Saturday, July 15, 2017

What a Family!

These past three weeks (in churchspeak, the 12th, 13th, and 14th weeks of Ordinary Time), the Old Testament reading at daily Mass has been taken from the biblical book of Genesis. The readings have recounted the amazing family story of the patriarchs - from God's initial call of Abram in Genesis 12 to today's account of Israel's settlement in Egypt and the deaths of Jacob and Joseph in Genesis 50. 

As is so often the case with the Lectionary, large sections of the story are omitted - even at times within particular pericopes. So, for example, a week ago Friday the reading strung together several excerpts from Genesis 23 and 24, mentioning the death of Sarah, then Abraham's plan to marry his son to a relative from back where he came from, and then jumping ahead to Rebekah's arrival and marriage to Isaac. In the process, of course, a lot of the family story's details get left out. The omissions obviously make the story harder to follow. But, even considering all the omissions, it remains a fascinating story of history's most famous family.

God's sudden move in Genesis 12 to call Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) marked a shift from the universal primeval history of Genesis 1-11 to a new focus, centering salvation history in the story of one family - Abraham and his descendants, through whom, in Jesus, the promise would be finally fulfilled, that All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you (Genesis 12:3).

Abraham has rightly been exalted (e.g., in Romans., Galatians, and Hebrews) as a paragon of faith. There is much that is edifying in the story of Abraham's readiness to respond to the Lord's call and to trust in God's promise, even at the cost of having to pick up and move (at the age of 75 - the age at which we nowadays compel bishops to retire). God famously tested Abraham's faith in the promise when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac (through whom the promise was supposed to be fulfilled), and Abraham passed that extreme test. 

All that having been said, still the story of the patriarchal family stands out as much for its strange and seemingly unedifying aspects as for its edifying ones. There is, of course, Abraham's lying about Sarah. Then there is Isaac's seemingly frivolous way of awarding his final blessing, Jacob's cheating to get it, and his mother Rebekah's collusion with her favorite son in what certainly seems like an impious act of deceiving his father (as well as cheating his brother). Jacob himself turned out to be an even less successful parent - favoring Joseph over his brothers, provoking their jealousy and thus causing them to try to kill him. That all of this providentially made Joseph everyone's savior in the subsequent famine highlights God's ongoing commitment to this family and his ability to bring about blessing for many others as well, even in spite of repeated human misbehavior and chronic familial dysfunction. But it does not hide that repeated misbehavior and chronic dysfunction from our notice.

Just as well! For the biblical story is not intended for perfect families such as only exist on Norman Rockwell magazine covers, but about actual struggling people and their consequently flawed families - the regular folks who might be inspired by the Rockwell cover and aspire to imitate its idealized image, but most likely fall far short of it (although are nonetheless better off for aspiring)..

Most of us may feel we fall short of the ideal embodied by Abraham's faith-inspired move to Canaan at 75, but we may find much more to identify with in the more mundane struggles of the patriarchal family, though which we too may aspire to the faith of Abraham and its abundance of blessing.

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