Assumptions and the Akedah

What color is this alb? White or blue?

This past week The Dress caused us all to rethink what we assume may be apparent to everyone. My assumptions about something that is very clear to me can be very wrong. And once I can accept that fact, I am open to conversion, to forming my life to newly discovered facts that have always been there but that I never noticed.

On Ash Wednesday Scott Taylor, the deacon at All Saints Episcopal Church, and I went out to distribute ashes on the streets of Beverly Hills. Standing at three different street corners, we imposed ashes on about 100 people. For each, as I imposed the ashes, I said “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

To repent means to act on a new realization about my life. It means to change directions based on a new reality, to undergo a conversion from one way of life to another. Repentance is what happens at a fork in the road.

There are many great stories of conversion. The impetus for conversion is often a dramatic break in our assumptions, the way one perceives or understands the world or one’s place in it.

Consider the conversion story of Joseph Bernardin. He often said that when he was appointed archbishop of Chicago, he really didn’t know how to pray. He thought he did, and he was faithful in his observance of formal prayer. But he eventually came to understand that his entire life he has entirely misunderstood prayer, and his life changed as he embraced true union with God.

You may have heard the story of Oscar Romero, who was a smug, doctrinaire person when he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador. His main focus was theological conservatism, and he spent his days being wined and dined by the wealthy oligarchs who literally owned the nation of El Salvador and oppressed the poor. It wasn’t until a close friend of his, a Jesuit priest, was murdered by the government that he suddenly realized his entire outlook on life had been wrong, and he dedicated himself to serving the poor of his country. Archbishop Romero’s conversion resulted in his murder.

There are so many other amazing conversion stories to guide us.

A significant story of a dramatic shift in the way one understands the world is the life story of our father Abraham, especially today’s account of the Binding of Isaac, called in Hebrew the Akedah.

The story is often interpreted as God testing Abraham to see if he would obey God even if it meant killing his own son. But here’s a problem with this idea of God testing Abraham, or anyone, for that matter. Is God clueless? Does God have no idea whatsoever how his servant Abraham will act? Does God test us out of pure ignorance, to see how we will react? To me that seems unlikely. God does not test us.

The Akedah has a rich rabbinical tradition of interpretation, and Jewish tradition by no means is unified in the idea that God was testing Abraham. Of the rabbis who say God was testing Abraham, some say he was testing Abraham to see if he would challenge God on the idea of human sacrifice, and that therefore Abraham failed the test!

Other rabbinic scholars see the Akedah as an ancient myth from beyond the mists of history that explains how the Jewish people came to reject the idea of human sacrifice that was so common practice at the time. So common, that Abraham assumed the one true God wanted human sacrifice.

So according to this interpretation the Akedah represents our father Abraham’s earth-shaking realization that God does not desire the murder of any person for his sake. As a result of this foundational insight, God tells Abraham

I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
…and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing—
all this because you obeyed my command.

God’s promise has come true. Today half the world’s population claims Abraham as their spiritual father — Jews, Christians and Muslims.

And yet we still struggle with the idea that God does not desire the death of anyone on his behalf. Epiphanies or theophanies are not universal; they are not inherited. Now that we know the dress is blue, that doesn’t stop us, or others, from seeing it as white.

Just as our ancient ancestors accepted human sacrifice as a given, we too have accepted many evils as everyday realities. Consider the institution of slavery in this nation; it was common even for priests to hold enslaved people as captives and profit from their forced labor. In the days of “I Love Lucy” the subjugation of women was so commonly accepted that it was considered hilarious that Ricky would violently assault Lucy by spanking her. And even in our own day, some in the Church still think it is acceptable to discriminate against and even fire gay and lesbian Catholics merely for who they are.

In all of these cases we see examples of attitudes that were once considered just the way things are, or even ordained by God. Often such assumptions not only weigh us down, but we bind our children with them, as Abraham tied up Isaac.

When we realize these assumptions are wrong, we follow in the footsteps of our father Abraham. We learn from him how to discern what is right and wrong, despite what we may assume.

Now this is all well and good. It’s easy to look at others, even our own ancestors, and see how they were wrong. But to be real children of Abraham we need to turn the light on ourselves. Have I accepted without question any harmful assumptions about me or others that I need to examine?

That’s a big part of what Lent is about. That’s the model Jesus set for us during his 40 days in the desert, when he tried to understand who he was and what he was supposed to do.

We too are asked to take this time to understand who we are, and to gain some insight into assumptions that are holding us back, assumptions that may be comforting and make me feel superior, but are really deadly to others — and myself.

If the end of Lent comes around and I have not learned something new, or changed my mind on something, or stopped doing something I used to think was OK, then I have missed an opportunity.

How about you?

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