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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - The Hardest Choice You'll Ever Have to Make

Robert Barron - The Hardest Choice You'll Ever Have to Make

Robert Barron - The Hardest Choice You'll Ever Have to Make
TOPICS: Choices

Peace be with you. Friends, for this second Sunday of Lent, the Church gives us the awful reading from the twenty-second chapter of Genesis about the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham. In Hebrew called the "akeda". It's at the very center of much reflection within the whole Jewish tradition. This story has galvanized, grabbed, enticed the imagination of people ever since it emerged. I'll give you a really recent example of the impact it has. I don't know if you've been watching this Showtime drama called "Your Honor". I won't go into the whole story, but there's a young female character who is fiercely anti-religious. And when her parents are cajoling her, she throws this story back in their face. "So would you do that? If God asked you to kill me, would you do it? Love God?" she says. "I hate God".

That story got her attention. Oh, maybe ten years ago, there was a mock trial that was held, I think, in New York. And it was a trial of Abraham with this scene in mind. They had a judge and jury, and they had lawyers arguing the case, and they were accusing Abraham of manslaughter. And the arguments were made on both sides, and then the jury determined, "Yeah. Abraham's guilty". Imagine if someone today killed his son and said, "Well, God told me to do it". What court in the land would find that person innocent? I don't know if you've read when you were in maybe Philosophy 101 class Søren Kierkegaard's great text called "Fear and Trembling". It's a short book. Recommend it to you if you've not read it. It's the single greatest, I think, wrestling with this text in the tradition. And the title gives away the game, doesn't it? "Fear and Trembling".

If you're not experiencing both those things when you read the story of Abraham and Isaac, you've not been paying attention. I'll say this. If the first rule of the writer is to be read, the first rule is to get the attention of his reader, I think it's fair to say the author of this story did his job. Because we've been focused on this literally awful story ever since it appeared. Now, how do we come to terms with it? Are all these people right? Abraham is a maniac that should be sent to prison; Abraham is a sign of God's cruelty and capriciousness; it just leaves us in fear and trembling. I'd say this first of all: we should not read this as a story of a cruel, arbitrary, and capricious God who's playing with his creature, Abraham. I mean, that's not the right way to read this text.

I might suggest that Flannery O'Connor, the great twentieth-century Catholic author, has an insight here when she says, "In a land of the deaf, you have to shout". And of course, her stories are famously macabre and violent. They're like Coen brothers movies. In a land of the deaf, those who are spiritually unaware, you have to shout. You've got to do something big and bold to get their attention. You have to shake people by the shoulders. Well, there's something of that quality it seems to me in this awful story of this father being compelled to sacrifice his own son. It certainly shakes us out of our complacency, makes us think more profoundly and deeply. Okay. So what are we meant to see? So you say, "Okay, Bishop, I get it. It's not a story of a capricious God. Well, what is it? What are we meant to see"?

Let me start with the great St. Augustine. Augustine gave us a basic rule of life, and I'll put it out to you as something you can live by. I don't care what age you are, where you are in life; live by this rule, namely, love God first, and then love everything and everybody else for the sake of God. Let me say that again. And put that up on your computer screen, if you want. I mean, make that an adage for your life. Love God first, and then love everything and everybody else for the sake of God. For Augustine, that's the right ordering of our loves. See Augustine was all about love. What do you love? What's the tendency of your will? Well, it has to be to God first and above all, and then everything else in light of that basic love. How's the Bible put it, by the way, both Old Testament and New?

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, all your strength". And then Jesus adds, "And the second commandment is like it: and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" How's the liturgy put it? "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will". The first love, the love of God, and then love everyone and everything else for the sake of God. To get that right is to live a rightly ordered life. To get it wrong is to fall into sin and disintegration. It's a basic principle. It might be the master principal of the whole Bible, that the whole Bible is simply meditating again and again on this motif. If I start saying something like, "Money is what I love above all, and then everything else for the sake of money". "Power: that's what I love above all, and then everything else for the sake of power". "Honor: boy, if people just think highly of me, that's what I want above all, then everything else for the sake of that". Or keep pressing it: take very good things like my own family.

That's the first love of my life is my family, and then everything else for the sake of that. If it's anything other than God, and mind you, family, wealth, power, honor, those aren't bad things in themselves, but if the first love of my life is anything other than God, I will fall into disintegration. Now, now; you're listening to me right now and you say, "Okay, Bishop, I get it. Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. Yeah". But does it really get into your soul, this principle? Well, now go back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Think of: in a land of the deaf, you have to shout. In a land of the spiritually distracted, you've got to grab them by the shoulders and shake them.

Now, now, now: look at this story. So, you know the background. Abraham is given this promise: You will have a son, and through this son, you will become the father of many nations. In fact, your descendants will be greater than the stars of the sky and the sand on the shore of the sea. And for many, many years, even decades, Abraham waits. As he and his wife become older and older and older, the fulfillment of the promise seems less and less likely. But he has faith. That's why he's the father of faith. Finally, when he and his wife, Sarah, were in their upper nineties, Sarah becomes pregnant, and she gives birth to Isaac, the son of the promise. Obviously, Abraham loved Isaac with all his heart, not just because he was his son, not just because he was the son of his old age, but because he was the bearer of the promise, the one through whom God's promise would be fulfilled. We couldn't imagine any creature whom Abraham loved more than Isaac. And then God asks Abraham to sacrifice him. Listen to this devastating language. "Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love".

Notice how there's something awful about that; how God, as it were, rubs it in: your only son, whom you love. "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". You know what's beautiful in the Bible? It's typical. You don't get page upon page of now reportage about Abraham's interior state. It's not like a Henry James novel. We just get that, and then, Abraham's willingness to do it. What was going on in his heart while he was preparing for this journey to Mount Moriah? I mean it's, yes, fear and trembling as Kierkegaard saw it quite rightly; yes, fear and trembling he  would have been feeling. And then this. Read this story, by the way, in Genesis 22: on their way to the sacrifice, Isaac devastatingly comments to his father, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering"?

Can you imagine the knife going through his father's heart at that moment? But on top of Mount Moriah, Abraham prepares the sacrifice. He makes to kill his son. At which point the angel stops him. "Do not lay your hand on the boy. Do not do the least thing to him. I know... how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son". Grab you by the shoulders and shake you? Uh-huh. Shouting so that even the most spiritually deaf people can hear? Absolutely. A shocking story. What's the lesson? I'll just return to it now. Whatever you love here below, and that's anything in this world: wealth, power, pleasure, but your family, your own son, whatever we love here below, must be placed in the context of a higher love. Nothing here below, even the most lovable things and people, are not the "summum bonum," Latin for "the highest good".

Nothing here below, even those things and people that we love the most, are the "summum bonum," the highest good. And therefore, whatever we love here below must be loved, as Augustine said, for the sake of God. Now, everybody, do you see why it's so important that we contemplate this story as Lent gets underway? What's part of the discipline of Lent is to look long and hard at the ordering of our love. What do you love? That's a really good searching spiritual question, because everybody's got something. What for you is the "summum bonum," the highest good? Again, everyone has got something, from the greatest saint to the greatest sinner; everyone has a "summum bonum". What is it? What's the thing or person that you love above all and that all your other loves are in relation to? Unless and until it is God, your loves are not properly ordered. Tough question? Yeah. Yeah. In fact, I think it's the toughest question of them all. Asked throughout the Bible? Yes.

See, once you get this principle, you see it now in story after story after story. How about in the New Testament? The prospective disciple: "Oh Lord, I'm going to follow you, but first let me bury my father". Well, I mean, yeah, of course, who would deny that request? What does Jesus say? "Let the dead bury their dead". Anti-family? No, no, no. That's not the point. The point is, your loves must be properly ordered. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and the rest will be given unto you". That's the right ordering of love. The story of the "akeda," the binding of Isaac, is not a story of God being a manipulative tyrant. It's a shaking by the shoulders. It's putting us in a place of fear and trembling that we might grasp as fully as possible this great principle. And God bless you.
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