This week’s Old Testament reading about Abraham and his young son, Isaac is challenging. A story of child sacrifice, averted only at the very last minute – and this without any judgement from God that this was horrific – almost on a whim. These stories of Abraham come from long ago, right at the beginnings of the Jewish faith and right at the beginnings of the Covenant between God and his people. Abraham has constantly doubted God’s promise. He had been told he was to be the Father of a great nation, but he was old and childless. Indeed his wife laughed when she heard about God’s promise. Underneath this awe-full story is a lesson about trust – Abraham had to learn the hard way to trust in God’s promise, and that this promise was not something that Abraham could bring to fruition himself – God was going to do it without Abraham’s help.
From another perspective, it is possible that this story dates from a time when child sacrifice was quite normal, and that is represents a new understanding from a new set of religious beliefs, that this was not acceptable to God – not what God wanted, after all.
It also prefigures one of the metaphors of salvation which we use often about the death of Jesus: God sent his son to die as a satisfaction for God’s wrath. In the New Testament we need to remember always that this theology is a metaphor – an image from Judaism and from a time when animal sacrifices were a part of religious devotion. (Remember the Presentation of the Temple when Mary and Joseph took 2 turtle doves or young pigeons?). So the language of sacrifice and atonement was something easily understood by the very first Christians when they tried to understand the implications of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. There are many other ways of understanding these events. The important thing is that they are all metaphors – what happened on the cross and in the rock-hewn tomb is beyond our understanding – ‘we see only in part; as St. Paul said.
And so to our Gospel reading from Mathew which is a little on the obscure side. What on earth does it mean – about doing things in various people’s names? It is very likely that the earliest readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have seen here the language of the steward. This was someone who was entrusted with their master’s lands and crops, and could speak on his behalf. This was a well understood legal system. But, further than this, this person, this steward, stood for the presence of the master – it was as if the master was actually present in the steward. For the followers of Jesus, this has a profound implication: for when we follow Jesus’ teaching to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, the love the loveless, to clothe the naked, to heal the sick and to care for the outcast and the outsider, we stand in for God – God is present through us. Our hands are God’s hands, our hearts are God’s heart. We are the channel through which God is made present in the world. We are being Jesus – God incarnate, God in human flesh. Mother Theresa said that we are the ones who will turn the world upside down and witness to love, kindness and truth. Together with Christians across the world, we are the ones who reveal God’s love for his children.
The reading ends with a child – a thirsty child being given water. Children were close to Jesus’ heart – he often held them up as an example of those who were closest to God, those who would inherit God’s Kingdom. There is an implication that we are to be these ‘little ones’: look at the parallels in the previous sentences – prophet-prophet, righteous-righteous, then little ones-disciple. Little-ones and true disciples are the childlike, the self-effacing, the humble – we are not called to be the greatest, or to think we know it all, or to be pushily confident. We are to follow in the footsteps of the one who was born in a stable and who rode on a donkey.
So, Christians, as Jesus’ little ones, cannot close their eyes to the suffering of the world. Neither can we buy into a myth of ‘success’. Any thoughts of superiority, any patting of the back misses the point – we are called simply to be God’s little ones – to trust, to serve, and to be God’s hands and feet, God’s good news in the world he made and loves.
Rev’d Dr. Anne Morris
Vicar St. Oswald’s, Knuzden