What do we owe God? It’s a tough question, isn’t it? The question of what we owe becomes pressing now and then when we are asked to support our faith communities or encouraged to give to some worthy causes that help others in need. Such acts of charitable giving are interpreted as contributing to God’s work in the world; acknowledging our dependence upon God’s many gifts to us; and expressing our faith, gratitude, and loyalty to a generous God. But how much should we give for those purposes? What do we owe God?
We’ve heard arguments made that while we may owe everything in theory, practically speaking we can feel we’ve discharged our obligations when we settle on a reasonable percentage of our income or our assets and give that much away. Nothing really sacrificial is required. Problem solved. Conscience cleared.
But sometimes we find ourselves wondering about whether we’ve been a bit too easy on ourselves with our simple, safe calculations of what we may owe to God and God’s work. Certainly ancient people struggled more than we seem to with this question. Perhaps the best known example of willingness to offer an extraordinary gift in tribute to God comes to us in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.
Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had waited for many long years before their beloved son, Isaac, was born. His birth was a fulfillment to them of God’s promise for offspring. No doubt the old couple’s hearts were laced with hope, and pride, and love for their precious and long-awaited son. So Abraham’s willingness to consent to God’s demand that he take Isaac out one morning and offer him as a burnt sacrifice to God is astonishing. What in the world was he thinking? Could God really expect such a sacrifice? Apparently not, because as Abraham prepares for the sacrifice of his son, an angel appears to stop Abraham from harming Isaac and to provide a ram as an alternative sacrifice.
Scholars tell us that this story was written to show that God doesn’t sanction anything so grave as human sacrifice, which was prevalent in the ancient world. The story demonstrates that a willingness on Abraham’s part to trust and obey God was sufficient, though the fulfillment of the sacrificial act was never really intended by God. But Rabbi Harold Kushner tells us that a crucial detail of the story reveals that it may mean something more.
You see, typically the burnt offering to God would have been a lamb, a young animal. But the animal the angel of God provided to Abraham, in order to spare his son, was not a lamb. It was a ram, an adult. The detail may be suggesting that God does not desire our childish, simplistic or unthinking obedience. Instead, the sacrificial ram may signify that God urges our mature, reasoned and thoughtful offerings.
If we applied our most seasoned thinking to the question of what we owe to God, what might we come up with? Maybe we’re capable of giving more than safe and simplistic gifts. Maybe a sacrifice of our time, of our best and most thoughtful efforts, of our hard-earned wisdom and experience, as well as our assets, would emerge as the fitting sacrifice we have to bring to God. What do you owe? What have you got to give?