Posted on 29 February 2012.
by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
I’m proud to be the son of Pedro Ruiz. I can tell you — with all due respect to my teachers — that I learned more from him about what it means to live as a person of authentic faith than I could learn from all the books that have ever been written.
My father was a man of deep and unshakeable trust in God, and that was the solid ground for his commitment to his sons. “That’s my son!” he beamed when I won first prize in the third-grade art show. Even though I have to admit that my prizewinning piece wasn’t especially memorable, except to him and my mother, all these years later I still remember how proud he was and how important that was to me. I never had the chance to discuss this Sunday’s readings with my own father, but my lasting memory of that phrase that day way back in third grade, “That’s my son!” gives me a pretty good idea of what he might have had to say.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Mark’s account of the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up a high mountain, where they experience their friend and teacher as they never had before, with His clothes made “dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” For that glorious but fleeting moment, they see Jesus as they had never seen Him before. They are astonished by what they see, and while Peter hardly knows what to say, the voice they hear from the cloud is loud and clear: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7).
This is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is identified as God’s beloved Son. In the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan, it is Jesus himself — and Jesus alone — who hears a voice from the heavens saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). On the mountain of the Transfiguration, as they hear the voice from heaven, Peter and James and John learn what we have known from the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel: everything that Jesus says and does from the beginning of His ministry until His last breath on the cross, He does as God’s beloved Son.
Faith Before Paternal Instinct
Speaking of fathers and sons, though, I’ll have to confess that I find this Sunday’s first reading uniquely challenging. That’s not because the text itself is confusing or because its grammar or vocabulary are especially complicated from my perspective as a biblical scholar. In fact, it is starkly straightforward, leaving precious little room for ambiguity. It is hard for me to understand because I am confident that my own father would have argued vigorously with God rather than obey without any objection what God asks Abraham to do: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you” (Genesis 22:2). I know that my own father would have sacrificed anything, even his own life, rather than see any harm ever come to me or to my brothers.
Abraham was God’s friend — even God admits as much in the oracle of Isaiah 41:7 — and it was God who promised Abraham, “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:2), and who begins to fulfill that promise when Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac (Genesis 21).
As this Sunday’s reading begins, the narrator tells us “God put Abraham to the test,” letting us in on something that Abraham doesn’t know. Was that any way to treat a friend? On top of that, just a few chapters earlier in Genesis, when God lets his friend Abraham in on the divine plan to destroy sinful Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is confident enough about their relationship to take issue with God, arguing so persistently on behalf of people who aren’t even related to him, that God has a change of heart and spares the two cities (Genesis 18:16-33). Persistent, persuasive, and successful negotiation on Abraham’s part for the sake of complete strangers, and not a word on behalf of Isaac, whom God reminds him is “your only son, whom you love”?
Yet this is not the first time that Abraham did just as he was told without giving it a second thought. Just as in this week’s reading he is commanded to “Go forth to the land of Moriah,” in Genesis 12 he is told to do the unthinkable: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will give you.” Just as he obeyed without hesitation when he was commanded to leave the security of the past behind — his land, his relatives, and his father’s house — and to entrust himself to the unknown, in Genesis 22 he is commanded to sacrifice his hope for the future.
Even as he goes through the motions of obeying, Abraham’s words betray both how troubled his heart is and the hope that his divine friend has something else in mind. In words that don’t make it into this Sunday’s reading, Abraham leaves his servants behind, ordering them to “Stay here with the donkey while the boy and I go over there,” and reassuring them, “we will worship and then come back to you” (Genesis 22:5). Is he misleading them, or does he suspect that God might have something unexpected in mind?
As he carries on his own back the fuel for his own undoing, Isaac speaks up to ask, “Father…Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers in words freighted with the tension between fear of what might happen and hope in what seems all but impossible: “My son, God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22:7-8).
In the end, Abraham has enough faith to entrust his whole future to the providence of his divine friend — not some vague far-off future, but his very real future in the flesh, in the person of his beloved son. Thus the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name’” (Hebrews 11:17-18).
Yes, friendships do get tested, and faithful friendships endure no matter what. The patriarch, our father in faith, put his future in God’s hands, and his divine friend does not disappoint. Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent:
Genesis 22: 1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Psalm 116: 10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
Romans 8: 31b-34
Mark 9: 2-10 Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is professor of theology at St. John’s University.