Can theology be wrong?

4 July, 2013. Thursday of the Thirteenth Week

Gen 22:1ff. For being willing to sacrifice Isaac, God promises many descendants for Abraham through the child.

Mt 9:1ff. Jesus cures a paralysed man, and uses this miracle as proof of his power to forgive sin.

First Reading: Genesis 22:1-19

After these things 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.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8

And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town. And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

Misguided Orthodoxy

The contrast between Abraham and the Pharisees is intriguing. Abraham is misguided in thinking that God wanted human sacrifice. The Pharisees are orthodox in their theology that only God can forgive sin yet they are misguided in limiting God’s power. It is clear that even good intentions (on Abraham’s part) and correct ideas (on the Pharisees’ part) cannot go unchallenged; yet in such cases correction and warnings are most difficult to accept. One of the most difficult of tasks is to help good people see that they have room for improvement, or to show them a dark side of their character to which they are blind. Like the dark side of the moon which is never seen from earth, a good man can be oblivious of his failings.

Abraham , made elaborate preparations for the sacrifice of his firstborn, for, not being less devout than any other Canaanite, he wanted to give to God his absolute best. The heroic dimensions of the sacrifice appear in the opening line, “Take your son, Isaac, your only one, the one you love.” Each syllable of the command wrenches the fibres of his heart. He is to go to the land of Moriah; the place was later identified with the site of the Jerusalem temple. Perhaps heroic impulses are permitted by God so that we can discover a vision of something else. When he got that new vision of mercy and compassion, Abraham at once changed his plans and obeyed the real will of God.

How many of us could tolerate such quick reversals in our plans for life? Do we have a mind open to correction, willing to be advised that in God’s eyes care for one’s family or for victims of injustice is more important than traditional religious ritual? We may not be told to abandon the ritual, as in Abraham’s case, but are advised to modulate and adapt in such a way that the poor can feel a part of what is happening around the altar.

It is difficult for religious leaders to admit their mistakes and undo the damage to others. After all, how could good people like themselves be wrong? Their blindness is not to theology, which they know well, but to common sense and elementary justice. Often it seems easier to excommunicate the trouble-makers than to re-think their practices. Then it can happen that the truth-telling prophet is not diplomatic in denouncing what needs to be changed. Amos in fact was vitriolic and sarcastic, calling the luxury-loving women “fat cows of Bashan,” and portraying the men as effete and sensuous, lying on ivory couches to be anointed with sweet-smelling oil, while reciting poetry to a captive audience. Yet this was God’s true messenger, a rugged individual, earliest of the classical prophets even while he refused the title “prophet” from the filthy mouth of the high priest, Amaziah. Jesus too may be less than diplomatic, for he does not dodge the issue but wants to force a decision, “Why do you harbour evil thoughts? Which is less trouble to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Stand up and walk’?

It is never proper to use theology against the poor. In this case the cure of the paralyzed man could teach the theologians about the Messiah. God can transform and sanctify whatever is brought to him: a misguided Abraham, a sinful paralytic, an uncouth prophet. The proud person, no matter how pure and how correct, cannot be helped. The proud person goes away angry; the unlettered crowd praise God for such a compassionate prophet as Jesus.

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  1. How correct or incorrect theologians may be from the most amateur like myself to the most professional like Hans Kung, depends on how “enlightened” we really are….How “enlightened” we are depends on how much the “light” of the Holy Spirit is able to penetrate and inform our human understanding. One of the beatitudes says: “The Pure in Heart Shall See God”

  2. Mary O Vallely says:

    Modulating, adapting, re- thinking practices, putting justice before traditional religious ritual, using our God-given common sense… All this is probably a lot easier for the non-theologians among us, I suppose. Impossible to do unless you allow your mind and heart to be open to criticism and debate. Thank you for this as the Abraham and Isaac passage is such a difficult one. I read at Mass on a Thursday and have been struggling with this reading (thanks Holy Spirit aka serendipity) as I did with the story of Sarai and Hagar last Thursday. I keep saying to myself, ” Ach sure accept it as a mystery” and then I feel just like poor bewildered Fr Jack (in ‘Father Ted’) when he was told to answer any difficult question with,
    “That would be an ecumenical matter.” 🙂
    It is good to have some sort of explanation for many of these really strange events in the O.T. which perplex the ordinary untutored lay person. Thanks and thank you also for the little hidden layers underneath. There’s a wealth of matter for discussion in the content.

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    This was awesome! This is such an important message I feel for completely understanding many of the passages we read in the Bible. I especially love the “Take heart, son, your sins have been forgiven.” This would have been extremely controversial to say to someone back then. Christ knew this person had done enough good in his day to afford him the care others were showing him but upon announcing this, was insulted by members of the group in their perception towards him. He was also correct in thinking that the more accustomed greeting would be “stand up and walk!” and I’m sure the man had heard it before as those times were not easy for the sick and poor. Now, the last paragraph – is this a liberation theory? The idea that a theologian would only push forth this story through the centuries if there was a supernatural/miracle attached to it. I’ve heard this idea before on this site, I’m sure of it. Whatever the case, the lesson in this story was driven home by him restating exactly what the onlookers had come to expect at that time – negativity, which permeated culture then and now as it seems.

  4. It’s a fascinating episode and it bears on the question of the style in which the Old Testament was written and how one reads it. Because if “Abraham was misguided in thinking God wanted human sacrafice” then it follows that God did not speak to Abraham saying “Take your son… and offer him as a burnt offering.” It was Abraham’s own idea. The statement “God tested Abraham” is also not quite correct. The Old Testament is replete with the statement “God said” or “God Commanded” when a correct interpretation would be “God did not command”, but rather “the prophet assumed, thinking it was God’s will”. This leaves one with the challenge to know when god did actually speak.

  5. Pat Rogers says:

    Hi John,
    I don’t think it’s quite right to baldly say God did not speak to Abraham saying “Take your son… and offer him..” Rather, by the light of his times, Abraham believed this to be God’s will, and was prepared to follow it to the uttermost. He then learned that human sacrifice was NOT the will of God, and then obeyed this new insight, opening up a new and purer form of worship for his descendants…
    Of course there is – and should be – much development in our awareness of what God truly wants, and by far our most important criterion for this is Jesus, as reported in the Gospels and as interpreted by his Apostles in the rest of the New Testament… and (in more limited ways) developed in the ongoing life of the Church. It’s vital to accept the major shift in understanding from the sacrificial orientation of the Old Testament notion of God, encapsulated in the Abraham episode, and the more paternal vision of God announced by Jesus: “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).

  6. Like it or not, many people are grappling, not with the niceties of professional theologians, but with the basic question : “Does God exist” and look for evidence of incidents in history (and in their own lives) that God actually communicated to man, ie spoke directly or showed His presence. To such people the expression “God spoke to Abraham…” which really means “Abraham believed so and so to be God’s will” will cut little ice as evidence.

  7. Not sure if this is relevant at all. When it comes to little children, some nephews and nieces I have – and they ask about God, and where God took granda when he died.

    I ask them about the love they have for their mother and father, and the parents love for their children.

    About my love for them and ask if they love me. ;-P

    They most often speak in the affirmative about these experiences, albeit ‘feelings’ of love.

    “That’s part of God,” I’d say, as adults would believe that God is Love.

    One asked me, he’s six – and talks about his granda a lot.

    “Was it the love of God for granda that took granda home cause granda loved him to much too ?!” What can you say.

    It’s a start.

  8. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Pat and John, I think history is filled with instances in which society asks people to sacrifice their children for a variety of reasons; perhaps to force its will on the world, or at least that is what I remember from history. In this example, it doesn’t matter if God was actually speaking to Abraham or if Abraham was hearing his own inner voice. What is important is the lesson that God would never ask for you to sacrifice your children. It is only when we fear God and God alone, we never allow our children to be sacrificed for any reason. Or at least this is my interpretation of this story.

  9. The story has a number of lessons. The Orthodox and rigid mind demands only one lesson and one meaning.

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