Obedience's Rewards -- A Lectionary Meditation
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?