Today’s chapter tells the story of the Binding of Isaac, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham goes to do it, and the angel of the Lord tells him that he doesn’t actually have to sacrifice his son. It’s one of the better-known passages from the Bible, and with good reason. An ostensibly all-loving God calling for human sacrifice, only to turn around and say, “No, wait, sacrifice this ram instead,” has a way of arresting our attention. But I feel like the story, in its magnitude, has me hemmed in on all sides. How can I adequately address its scope? How can I say something worthy of the monumental matters it raises?
As a child, I was terrified by stories in which people were turned to stone. Medusa was the most horrifying of monsters to me, and the narrated portion of Conan the Adventurer’s opening freaked out my business. And it didn’t even have to be human people, or even stone necessarily! Trolls were the bad guys in The Hobbit and The World of David the Gnome, but scenes in which the rising sun turned them to stone still gave me the jibblies. I declined to see Ernest: Scared Stupid with my brother and father. And even when my brother and I rented it in high school, the numerous organic-to-mineral transmutations in Return to Oz left me unsettled. But I’ve saved the best for last: my first encounter with this harrowing phenomenon was drawn directly from today’s passage.
I just realized: John 21 is the post-credits scene.
I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with the gospel of John. Of all the four gospels, it was the one that most saturated my childhood. I have these random memories: reading it with my mom at a TCBY as part of homeschool lessons, memorizing John 3:16 and thinking about God’s love for the world while swinging on a pull-up bar on the playground. In high school, I became increasingly aware of the scholarly skepticism surrounding it, its alleged late authorship and its authenticity. The sun moved, everyone’s favorite gospel suddenly became shrouded in shadow, and for years afterward reading through it became weird for me.
As many of you know, that well-worn Bible from the photos with the occasional handwritten marginal notes is my dad’s. He’s had it for nearly as long as I can remember; the date in the front cover is 8/28/88. I was five then. I used to look at the maps in the back, with their bright colors tracing out the boundaries of geopolitical regions and the travels of Christ and Paul. Much of their information went right over my elementary-school head, but now I’m older and wiser, or at least better educated, and for today’s chapter, those maps might conceivably come in handy. Paul connects with Barnabas and gets his first major missionary voyage underway, and two major events occur at Paphos on the island of Cyprus and on the mainland at Pisidian Antioch.
In today’s chapter, a good deed goes unpunished, but only barely.
When I said yesterday that Judas’ remorse is just one of the things we’ll find in today’s chapter, I wasn’t kidding. Matthew 27 is full of events: Jesus appearing before Pilate, the crowds demanding the release of the criminal Barabbas, the Roman soldiers flogging and mocking Jesus, the procession to Golgotha, the crucifixion, an earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death that splits the veil of the temple and opens several tombs (out of which after Jesus’ resurrection come several saints’ bodies, which is weird), and Joseph of Arimathea providing a tomb for Jesus’ own body, which Pilate secures with a guard of Roman soldiers. See? Lots of events. But in particular, the chief priests and scribes quote Psalm 22 to mock Jesus on the cross, and from the cross, Jesus responds with another verse from Psalm 22. I’m curious what’s going on there, so let’s check it out.