Summary: We are called to be children of the promise, not children of slavery to sin.
Fourth Sunday in Lent 2015
Our Lord Jesus Christ was no politician. If some charismatic leader today advertised himself as a wonder-worker, and down at our convention center or stadium took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed five or ten thousand people, and then promised goodies for everybody if he could only become president, you know what would happen. He and his party would sweep into office and then proceed to disappoint everyone. Jesus was no politician, and he was not auditioning for political power. He fled to the mountain alone after feeding thousands because He was not the Messiah they wanted. He was not going to cause an armed revolt to throw out the Romans. That was tried three or four decades afterwards, and the result was a bloodbath. The man who taught love for His enemies was not going to change society by acts of violence. He was going to improve the lot of humanity by changing the human heart, by founding a community in which there was true liberty to do good, not just stop evil.
Saint Paul teaches us today about two women, two sons, two mountains, and two covenants. The women were the two wives of our forefather in faith, Abraham. Sarah, his freeborn wife, was barren, and so he took a slave-wife, Hagar. His eldest son, Ishmael, was born to the slave. His freeborn son, Isaac, was born because of a promise God made to Abraham. Paul places the later covenant with Moses on the mountain of Sinai. It was the covenant that gave us the Jewish people, centered on the Palestinian city of Jerusalem. He tells us that Jerusalem at that time was in slavery, but that the true Jerusalem is “on high” and is free. This freedom is what we celebrate today. Let me try to explain what Paul teaches in these very dense words to the Galatians.
The story of Abraham and Isaac, his freeborn son, is the longest part of the book of Genesis. Abraham believed in the one true God, the God who called him out of Mesopotamia to become a wandering nomad in Palestine. Because Abraham believed, God made him a promise to be the father of a huge nation, with all of Palestine as their land. But Sarah was sterile, and bore no children to make that promise a reality. As a substitute, Abraham took Hagar as a slave wife, and she bore Ishmael. But this was not the child of promise. In time, God renewed the promise and Sarah bore the miracle-child, Isaac. As the two boys grew, Ishmael showed himself to be in slave to sin. In fact, he abused the boy Isaac. So Abraham cast out both Hagar and Ishmael. Isaac grew strong, for he was the child of the promise of a vast progeny. But then God put Abraham’s faith to the test.
God commanded Abraham to take Isaac to the mountain Moriah and offer him in sacrifice. Now this was a heartbreaking demand, for Isaac was the only way Abraham saw the promise could be fulfilled. After all, Abraham by then was pushing a hundred years of age. But he did as God asked, and set off with the boy bearing the wood for the sacrifice. Isaac asked where the lamb for the sacrifice was, and his father answered, “God will provide.” Did Isaac understand at that moment that he was the lamb God had provided? Did he lift up his eyes to the approaching hills and ask God for help?
Whatever he did, God did provide. God stayed Abraham’s knife-wielding hand from slaying his son, and provided a ram for the sacrifice. He then promised Abraham that no matter what his descendants would do, the promise would be fulfilled. He swore an oath by Himself: even if Abraham’s descendants broke the covenant, God Himself would pay the blood price. And so it was. Tradition tells us that it was on that very hill called Moriah in Abraham’s day, and Calvary in Jesus’s day, that God gave His only Son, His Beloved, in sacrifice. There the blood of Jesus Christ, mingled with the water surrounding His Sacred Heart, paid the price of human sin for all time.
The Old Testament tells the rest of the story. The descendants of Abraham did become a vast throng, a nation that over and over again broke the covenant that later was established on Sinai with Moses. Just as Ishmael, the slave-son, abused the son of the promise, so the Jewish people abused and killed the prophets God sent, the last prophet, John the Baptist, and finally the true son of the promise, Jesus of Nazareth. And they continued the abuse, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, by persecuting the early Church. That is why Paul characterizes the physical city of Jerusalem as being in slavery. The Mosaic covenant was good at pointing out sin, at telling the Jews to avoid evil, but it provided no spiritual energy to avoid sin, and to act toward other humans with the love God wants to show them.