The reader knows it is a test (verse 1), Abraham does not–“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.” The command is heinous–is this our God? What kind of test is this? Is God a God who is capricious about divine promises (c.f. Genesis 17:7ff). This is a terrifying story. It reminds us that God is more dangerous than we give God credit for–that God is real, and unpredictable, and not easy.
Knowing the end of the story, we quickly read over the barbarous imperative in order to locate a ram caught in a thicket and arrive at safe and comfortable notions about the deity. God is a God who provides. That is good religion. Such simple axioms read in hindsight, however, can not entirely exonerate God–especially when in the horrors of life we search in vain for a hopeful thicket, and a providentially placed ram. Sacrifice is what it is. Can our faith withstand it?
The horror is not God’s to bear alone. Abraham will plead for Sodom and Gomorrah but will not offer one word of protest to spare his son. Instead Abraham loads up Isaac with fire wood for the holocaust and silently climbs mount Moriah with a knife concealed under his coat. Don’t humans have a responsibility to reject gods that call for the sacrifice of children? We reason that such a time was far less enlightened than our own. And yet William Willimon reminds us that we “regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh.”
In the end we are left with a disconcerting narrative, full of questions and ambiguities, that presents us with a God more foreign and strange than we expected, and a commentary on our own humanity more dark than we would like to admit. In the end the ram satisfies our need, but it takes a bizarre encounter with God, and a horrid climb to find it.
Psalm 13 is a psalm of lament that begins with a series of questions: How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
The psalms of lament (the most prevalent type of psalm) question God about the presence of suffering and God’s apparent inaction in dealing with it. Psalms of lament usually end in a statement of a trust. Psalm 13 is a prime example: “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
The presence of psalms of lament in the psalter reminds us that our worship to God does not need to be sanitized. We are free to bring our confusion, sorrow, frustration, and anger to the altar–even in song. Our presence at the altar is our statement of trust, our words at the altar are our desperate plea. We are climbing the mountain with a knife at our side, where, O God, is the provided sacrifice?
Which slavery do you want? Paul envisages two options: a slave to sin, or a slave to righteousness. Each has its own reward. The slave to sin will receive death. The slave to righteousness will receive sanctification and life eternal.
Paul reasons that just because there is grace for sin, does not mean that one should continue sinning. For sinning has an effect–it produces a certain end, and that end is not pleasant. Post-baptism we are still vulnerable to the effect of sin and its life robbing work. Even where grace abounds sin can steal away life, both literally and metaphorically. Conversely, righteous living has a sanctifying effect, and in living righteously we gain life.
Jesus is sending out the troops. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus looked out of the Galilean landscape, noticed the fields littered with “sheep without a shepherd” (9:36), and announced to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (9:37). In chapter ten Jesus gathers his disciples and commissions them to meet the need for evangelists.
Our verses continue the theme of Christ’s abiding presence so prevalent in Matthew’s gospel. Even though the disciples travel alone, when they are received by anyone, the person receiving them receives Christ also, and receives even the one who sent Christ. Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that “in the ancient world identity was tied to family and community. It was understood that in showing hospitality, one welcomed not just an individual, but implicitly, the community who sent the person and all that they represent. Therefore, welcoming a disciple of Jesus would mean receiving the very presence of Jesus himself and of the one who sent him, God the Father.”
This representative identification is true even for small acts of kindness (cf. 42). When the “little ones” (mikros) are served water in the name of the missionary and in the name of Christ, then it is Christ himself who receives the gift of drink.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the God who sends us out to be a sacrifice for the world. Christianity is harder than we ever imagined. The demands are so great we at times question God’s steadfast love and God’s ability to act. Why have you asked us to climb this mountain? Where is your provision? What about our families? God promises us sanctification along the way, and real, honest-to-goodness, living. God also promises an abiding presence. Sometimes that presence will shake us to the core, and sometimes that presence will provide our sustenance, but always that presence will be near–very near–and in our darkest moment it will be for us a faint bleating in a close-by thicket.