfulness. Why? Because God here and elsewhere in the Torah is characterized as NOT omniscient. I don't think that this story is intended to answer any deeper mysteries than this. When we begin to analyze it as an historical incident, we run into questions it was not intended to address.

John said...

Bob,

Perhaps I am cutting too fine a line but I am trying to draw a distinction between mere obedience - whether from reflex, fear (awe), or loyalty - and faithfulness, which is an intentional and informed response proceeding from a loving relationship.

John

John said...

Steve,

Is this the analysis of the process theologian? By the way, it is the angel speaking and not God. But let us assume that the angel utters God's message here.

Scripture says that God knows what is in our hearts. Then surely God would know what was in Abraham's heart. But you suggest that God really doesn't know. That is a revolutionary assertion for a Christian.

Perhaps it is true. But, if it is true, the knowledge gleaned by God is still incomplete - God does not learn what Abraham will do the next time he is confronted with the same test. People are not static and their responses are not automatic, process theology surely concedes this.

The problem is that if we conclude that God has now learned something not previously known about Abraham, the information is so circumstantially limited as to be useless. Even the God of process theology would know that. So what then does God now know? That Abraham stands in awe of God? This is news?

What we can say, what God can say, is that Abraham now knows how far he will go in response to God's call, and how compassionately God will be with him. And we now know how far we may have to go in response to God's call, and how compassionately God will be with us.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John, I'm not sure that inherent in the Genesis story is the idea that this is a loving relationship. Abraham seems to act of obedience to God, faithfully, perhaps blindly, but I don't think it's a matter of a loving relationship.

What does Abraham discover in this? That God will provide. What does God learn? That Abraham will follow through, no matter what!

John said...

Hesed.

Also, I am working under the assumption that the Genesis stories were assembled and edited well after the time of David and perhaps around the time of the Exile and that they are set forth as a backstory to the Exodus, where God's response to his chosen people is most certainly characterized by love. In which case the notion of God's loving kindness and of God's enduring faithfulness are God's paramount characteristics and therefore, it is not surprising that the editor would communicate narratives which showcase such divine characteristics. Such an understanding of God is critical to the survival of the Jews as a people.

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

John, again you have responded with a very thoughtful comment. I can’t go very far with you on this because you seem to take this fable as fact and I don’t. If historically reliable in every detail, it presents God in the worst light, putting a loving father in such a harrowing position. So we have to ask what the point of the story is (setting aside the gory details). Here we agree at least that it turns on a question of faithfulness. This story’s necessary extremes settle forever the question in favor of Abraham.

To press the point a bit, if the angel is an angel and not God, why not just ask God, who presumably knows everything, if Abe is a faithful servant, instead of putting him through this test, presumably with God’s knowledge? Of course the “angel” is a theophany. You see, by pressing this story’s implications, we ask too much of it. Much like asking where Cain got his wife. These are fables. They were not meant to bear the weight of close scrutiny.

Not being a very skilled Process theologian, I can only say that my view of God’s non omniscience is compatible, but would not want to defend it in Process terms. From the first, God is characterized as an experimenter. God creates humanity and then is sorry and decides to end the experiment. One hears God lamenting, “If I only had known how this would have turned out, I never would have done it!” (The KJV says God “repents.”) Prior to this, God creates Adam (ha adam, the creature) content with it as the only occupant in Eden, until God recognizes the creature’s loneliness and then goes about to rectify it. God first experiments with creating the animals as a suitable helpmeet for Adam, and only after that fails, creates Eve. Then in the wilderness with Moses, God is so disillusioned with the complaining Israelites that he wants to kill them all and start over with Moses. Such are the consequences for God with giving free will to humans. The outcomes are yet to be known.

If your statement is true, “The problem is that if we conclude that God has now learned something not previously known about Abraham, the information is so circumstantially limited as to be useless,” then we must ask, why did God put Abraham through this at all? If God “knew Abraham’s heart,” then putting him through this terror is even more despicable. No. I must take this story at face value and conclude that God, indeed, needed to know with assurance that Abraham could be counted on to fulfill God’s will for him.

John said...

Steve,

Let me begin first by stating that I see the story as metaphor. Its historicity, if it could be proven, is really not all that important to its place in Scripture.

As for putting God in a terrible light, that all depends on the lens one brings to the interpretive effort: if you want to see abusive power it can be seen, if you want to see the end of child sacrifice as an institution it can be seen, if you want to see how faith can endure and sustain us through the most awful of challenges, then it can be seen if you want to see that God provides when you need it most, it can be seen.

Frankly, the latter perspectives are the ones I take away today, that life, whether through the operation of powers and principalities, or mere bad luck, often puts us to the test, and the question is whether we can trust in the Lord to provide a way through. Tomorrow a different meaning may come to the fore.

That the writers of Scripture contrived this test as coming from God may merely indicate that they perceived all things, good or bad, as being from God, because God created all things. But there is no reason not to see the story as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations we all endure. In such case what is learned by Abraham? That he could retain his faithfulness, and that God would remain faithful.

My queries regarding God's knowledge come from my own uncertainties about the limits of what God can know. While I know the limits are there, I do not know where to draw the line - and I don't need to know. The lesson(s) learned by God are really irrelevant to us humans, even if they could ever be known. So I reconsider the story in terms of what the less divine characters know and don't know - and what they learn.

How many time do we enter a time of testing filled with uncertainties as to whether we are equal to the challenge? The lesson for me is that If I can endure, God will endure through it with me.

In the grand scheme of things whether Abraham "passed" or "failed" the test was not going to be a 'game changer' for God. There would always be forgiveness and another test when the time was right. But for Abraham - to know he could endure this most emotionally painful of challenges to his faith in God and to be affirmed in his confidence that God would be with him throughout was indeed a 'game changer' for Abraham.

So ultimately I interpret this story as teaching more about us humans than about God.

God knows what God knows. God will become what God will become. Do we have the faith to stay with God, when it looks like God has turned away from us?

I guess I am just reinterpreting the story as a different telling of the core truth of the Job story.

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

John, having you in Bob's audience on Sunday mornings keeps him on his toes, I'm sure. That certainly would be true for me! I look forward to continuing to read your posts.