The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, 29 June 2014
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Background: Child Sacrifice
The subject matter of the first reading in Track 1 leads us to ask the question of how prevalent was child sacrifice in the ancient near east. My recent reading of Joan Breton Connelly’s book The Parthenon Enigma, made me realize that it was not only prevalent in the ancient near east but in Greece as well. It was also practiced in Carthage and Phoenicia. But what about Israel? We have evidence in the Torah itself of instances, (see II Kings 3:26f. or Micah 6:7f.). Other references talk about the practice in the land of the Ammonites. It is distinctly banned in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. That it is mentioned in these texts implies that it was a practice to be actively condemned. Isaiah 30:27-33 mentions a “tophet”, a place outside of Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to Moloch. II Kings 16:3 accuses Ahaz of sacrificing his son, along with other forbidden practices. Thus Leviticus and Deuteronomy are not commenting on a hypothetical situation, but rather on an active practice.
God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.
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. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place "The LORD will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided."
Why does either the “E” writer, or the “J” writer (both seem to be involved here, perhaps due to the work of a later redactor) tell this story, and if both are involved, why do both deem it of some importance. E.A. Speiser is quick to advise, however, that we must not take this story as only an etiology or a warning against the practice of child sacrifice, but rather see a deeper meaning. If anything the situation lends drama to Abraham’s circumstances. That Isaac should have come late in life and should be the assurance of the promises that God gives to Abraham about being the father of many is made sharp in this demand that Abraham sacrifice his son. The dearness of the relationship is pointed out clearly in a restructuring of the text, “your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac”, by the 11th century Rabbi Rashi:
“’Your son.’ He (God) said to him, ‘I have two sons.’ He (God) said to him, ‘Your only one.’ He said, “This one is an only one to his mother and that one is an only one to his mother.’ He (God) said to him ‘Whom you love.’ He said to him (God), ‘I love both of them.’ He (God) said to him, ‘Isaac.’”
Abraham and Sarah’s future and the future of their family have always swung in the balance. Having followed God’s command to leave the land of their birth and to follow into an unknown place, the future seems equally unknown or at least at risk, and here all of that drama is brought to the forefront. The initial statement about the “testing of Abraham” does not lead us astray. Is Abraham worthy? Does he trust? His behavior in the text is unquestioning. The intervention by the divine (angels) and by creation itself (the ram) seems to underscore the faithfulness of God’s promise, brought to the reader as well in high drama.
Breaking open Genesis:
- What are the tests that Abraham endures?
- Does Abraham seem to be engaged or disengaged in the text?
- What do you think the point of the text is?
Psalm 13 Usquequo, Domine?
How long, O LORD?
will you forget me for ever? *
how long will you hide your face from me?
How long shall I have perplexity in my mind,
and grief in my heart, day after day?*
how long shall my enemy triumph over me?
Look upon me and answer me, O LORD my God; *
give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death;
Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him," *
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen.
But I put my trust in your mercy; *
my heart is joyful because of your saving help.
I will sing to the LORD, for he has dealt with me richly; *
I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.
This psalm might well be put on the lips of Abraham’s mind, especially in the light of the first reading. “How long” and “Always” seem to form a tension in which Abraham’s (or actually the psalmist’s) life exists. Such wrestling with God is not unusual here. In last Sunday’s Track 2 first reading, Jeremiah deals with a similar situation and emotions. The final line is the clue, “But I in your kindness do trust.” In spite of the eternal waiting, the psalmist yet trusts, and waits.
Breaking open Psalm 13:
- What’s your emotional response to a “forgetful God?”
- How does God remember you during the day?
- How do you honor God during the day?
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD; and the prophet Jeremiah said, "Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet."
Here you might want to take time and read Chapter 27 and 28 as a unit. Chapter 27 represents a four-part decree that God declares to his prophet, and the following chapter is the conversation that unpacks what God has said. Our reading opines on the real nature of the prophetic office. What Jeremiah wants to make perfectly clear to the hearer (here the prophet Hananiah, who has announced a prophecy of peace and restoration) is that it is the Word of the Lord that needs to be delivered to the people, and not prophetic hopes. Jeremiah discloses the tradition of the Word of God that he has heard and is compelled to deliver. God will ascertain which words are true. This scene takes place in a charged atmosphere in which Babylon has already inserted itself into the affairs of Judah, and has taken exiles. Which prophet speaks the Word of the Lord? Hananiah is trusting in what God has done in the past, that God would remain faithful to the Davidid kings Jeremiah acknowledges Hananiah’s hope, but quickly makes him aware of what the prophets before have spoken. Finally, Jeremiah puts both of their words to the test. God will have God’s way.
Breaking open the Jeremiah:
- What are the three parts of Jeremiah’s argument?
- Are there points where he is a bit cynical?
- How do Jeremiah and Hananiah differ?
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18 Misericordias Domini
Your love, O LORD, for ever will I sing; *
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.
For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; *
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
'I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.'"
Happy are the people who know the festal shout! *
they walk, O LORD, in the light of your presence.
They rejoice daily in your Name; *
they are jubilant in your righteousness.
For you are the glory of their strength, *
and by your favor our might is exalted.
Truly, the LORD is our ruler; *
the Holy One of Israel is our King.
In this “royal psalm” we can see where Hananiah (see the reading from Jeremiah, above) has placed his trust. “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn an oath to David my servant.” We must ask, along with Jeremiah, are their limits to such promises and faithfulness? This is a strange juxtaposition of psalm and first reading, for the psalmist hope exceeds even those of Hananiah. This is the bedrock trust that Israel bears toward God. It will be tested in all times, and not just those times of war and turmoil, but in times of personal stress as well.
Breaking open the Psalm 89:
- What promises are made in this psalm?
- Which ones are kept, and how?
- Which ones seem to be broken promises?
Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
St. Paul continues an exposition on Baptism and its effect in the Christian life. The conversation begins with a discussion on the nature of sin, and its role over against those who would follow Jesus. The turning point of this discussion is not only the nature of sin, but of freedom as well. “Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is the second time in this chapter that Paul has raised this conundrum. He offers a choice: be a slave to sin or be a slave to obedience (that is to Christ). What is important in this discussion, transactions actually, are the consequences of following the one or the other. Slavery to sin leads to death. Slavery to obedience leads to sanctification and eternal life. His initial comments hold: “Present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”
Breaking open Romans:
- What does “sin” mean to you?
- What does “a slave to sin” mean to Paul?
- How do you fit in?
St. Matthew 10:40-42
Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 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."
Last Sunday we continued in this section in Matthew in which Jesus outlines the cost of discipleship. In this reading we hear Jesus’ teaching about the acknowledgment of the Messiah. The question for us is “how shall we recognize the Messiah? What are the aspects that we should recognize? Jesus gives us two choices. The first is to recognize in him the Prophet – the one who speaks God’s word to the people. The second is to recognize in him “the Righteous One”, or as we have understood it, “the Messiah.” To each of these is given both recognition and a “reward.” Perhaps the good Dr. Martin Luther should have read this passage before condemning the Epistle of James.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How is Jesus the prophet?
- How is Jesus the righteous one?
- How are you the one who offers a cup of water?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller
 Signer, M (2001) Rashi’s Reading of the Akedah, The Journal of the Society for Textual Reasoning, Vol. 10., 2001.