Abraham’s promises

Homily for the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

This morning, I want to talk about Abraham.  For many of us, perhaps, Abraham is like one of those distant relatives your grandmother mentions occasionally but you’re never quite sure how you’re related.  Fortunately, it’s easy to see how Abraham fits into the family tree.  He’s at the top—Abraham is the patriarch, the father of the Jewish people and also, according to the New Testament, the father of us all in faith.

Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

We find Abraham’s story in the book of Genesis.  He lives in that period in history after the fall, when the sin of Adam has left humanity existentially disoriented.  It’s the era of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood—man is lost, and every turn he makes only worsens his desolation.  When I was in the Peace Corps, I was once heating a bucket of water with an electric coil, which was, shall we say, not up to OSHA standards.  And without noticing that the plastic safety handle around the coil had melted, I picked it up and gave myself a shock.  And in the moments after the shock, everything was fuzzy, and I couldn’t quite tell what had happened or what I was doing—so I picked it up and shocked myself again.  And that’s kind of what original sin did to mankind.

With Abraham, God begins to shine a light through the fog, to open the pathway that eventually will lead to salvation.  That salvation will come concretely in history from Jesus.  Jesus, like all of us, will belong to a particular nation, a particular people, with their own particular history, particular customs, particular religion.  Jesus was Jewish, and the history of the Jewish people as a distinct group starts with Abraham.  

Abraham was born in a city called Ur, which today is in southern Iraq.  Genesis doesn’t give a lot of details, but God told Abraham—who was then called Abram—to leave his relatives and his homeland and set out for a yet unspecified land.  No GPS, no reviews from other customers, no brochure with pictures of what to expect—the only thing Abram had to rely on was his trust that God would show the way.  The faith this required is why we Christians—whose religion is based not on being a part of a particular nation, but on faith—consider Abraham our father as well.  Abram’s faith, his willingness to give up all semblance of safety, the land that he knew, everything that was familiar to him based on God’s promise is something I think we especially need today, when we are often paralyzed by fear—fear of losing our comforts, fear of risk, fear of losing options, fear of commitment.  

God promises to show Abram the way and more.  God promises to make a great nation of Abram, so that his name will be remembered far and wide and his descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth or the stars of the sky.  The glaring obstacle to the fulfillment of this promise, however, is that Abram and his wife Sarah are childless.  When they set out from Ur, they are also seventy-five years old—making the promise of a child biologically improbable.  This is the context for the visitor’s promise at the end today’s first reading—that within a year, Sarah will have a son.

And here I don’t think we should pass over too quickly the significance of raising children as an act of faith.  Raising children—whether one’s biological child or, sometimes even more so, adopted children—is always an act of faith, always entering unknown and risky territory.  One of the ways in which modern society’s fear of losing our comfort manifests itself is in our declining birthrates.  We sometimes talk about children as a burden, a threat, even a punishment.  But we are blind if we cannot see the nihilism in the contrast earlier this summer of a country that couldn’t manage to produce enough baby formula while billion-dollar corporations fell all over themselves promising free abortions for their employees.  No doubt the short-term profits of childless employees are greater—but the hopelessness of such a stance could not be more damning.  

Abram and Sarah, in contrast, recognize their childlessness as, quite literally, a dead end, the end of their future.  Hanging over all of Abraham’s journeying are both God’s promise of an heir and the clock ticking on Abraham and Sarah’s mortality as they wait for that promise to be fulfilled.  This is their real test of faith.

Now there’s an often-overlooked aspect of this test in the Biblical story.  And it’s that, surprisingly, Abraham really doesn’t do A work.  At times, it almost seems like he’s trying to flunk.  There’s a soap-opera-like section in Genesis 16 in which Sarah tells Abraham to sleep with her servant in order to produce a baby, then—surprise, surprise—she is overcome by jealousy and drives the other woman away.  It was not, let us say, a well-thought-out plan.  In an even more bizarre scheme, Abram tries to give Sarah away to the king of Egypt, passing her off as his sister, because he’s worried the king might kill him out of jealousy (Gen. 12).  That doesn’t end well either.  So even our father in faith at times gave in to fuzzy thinking.  Yet, still, God fulfills his promise.  Sometimes we don’t make good decisions—we grab that electrical cord a second time and zap ourselves again—but God fulfills his promise.

Abraham’s most famous test—which he passes—comes after the birth of his promised child, Isaac, when Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac.  But we will have to leave that difficult story for another homily.  Suffice it to say that the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham seemed an improbable, at times impossible, thing—and yet Isaac was born and had a son, Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, from whose twelve sons were born the tribes of Israel—from whom came all the other figures on our family tree, Moses and David and the prophets and Jesus.  And Jesus is where the story ends and where it begins anew for each one of us.  

If we think about all of Abraham’s journeying in the light of today’s Gospel reading—busy Martha and Mary, who is content to rest with Jesus—we might perhaps notice how much Abraham’s story, despite his faith, is still one of anxiety—anxiety for an heir, anxiety over the future, anxiety over bad decisions that seem to get in the way of God’s plan.  Abraham receives a promise, but it is not yet the promise of eternal life.  It is a promise that there will be another generation, that the pilgrimage will go on.  Abraham is promised an heir.  In Jesus, we inherit the kingdom.  And after that, there is nothing more to want.  We are given the better part, Jesus tells us, and it will not be taken from us.

Readings: Gn 18:1-10a; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42

July 17, 2022

St. Isaac Jogues Church, Rapid City South Dakota

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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