Sunday Scripture

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Second Sunday of Lent, Year B

First Reading: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Response: Psalm 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Second Reading: Romans 8:31b-34; Gospel: Mark 9:2-10

We start with Genesis 22, in which God tests Abraham. Previously God had made a covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham abundant offspring in Gen. 15:4-5. God began to fulfill that promise with the birth of Isaac in Gen. 21 (plus the birth of Ishmael in Gen. 16). Therefore when God puts Abraham to the test in Gen. 22, Abraham has reason to trust God, from years of covenantal relationship. Despite this, Abraham’s complete trust and obedience to God might astound us. The reader might also be disturbed by the idea that God would command Abraham to slaughter and sacrifice his son Isaac – even as a test of obedience, not completed. In the context of the narrative, the horrifying command serves to emphasize the completeness of Abraham’s obedience and trust in God.

Our reading excludes verses 7 and 8, in which Isaac asks: “My father ... here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” To this, Abraham replies: “My son ... God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Abraham’s response has an ambiguity and sense of mystery. Was Abraham misleading Isaac, or was he subtly expressing hope that God would provide a substitute sacrifice so that Isaac would be spared? In any case, the dialogue emphasizes the affection between father and son, as they call each other “my father” (ah-vee) and “my son” (buh-nee). This intimate dialogue is both endearing and heartbreaking as they approach the place of sacrifice. Our reading also excludes the second half of verse 9, which reads: “Next he bound his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.” The traditional Jewish name for this event – taken from verse 9 – is “the binding of Isaac.”

“The Lord’s messenger” is often translated as “angel” – because an angel is a messenger. Sure enough, the angel has a message for Abraham from God. First, he calls Abraham by name, and then the angel commands: “Do not lay your hand on the boy ... I know now how devoted you are to God.” Abraham does not need to be told twice. He immediately looks and finds “a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.” This is a substitute sacrifice so that his son could live. Abraham’s actions show that he fully accepts that Isaac remains God’s miraculous gift and that such a divine gift obligates Abraham to make a sacrifice to God in exchange.

The Lord’s angel speaks again, reporting to Abraham the words of the Lord God: “I swear by myself, declares the LORD...” The Lord makes here three promises to Abraham: (1) countless descendants, (2) “possession of the gates of their enemies”, and (3) “in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” The first and third of these promises are essentially the same as what God promised Abraham earlier in Gen. 12:1-3. But what makes today’s passage (Gen. 22) different is that God declares his promises to be a consequence of Abraham’s obedience to the Lord God’s command.

Our Responsorial is the second half of Psalm 116 – a thanksgiving psalm which praises God for his deliverance. The response contrasts “the land of the living” with the danger of death, felt deeply by the psalmist. “I will walk before the Lord” means being in God’s presence, and trusting in God’s protection. The second stanza (v. 16) emphasizes “I am your servant” with repetition, and, then adds “the son of your handmaid” for further emphasis. This expresses the psalmist’s dependence on God – followed by thanksgiving for God’s gracious act: “You have loosed my bonds … to you will I offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

The psalm’s final stanza speaks of “vows to the Lord” that the psalmist “will pay” in “the house of the Lord … Jerusalem.” The psalmist will travel to Jerusalem – likely to offer sacrifice in the Temple for God’s deliverance. A “thanksgiving sacrifice” is a recognized type of sacrifice in Judaism. The psalmist sees his act of thanksgiving as a personal witness to the Jewish community of faith. He will repay his vow to the Lord “in the presence of all his people.”

In our second reading, Paul uses emotional language to motivate the Christians in Rome to live their faith boldly without fear. Why should we fear anyone who is against us if God is for us (8:31)? Why should we fear that anyone might condemn us if God acquits us (8:33)? Should we not trust that God will give us everything we need, considering that God has already given us his own Son (8:32), the greatest gift? We are “God’s chosen ones” (8:33), and we know that Christ already now “intercedes for us” (8:34) before God. Paul seeks to increase our zeal for living faith in Christ Jesus by reminding us of the great gift we have received in Christ.

Our Gospel today recounts “the Transfiguration” of Jesus from Mark 9. There are parallel accounts of this very important event in the gospels of Matthew and Luke also. Jesus takes his three closest followers with him “up a high mountain apart by themselves” (9:2). In the Old Testament, mountains are places of encounter with God. The foremost example is Mount Sinai, where Moses encountered the Lord God, from whom Moses received the stone tablets of the law. This connection is strengthened by the appearance of both Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus.

Jesus “was transfigured before them” and his clothes “became dazzling white.” This indicates that Peter, James and John are receiving a glimpse of Jesus’ true nature as the Son of God. The voice from the cloud makes this message explicit: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Such a divine encounter is called a “theophany.” A cloud often indicates God’s presence – such as in Exodus 13–40, when God leads the Israelites as a “column of cloud” through the desert. Similarly, God’s presence is visible as a cloud covering the Tabernacle within the Israelites’ camp.