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2nd July 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
30 June 2017

Readings

Genesis 22: 1-14

Maurice Andrew makes the point that this is one of the world's great stories and some people ask what kind of God tests people in this way.[1]  Dr Andrew also notes that some have suggested that this story is included as a polemic against the mistaken tradition of sacrificing children.  That has some plausibility in the progress of faith development that Karen Armstrong sees taking place that transforms Yahweh the god of war into the voice in the burning bush who calls slaves to freedom and becomes the God of all creation, the only divine being.[2]

This story might be seen as a divine adjustment of barbaric religious practices and forbidding the sacrifice of first born sons. 

However it needs to be remembered that in a later story it is later seen as quite honourable for Jephthah to sacrifice his only daughter because he makes an ill-conceived promise. Phyllis Trible comments on 'Jephthah's Daughter' in comparison to Genesis 22 saying that 'no angel intervenes to save the child'.[3] Perhaps as Jephthah is a warrior that fits Armstrong's assertion that Yahweh was originally the god of war and it certainly fits the low value placed on the lives of women by the biblical writers.

Matthew 10: 40-42

The conclusion of chapter 10 continues stressing the rewards of new Disciples of Christ who endure the hardship and distress of persecution and family division outlined in this chapter.

Warren Carter says that the terms prophet, righteous/just persons and little refer to disciples on Christ's mission.[4] The little ones suggests the vulnerability of the group remembering the instructions to take minimum clothing, rely on the hospitality of others and not even to carry a staff.

Those who receive the prophet or disciple, even by just giving a cup of cold water, will first of all be rewarded by the prophet through hearing the good news and then be doubly rewarded by also engaging in mission and being part of a transformed world-God's realm.

Matthew uses 'the disciples' as a metaphor for Christian believers [5] so as we also belong to the community of Matthew's readers these instructions are for us.

This is a very short gospel passage but plays a key role in relation to the chapter and contains a major theological statement. 'The person receiving (or welcoming) you receives me and the person receiving me receives the one who sent me.'[6]

Sermon

I can vaguely remember Bible in Schools stories about Abraham and Isaac and colouring in pictures of Isaac about to be murdered.  All of which was pretty scary but we were told that the story teaches us about how important it is to be faithful to God.  The message was that if we are truly faithful nothing bad will happen and our fondest hopes will be fulfilled in the future.  I was somewhat underwhelmed with those ideas.

Now with a much older and more cynical mind I want to know how God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Was it the same voice in his head that in our day can get people into preventative detention for the rest of their lives? 

I find that God speaks to me though our religious tradition, though reading the Bible and our church tradition. 

The reformation happened at a time when Christian religious tradition was being abused though control of the priesthood.  Therefore the reformed faith evolved confessions of faith that suggested that the only Christian authority is the Bible. 

This morning’s story of the attempted murder of Isaac is just one example of the unfortunate message we might get if we relied completely on the Bible to be ‘God’s word to us’. 

One memory that is ingrained in my mind came from a reverend doctor who I held in high esteem who said, ‘The Bible is not the word of God, the Bible contains the word of God’. 

That statement reminds us that God’s word for us is within the stories of the Bible but we have to read it with an awareness of its historical context and our own cultural understanding and circumstances. Reading the same selected lectionary readings every three years I find they speak to me differently each time because there are different things happening in our world.    

Anglicans developed the metaphor of a three legged stool to discern theological truth. One leg is the Bible, another is tradition and the third is common sense.  Apart from the fact that sense isn’t always common that is not a bad model.  We can certainly apply it to the dilemma that Abraham faced. 

In the laws of Deuteronomy in chapter 26 there is instruction to take the first fruit of the land and use it for an offering to Yahweh.  In the historical sequence of the Bible that came much later than today’s reading but it is a concept found in many religious traditions.

I suspect the offering of first fruits comes from the fear of the unknown forces that, to primitive people, seemed to be out to destroy humanity and their efforts to provide for themselves.  In many ways giving the first fruits as an offering is a sort of protection money to the gods and demonstrates primitive humanities fear of the unknown forces of the environment. 

In line with Leunig’s idea that there are only two emotions, love and fear a Christian offering turns a fear motivated offering into a love offering. 

Therefore the first of the harvest are given to the poor and the marginalised as an expression of Jesus’ command ‘And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly  I tell you, none of these will lose their reward,’. (Matthew 10:42)   

Of course there is still a remnant of fear because in that statement Jesus’ was offering a reward for being Christ to others.

But the Bible contains a progression of religious understanding and the Abraham saga is certainly part of that progression and Abraham worship is obviously sacrificial.  Furthermore Leviticus seems to prohibit child sacrifice.  You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech and so profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 18:21)  However Molech was the god of the Ammonites and Canaanites, so it could simply be reinforcing the idea that they should have no other god but Yahweh and, as we mentioned in the introduction, it seemed perfectly acceptable for Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter. 

So, although Abraham was old and had already sent his other son into the wilderness where he could well assume he would perish, his religious tradition may well put him in fear of some great calamity if he did not sacrifice his first legitimate son. 

We can reasonably assume that what saved Isaac was a victory of Abraham’s love of his son over fear of the unknown.  The life of his son and generations to come was the reward for giving a cup of cold water in the form of listening to the voice of love which stayed his hand.

We are told that an angel told Abraham not to murder Isaac and angels are messengers from God.  The Gospel message is that love is our messenger from God.  Love is the common sense filter we should apply to any message we receive from the Bible or from our religious tradition.  If the message does not have love in it then it is not from God.  If the message comes from a voice in our head and it does not have love in it then we should seek psychological help.  The love test should also be applied to young men who have visions and old men who have dreams along with a prescription of forty days in the wilderness.  

The theme of this story of Abraham and Isaac can certainly be seen as prohibition of child sacrifice by divine command.  Maurice Andrew says that the Old Testament is realistic.  Therefore it is not surprising that the whole saga from Abraham setting out from Harran to his descendants becoming slaves in Egypt can also be read as an exposition of dysfunctional families, the shortcomings of patriarchal families and the way abusive childhoods breed dysfunctional adults who go on to abuse women and children and have their own dysfunctional families. 

The way that cycle of family dysfunction was broken in the biblical narrative was crossing over to a journey of forty years in the wilderness led by Moses, the survivor of a government or royal attempt at mass infanticide.     

What can often break such cycles of dysfunction in our own world by taking Jesus’ advice and offering a cup of cold water to whoever are the little ones in our world?

However it is not always easy and the context of today’s gospel reading is the conclusion to what is a long list of persecutions that the apostles of Christ are likely to encounter if they promote Christ’s message to the world. 

We are protected from the more violent reactions that Jesus and his earlier followers faced but ridicule is certainly alive and well in our world.  I suggested to someone who I think is still a friend that when a child’s parents don’t or can’t adequately care for their child then it is the community’s responsibility to make sure that child has the same opportunity as every other child.  I know that is true because my mother told me. However he insisted that it was the parent’s responsibility and it was just too bad about the child because life is tough.

I absolutely loved the story of the boy with alcoholic parents who escaped from various foster homes and was finally offered a metaphorical cup of cold water by a very caring teacher.  The boy was brought into a class the teacher started for children who didn’t fit in to the school system.  The teacher was eventually thanked by that boy as an adult.  But the real reward for that teacher was that, although that badly treated and often bored and ill-disciplined boy continued to buck disempowering systems, he was transformed.  Along his journey to who he became he accumulated a number of titles like Phd, Sir and most surprising for someone who at one time lived under a railway bridge in England he became the first New Zealander of the year.  We now call him Sir Ray Avery and he is still changing the world from his garage laboratory.  

No matter what faith implications we might read into the story of Abraham’s attempted murder of Isaac it was about his father’s fears and ambitions rather than Isaac’s welfare.  Abraham’s love saved Isaac’s life but the incident was child abuse and the family dysfunction rippled through generation upon generation. 

What blocks the journey of inherited dysfunction is loving people who, in the name of Christ or in the name of a disciple of Christ, gives a cup of cold water to one of those little ones, the abused or marginalised people of our world.

Just as dysfunction can be passed along life’s journey so can Christ’s love be passed on.  The verse says: And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple. (Matthew 10:42)     We might not get the chance to give the cup of cold water but someone who learns from us can, knowingly or unknowingly, pass on Christ’s love on our behalf.  

We as Christians are called to be the transforming Christ in our world.  However even those just touched by the power of our love can give a metaphorical cup of cold water that breaks cycles of dysfunction and transforms lives.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.68

[2] Karen Armstrong The Great Transformation: The beginning of Our Religious Traditions (New York: Anchor Books,

[3] Phyllis Trible, The Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1984) p.105.

[4] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (Londonl:New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.245

[5] Francis Wright Beare The Gospel According to Matthew, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), p.254.

 

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