Sacrifice or Offering?
The story of Abraham raises a hundred questions for me, and I do not have the answers to any of them. It isn’t so much that it is hard to understand what happens; the difficulty I have is understanding why. Why would a father be willing to sacrifice the son he has been waiting for his whole life? Why would he go without question to a distant mountain, take the time to build an altar – not an easy or short task – presumably have his son help him with that job, and then prepare to offer that same son as a burnt offering? Why?
And I have to wonder about Isaac, too -- Isaac who asks the single question: Where is the lamb for the sacrifice? – and then is not heard to speak again in this story and very little in the rest of the record of scripture. It is as though the implicit answer to his question, that he is the lamb, shocks him into silence. I don’t understand why he didn’t try to run, why he didn’t resist, why he didn’t argue, why he didn’t try to save his own life.
That the story is told in such a flat, factual, and unemotional tone is even more horrifying. “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.” (Genesis 22:9-10) I want to know what lies behind these words that are presented in a manner so straight-forward and matter-of- fact, but are so unbelievably terrible. Did Isaac struggle? Did Abraham try to explain himself? Did he weep? Were his hands shaking? Was his soul screaming in protest even as his body carried out what he thought God was commanding? The story is silent.
Biblical scholars and others have worked for centuries to understand and rationalize the story. But in the end, what we are left with is a father raising a knife over his bound child. If this is the definition of the kind of sacrifice that God requires, I am not interested. It is asking too much, more than I am willing even to contemplate.
And the larger set of questions has to do, not with why Abraham did what he did, but rather why God did what God did. Why did God test Abraham in this way? It seems too hard, not the kind of God I want in my life. So I have been thinking about what it is that God requires of us in light of the story about God and Abraham – doing my own rationalizing, I suppose. What kind of sacrifice does God demand of us?
The dictionary defines sacrifice as “the act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.” That’s a fine definition, I suppose, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. To me, sacrifice implies something involuntary. When you sacrifice, you give up something precious to you, you give up something you wish to keep, and you do it because it seems you have no other choice.
For example, parents sacrifice for their kids, right? They give up sleeping through the night, having a quiet dinner for two, taking grown-up vacations. They give up their privacy, their freedom and their money – all valuable things that certainly they might rather have for themselves if only it were possible. But to raise their children and respond to their children’s needs and pay for college and do all that, they must sacrifice. In many families, the sacrifice is done in a loving and willing way, but not always. So, to me a sacrifice has a kind of involuntary component.
A sacrifice can also be a way to prove oneself: If you really loved me you would -- fill in the blank: give up smoking, change jobs, study harder, let me have this thing that I want. You sacrifice to show your commitment, loyalty, love, devotion. You give up something because it demonstrates how much you care about something else.
That’s kind of how I think of sacrifice – involuntarily relinquishing something precious and doing it to prove a point. And it seems, on the surface, that this is exactly what God asked of Abraham: Give up the most precious thing in your life. Surrender your son, your Laughter. And do it to pass my test of faithfulness.
I confess that I cannot accept that this is how God acts. I cannot understand how an all-loving God would demand this kind of wrenching sacrifice as a test of loyalty. So I wonder if maybe what God wants from us is not sacrifice so much as offering. Is there a difference? I think there is. When I hear the word offering, I think of something given voluntarily, not coerced. I think of generosity and freedom.
But there is a kind of shadow side to offering as well. An offering is often a form of bargaining, isn’t it? You make an offer on a house, you make your best offer for a used car, companies have offerings of stock. If sacrifice implies an involuntary act, offering seems exactly the opposite – something completely voluntary, something that I decide to make available or give up, but I do it in order to get something in exchange. The location of coercion shifts. You know: Let me make you an offer you can’t refuse.
You know how this works. You say to God: “If you will just help me out of the jam, cure my friend, get me this job, whatever, I’ll go to church every Sunday, I’ll put money in the plate, I’ll read my Bible and pray every day.” We seek to shape God’s behavior, earn God’s love, by the good deeds we offer up.
And in the end, it seems to me that neither sacrifice nor offering governs the kind of relationship God is ultimately calling us to enter. That relationship must be based on an acceptance of the complete and incomprehensible sovereignty of God. For all our brilliance and ability, we can never know the mind of God. The prophet Isaiah had it right: “…My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) God is the one who tests and provides, the one who demands and delivers, the one who always acts in love, even when that love is too terrible for us to contemplate.
But where does this leave us? Do we blindly follow the kind of commands that make every fiber of our being rise up in horror and dread? Do we go through the motions with an arrogant self-confidence that God will bail us out in the end? Do we become bitter in our losses or try to bargain for what it is we think we want?
Where I come out on this is that what God desires from us is neither sacrifice not offering but rather gift. That is how God is in relationship to us, and how we are to be in relationship to God. When you come right down to it, everything we have and everything we are – everything – is a gift from God. How would it be to live your life with that same kind of holy generosity, to live as though you yourself were a gift from God and a gift to God?
It’s not as easy as it sounds, you know. "Gift" means that we give everything, freely and fully, expecting nothing in return. No coercion, no bargaining, no strings attached. For Abraham that meant being willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Isaac who was the living sign of God’s promise, to show that he trusted completely, not in the evidence of the promise – the child – but in the promise itself. For Jesus, it meant letting go of the knowledge of God’s presence at the end and clinging only to the hope that God might still be listening. For the disciples, it meant leaving behind home and family, giving up everything that was familiar, to follow the call of Christ, to live in and with the reality of God-with-us, Emmanuel.
And how about you? What is it that you have come to cherish because it is for you the symbol of God’s love? Are you willing to imagine giving up the symbol for the substance? What would it mean for you to live as though you were both gift and giver?
The God who has withheld nothing from us, not even God’s only son, calls us to live in radical obedience, to follow Christ, to give all that we have and all that we are – not as a sign of sacrifice or an exchange of offerings, but only as a free and faithful expression of love.
That’s all. That’s everything.
God only asks of you what you have to give, which is your life. And you have to be willing to lose your life in order to find it. You have to be willing to give your life to God as a gift in order to find the gift that God would make of you.
And may God grant all of us the grace to be this gift. Amen.
(c) Martha C. Highsmith