Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Beloved Son and the Freedom of the Glory of the Children of God: The Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent

In the second Sunday of Lent, the Church invites us to contemplate the cruciform of the glory of the Beloved Son by linking a series of texts that at first blush might not appear to fit together. However, in this brief reflection, it will be argued that they do indeed fit together and can be united together through Paul’s statement in Romans 8:21, “that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” In order to illuminate this inner rationale, we begin with the first reading from Genesis 22.

First Reading: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he replied.
Then God said:
“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.”

When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven,
“Abraham, Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he answered.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger.
“Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.

Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
“I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing—
all this because you obeyed my command.”
In our first reading, the Church turns our attention to one of the most important passages of the entire Old Testament, Genesis 22, the account known as the Aqedah. Before examing this pasasge, it is worth situating it within the wider Abrahamic narrative and in particular, beginning with Genesis 12:1-3. In Genesis 12:1-3, God makes three promises to Abram, (great nation, great name, and blessing to the nations) and each of these promises is in some way elevated to the status of a divine covenant within the Abrahamic narrative (see Genesis 15 and 17 for the first two).[1]

In turning to our passage, it is the promise to bless all nations that is elevated to the status of a divine covenant. While it is true that God has indeed already promised to Abram that all nations would be blessed through him (Gen 12:3), here in Genesis 22 this promise becomes a divine covenant, for God swears by himself that all nations will be blessed through Isaac.

In fact, in his outstanding monograph The New Isaac, Leroy Huizenga suggests four unique aspects to our reading: first, the blessing of Abraham is now categorical, “I will bless you.” Second, Abraham’s descendents are now likened to both the sand of the seashore (22:17) and the stars of the sky (22:17, 15:5). Third, the unique divine oath, for here it is God who swears by his very self to fulfill his covenant with Abraham. Fourth and finally, it is here that God declares that it is now through Abraham’s seed, Isaac, that the nations will be blessed.[2]

In addition to these four aspects, Huizenga also notes that it is possible to detect something of an active role for Isaac in the story, for in addition to Abraham and Isaac “walking together united,” (Gen 22: 6, 8) the Septuagint calls Isaac τὸ παιδάριον (paidarion), which in Gen 37:30 is used to describe seventeen year old Joseph.[3]

Another hint centers on the use of the term “beloved” son for Isaac in the Septuagint, for it can have the connotation of favor due to obedience. [4] In any event, it is very significant that the Septuagint calls Isaac Abraham’s “beloved son,” for this is precisely how God describes Jesus in our Gospel reading for this week.

Before moving on from the first reading, it is important to further illuminate the inner rationale behind this event, and while much more could be said about it, for our purposes it appears best to focus on the nature of the sacrifice that elicited God’s oath to bless the nations.

In the Aqedah, Abraham passes God’s test by offering to God what was dearest to him, his son Isaac, and this sacrifice unto death leads to life, in this case, both God sparing Isaac’s life and swearing to bless the nations through the “beloved Son.” Moreover, Abraham’s offering also becomes the paradigmatic act of sacrifice and fidelity, as can be seen from the fact that the place of this near sacrifice, Mount Moriah, is by the fourth-century B.C. identified as the location of the temple mount in Jerusalem (see 2 Chronicles 3:1; Jubilees, 18:13; Josephus, Ant. 1.224).

Responsorial Psalm 116: 10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
R. (116:9) I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
I believed, even when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted.”
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
O LORD, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people,
In the courts of the house of the LORD,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living. 

In our responsorial Psalm, it is also possible to detect a rather Abrahamic spirituality, for the Psalmist declares that he believes even when he was greatly afflicted, trusting God to deliver him from peril.

In particular, the Psalmist appears to be trusting God in the face of death, for he trusts that he will walk before the Lord in the land of the living, for even the death of the faithful is precious in the eyes of God.

It is against this backdrop that we can turn to our two New Testament passages for this week, beginning with Paul’s famous statement that “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Second Reading: Romans 8:31b-34
Brothers and sisters:
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?

Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?
Christ Jesus it is who died—or, rather, was raised—
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.
 It is fairly common to hear Paul’s line from Romans 8:31 as a line of encouragement, and while it certainly is, it is important to understand why Paul can make such a statement. Far more than simply pious well-wishing, Paul tells the Romans that if God is for them no one is able to effectively stand against them due to the fact that God himself did not spare his beloved son, but instead handed him over for us all.

It is interesting to note that a number of voices as different as Augustine [5] and Douglas Campbell[6] have suggested that Paul is alluding to Genesis 22, for Paul states that God did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all. As Campbell suggests, “It is a deep concern for the plight of humanity that motivates the Father to send the Son, and the depth of the concern is proved by the fact that the Father does indeed send his only, beloved Son, much as Abraham was prepared to offer up Isaac.” [7]

While it is not possible to prove that Paul had the Aqedah in mind in Romans 8:32, the theological basis for such a suggestion is strong; for Paul is clear that it is the sacrifice of Jesus that demonstrates the righteousness of God (Rom 3:21-26), that is, though he was in the very form of God, Jesus became obedient to the point of death on a cross and as a result, God highly exalted him by giving him a name above all names, including having all nations confess his lordship (see Phil 2:6-11).

Here in our passage, Paul states that the same Jesus whom God handed over now reigns at his right hand interceding for us. As a result, no one is able to effectively stand against those who belong to God, for the crucified and risen Christ reigns in glory and is the one who ensures their victory.

In our Gospel passage, the Gospel of Mark offers us a “preview” of Christ’s resurrected glory, and in a manner that serves to connect both our first and second readings.

 Gospel: Mark 9:2-10
Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.
Immediately before our passage, Jesus declares to his disciples that he must be crucified, resurrected, and return in glory, and what is more, that some of them will not die until they see the coming of the Kingdom of God in power (Mark 8:31-9:1). Mark then tells us “six days later” Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves (9:2).

While the transfiguration stands as a fairly well known Gospel story, what is often underestimated are the clues in the narrative that connect it to Genesis 22, and in particular, Jesus to Isaac. While Huizenga suggests a number of interesting potential connections between Genesis 22 and Matthew’s account of the transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1-9), this line of analysis can be applied to the Markan account and produce a number of interesting parallels:

1. As in Genesis 22 (Septuagint), the event occurs “on a high (ὑψηλός) place/mountain” (Gen 22:2, Mark 9:2).
2. As in Genesis 22, there is a heavenly voice (Gen 22:1, 15; Mark 9:7)
3. As in Genesis 22 (Septuagint), there is the presence of the “beloved” son (Gen 22:2, 12, 16)
4. As in Genesis 22, the beloved son is the one to be offered
5. As in Genesis 22, the beloved son is granted “new life.”

In fact, Huizenga suggests that the inner rationale that illuminates the transfiguration intertexually is the connection between “sonship, obedience, and the cross,” a connection that further highlights what it means that Jesus is God’s “beloved” son.[8] For like Abraham’s beloved son, Jesus is obedient to the point of self-sacrifice and as a result is to receive resurrection “glory.”

It is this resurrection glory that is proleptically on display in the transfiguration, and this is not only inferred from the profound glory that Jesus displays as he meets with Moses and Elijah, but in what Jesus tells Peter, James, and John as they come down from the mountain, namely, that they are not to tell anyone about this event until the Son of Man had risen from the dead (Mark 9:9).

As a result, it appears correct to conclude that the transfiguration serves to teach the Church what defines the life of divine sonship, that is, that the road to glory is the road of the cross.


While Jesus’ identity as the Beloved Son of the Father entails a unique level of glory, the glory of divine sonship is not just for Jesus alone as the beloved Son, but for all for whom the Spirit of Sonship dwells.

In fact, Paul goes so far as to state that the whole creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the children of God, and at this point all of creation will obtain “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).[9]

Yet in context, this glory belongs to all the children of God who suffer with Christ in order that they might be glorified with him, connecting the freedom of the children of God with suffering. In other words, Paul agrees with Matthew (via Huizenga) that sonship is defined by obedience and the cross, and this is the road to glory.

[1] For more on the profoundly covenantal shape of Genesis 12-22, see Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 101-135.
[2] See Leroy A. Huizenga, The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertexuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 77-78.
[3] See Huizenga, The New Isaac, 80.
[4] See Huizenga, The New Isaac, 80.
[5] See City of God, 16.32.
[6] See Douglas A. Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel: A Suggested Strategy (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 76. ; idem, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 63, 69, etc.
[7] Campbell, The Deliverance of God, 63.
[8] See Huizenga, The New Isaac, 223-235.
[9] While Romans 8:21 is sometimes translated “the glorious freedom or liberty” of the children of God, this is not the only way to translate the text (see NRSV vs. RSV), and what is more, Paul consistently links glory not with freedom but with those who are in Christ (Rom 2:7, 3;23-24, 8:29-30, I Corinthians 15:35-57, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). I am grateful to Fr. Gregory Tatum for pointing me in this direction and eagerly await his forthcoming manuscript on Paul with the potential title of The Freedom of the Glorious Children of God.

No comments: