Sunday, February 25, 2018

People Often Ask More of Others than They Ask of Themselves; God Asks Much More of Himself than He Asks of Us

A still from the 1980's anti-drug ad

(Second Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 25, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 22: 1-18; Psalm 116; Romans 8: 31-34; Matthew 9: 2-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2018]

I’m sure some of you will remember this anti-drug public service ad from television in the 1980s: 

It begins with the shot of a teenage boy in his bedroom.  The boy is reclining on his bed, with headphones on, happily listening to his stereo.  His father then barges into the room, obviously angry, with a box in his hand—a box that has various types of drug paraphernalia in it.  Dad turns off the stereo and says to the boy, “This yours?”  He replies, “No.”  His dad says, “Your mother said she found it in your closet.”  The boy suddenly gets really nervous, and starts to stumble over his words as he desperately tries to maintain his innocence.  Dad, of course, isn’t buying any of it.  Finally the father says, angrily, “Answer me!  Who taught you to do this stuff?”  His son shouts out, “YOU, ALRIGHT?  I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU!”

The ad ends with the announcer saying, “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.”

That exchange between a father and his son illustrates a sad truth of this fallen world: People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

The father in that ad wanted his son to avoid drug abuse in his life—and that was great!  All good parents should have that desire for their children.  The problem was he expected more of his son than he expected of himself.  He held his child to a high standard—a very high moral standard.  But he refused to apply that very same standard to his own life. 

And his son called him on it—which is exactly what he should have done! 

People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

This is something that we can all be guilty of from time to time.  We can have one set of expectations for our civil leaders, our religious leaders, our parents, our children, our siblings, our coworkers, etc., and another set of expectations—a much lower set of expectations—for ourselves.  Think, for example, of the many Catholic parents in this parish (and in every parish) who faithfully drop their children off for religious education classes every week, but who never come to Sunday Mass.  These parents ask their children to take their religion seriously, but they don’t do that themselves.  If they did, they’d never, ever miss Mass!

People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

God, not surprisingly, is exactly the opposite—as today’s first reading from Genesis 22 makes crystal clear.  Here the Lord puts the patriarch Abraham to the test, asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah.  Now, because we’re reading about this event 4,000 years after it actually happened, we know that God never intended to have Abraham kill his child; the test was about Abraham’s willingness to ‘let go’ and trust in the Lord.  God said to him, in effect, “Abraham, are you willing to let go of your son, Isaac?  He’s the child of the promise.  You waited 100 years to have him.  You love him deeply; you treasure him and the special bond you have with him more than anything else that you have in this life.  So, are you willing to let it all go?  Are you willing to let go of what’s most precious to you in this life and trust totally in me?”

Abraham was willing, thanks be to God—which is why we call him “our father in faith.”  His faith is supposed to be a model for ours.

This was certainly a teaching moment for Abraham—a very powerful and memorable teaching moment.  Through this very difficult test Abraham learned that God—the one, true God—was not like the false gods of the pagan world, like Molech, who demanded child sacrifice.  The one, true God made it clear to Abraham that he would never ask a man or woman to do such a thing.  He would never ask them to give up a child in that way.

BUT, OF COURSE, HE DID ASK IT OF HIMSELF!  Did you realize that?  What God would not ask of Abraham (or of any one of us), he asked—he demanded!—of himself.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” the Gospel of John tells us.  Or, as today’s second reading from Romans 8 puts it, “[God] … did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.”   That’s the good news!  So God’s message to us today is, “You don’t need to offer your children in sacrifice to me, because I’ve already offered my Son, Jesus Christ, in sacrifice for you—for the forgiveness of your sins; so that you might have eternal life.

The passion and death of Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of the prophetic words of Abraham in this story.  What do I mean by that?  Well, we’re told in this text that when Abraham was walking up the mountain with Isaac, his son said to him, “Father, here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  Abraham responded, “My son, God will provide the lamb.” 

Poor Abraham.  He probably responded as he did because he really didn’t know what to say.  Perhaps he said it because he was “hoping against hope” that God would, even at the last second, tell him he didn’t have to go through with the sacrifice.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

But there was a spiritual depth to Abraham’s response that he wasn’t aware of at the time.  Yes, God did supply the lamb that day to save Isaac—true enough; but that was only a foreshadowing of the Lamb the Lord would supply many hundreds of years later—his divine Son, Jesus Christ: the Lamb of God, whose passion and death would take away the sins of the world.

So the bottom line is this:

We human beings, in our weakness, often ask more of others than we do of ourselves.

God, on the other hand, by sending his Son into this world to suffer and die for our sins, has asked infinitely more of himself than he will ever ask of you or of me—or of any other human person.

And for that, my brothers and sisters, we should all be infinitely grateful!