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Misunderstanding God

March 1, 2015 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause

March 1, 2015
Genesis 22: 1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Fr. George Smiga

Today’s first reading from the book of Genesis is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible. It presents God testing Abraham by asking Abraham to kill his son. Now even if we suppose that God never intended that Abraham to go through with the slaughter, is it not still unthinkable that God would ask any father to perform such an action? Does not this passage somehow show our God as monstrous and cruel? Many writers have struggled with this problem. But today I would like to present to you the perspective of that great biblical theologian, Woody Allen.

Here is Woody Allen’s take on this story [From Without Feathers] :

And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son Isaac, “I have had a dream, and the voice of the Lord said that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on.”

And Isaac trembled and said, “So what did you say, I mean when he brought this whole thing up?” “What am I going to say?” Abraham said, “I’m standing there at 2 am. I am in my underwear, with the Creator of the universe. Should I argue?” “Well”, Isaac said to his father, “Did he say why he wanted me sacrificed?” Abraham said, “The faithful do not question. Now, let’s go because I have a heavy day tomorrow.”

But Sarah, Abraham’s wife heard of Abraham’s plan, and she became upset. She said, “How do you know that it was the Lord, and not, say your friend who loves practical jokes?” Abraham answered, “I know it was the Lord, because it was a deep, resonant voice, well-modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that.” And Sarah said, “And are you willing to carry out this senseless act?” Abraham told her, “Frankly yes, for to question the Lord’s word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly when the economy is in the state that it’s in.”

So Abraham took Isaac to a certain place, and prepared to sacrifice him. But at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could you do such a thing?” Abraham said, “But you said…” “Never mind what I said” the Lord responded. “Do you listen to every crazy Idea that comes your way?” And Abraham grew ashamed, “No, not really.” “I jokingly suggest you sacrifice Isaac, and you immediately run out to do it!” Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.” And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor, I can’t believe it.”

Abraham objected, “But does this not prove that I love you, that I was willing to kill my only son on your whim?” “No.”, says the Lord. “It only proves that some people will follow any order no matter how asinine, as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

At the basis of Woody Allen’s take on this story is the conviction that Abraham misunderstood God. This is not a new idea. Many ancient Jewish scribes had already suggested it, because they could not imagine their God putting Abraham to such a monstrous test. This passage reminds us that we can misunderstand God, and misunderstanding God can be dangerous. When we act on a religious impulse that is misguided, it can become unjust and violent.

Just look in our world today at the actions of ISIS. Here are believers who are convinced that God is asking them to cut off the heads of non-believers. They believe that they are following the word of the Koran, though most Muslims in the world today believe they are misinterpreting the Koran and misunderstanding God.

So what can we do to make sure that we understand God’s messages to us correctly? Two suggestions. First, we should never focus on one saying of God in isolation. We should never take one verse of the Bible and say, “This is what God wants me to do.” We must place every verse of the Bible in the context of everything else that God has revealed. We must not only listen to what God said, but remember who God is. For Jews and Christians our God is fundamentally a God of mercy, compassion, and love. So every command from God must be interpreted in that context.

Second, we should listen to others. In Allen’s story both Isaac and Sarah try to convince Abraham that something is amiss. But Abraham doesn’t listen. He plunges ahead convinced he knows what God wants him to do. We should be wiser. We should make sure that we live our lives in the context of a healthy faith community. And when we think God is asking us to do anything, we should run it by people we trust.

It is clear in the New Testament that Jesus is against divorce. But what is Jesus’ will for us when our marriage dies and begins to suffocate us? Jesus certainly asks his disciples to take up the cross and follow him. But what is Jesus’ will for us when the cross we carry crushes us rather than saves us? Jesus does indeed tell his apostles that the poor you will always have with you. But does that mean that we accept the inevitability of poverty or do we work against it?

God does indeed tell us to do things, but God can be misunderstood. That is why it is important to interpret any message from God in light of who God is and to test any message from God with the people we trust. It is only then that we will have the confidence that we are truly following what God tells us, and not just listening to the next resonant, well-modulated voice.

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