The Gregorian Blog
When God Asks Too Much
“God never gives you more than you can handle,” is one of the most often cited quotes from the Bible that is not actually in the Bible.
It is also not exactly true. In fact, God does give us more than we can handle but “with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”
In today’s readings (the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B), we hear two stories about sacrificing sons on mountaintops. They teach two things: God is incredibly demanding, but God will do the best thing for us in the end.
The first son is Isaac. His father, Abraham, is told to sacrifice his boy on Mount Moriah. In the longer version of the story, it is clear that Isaac knew something was up. At one point he asks (nervously, we might imagine) what exactly his father plans to sacrifice on the mountain. But he doesn’t argue. He goes along with his father’s plan, even carrying the wood that his father meant to use to offer him.
The obedience of Abraham is famous: His very future, his very identity, is tied up with this son, and yet he is willing to sacrifice him at the Lord’s command.
But it should also be pointed out that his son’s obedience is equally admirable. A lot was asked of Abraham. More was asked of Isaac.
His father woke early in the morning with an intense look in his eyes and a plan to go up the mountain with the tools of sacrifice but no lamb, and Isaac followed. It seemed at one point as if Abraham would do the unthinkable: He would slaughter his only son. But Isaac isn’t slaughtered. He is saved at the last minute, and he later becomes the father of Israel, the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, and a patriarch in his own right.
In his willingness to five everything to follow his father’s will, he foreshadows Christ himself, who carried the wood of the cross up Mount Calvary to his own place of sacrifice.
His father, like Abraham, asks him to offer himself on Mount Calvary — and that’s what Christ does. The Stations of the Cross tell the story of this new Isaac’s journey up to the cross, but they end not with his rescue, but with his lifeless body being taken down by others and then buried.
Isaac learned that God was demanding, but generous in the end. Isaac had to pass a difficult test to become the father of Israel, the great nation that endures to this day.
Peter, James and John see how great Christ is when he is transfigured before them in today’s Gospel. They see Moses and Elijah — the father of the Law and the exemplar of the prophets — standing beside Jesus. Moses and Elijah are not transfigured. The greatest figures in Jewish history look ordinary compared to Jesus Christ.
In the case of Jesus on Calvary, the glorious promise of Christ’s future — a future where he shines brightly in the night as he speaks with great men who were long deceased — came before his own death. This was meant to embolden the apostles to accept the death of Christ.
Jesus tells them that they must take up their crosses each day and follow him. He might as well have said that they must take up their wood each day and follow Abraham up Mount Moriah. But by showing them a vision of the Resurrection in the Transfiguration, he has shown the apostles what they can look forward to.
We tend to put other values in the place that God should have. God wants us to give up whatever we have put in his place. This is enormously painful and enormously rewarding.
The second reading reminds us that God has himself borne the sufferings he asks of us. God did what Abraham was willing to do but was spared from doing: He sacrificed his only Son.
That crisis is in the past, and it has left a well of grace we can go to in our own times of trial. Now, whatever we lose in life, we always have Christ. And that’s more than enough: “If God is for us, who can be against us? … It is God who acquits us, who will condemn? Christ Jesus … is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.”
In news headlines recently we can see plenty of “more than you can handle” situations Christians have been given recently: being captured and kept by a rapist for years, or being beheaded, in a heroic video meant to glorify your murderers.
But we can also see the triumph of God’s love. Two victims of the Cleveland kidnaper say they “love life” in a soon-to-be-release memoir; the other says her experience taught her “that God is in control.” The Egyptian victims of ISIS died with the name of Jesus on their lips, and have been canonized by the Coptic Church.
They knew that if God is for them, even sacrifices that they cannot handle won’t defeat them.