I was a sophomore in high school the first time I paid attention to the story of Hagar and Ishmael. After reading Melville’s famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” I looked up Ishmael’s story in the Bible. That simple sentence from Moby Dick was so purposeful, I wanted to know why. Reading the biblical story didn’t exactly answer that question, but it did make me feel something for Hagar, and Ishmael as well.
At 15 I had a lot of empathy for the unwanted and unloved Hagar who was cast out because of Sarah’s jealousy for her own son. I took the story to mean that maybe God cared for those cast out nearly as much as God cared for those who belonged to the in-group. As one who often felt left out or unwanted, it gave me some comfort to believe that God could care for people who were like Hagar and Ishmael.
Years later I read this passage for a seminary class and it struck me that Hagar had been given a promise much like Abraham’s – God would make of her son “a great nation.” She was the only woman in scripture singled out for such a promise. Of course, this interpretation gave me hope as a young woman going into ministry when still so many churches didn’t think women should be pastors. If God could promise Hagar, the same one Sarah had discarded, that descendants would become a great nation, then God could surely call one such as myself into ordained ministry.
Now, decades later, I am hearing something else in this passage. Yes, there is a promise of God’s love for the outcast, even the unwanted woman. These meanings don’t go away just because I’m seeing something new here. It’s possible that my reading of the story is heavily influenced by a week of vacation Bible school with the theme of “Blessed to Be” and emphasizing God’s love for all people. It’s possible that I’m reading this passage with some desperation to find a way through all the hatred and fear that is swirling around in the midst of a Pride weekend. It’s possible that what I’m thinking about this passage is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Whatever it is, what I’m hearing now is a declaration of kinship. God claimed Ishmael as surely as God claimed Isaac. Perhaps God listens (the meaning of Ishmael) as much as God welcomes laughter (the meaning of Isaac). And God expects the same from us.
It’s the kinship idea that has grabbed hold of me this week, though. Ishmael and Isaac were brothers and received similar promises from God. Why do we not see this kinship in each other? We follow Sarah’s example rather than God’s. Sarah in her fear and jealousy and need to ensure that only her son would inherit what his father had to offer, urged Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert never to be seen or heard from again. Abraham did so after God assured him that God would take care of them. And God does. God claims Hagar and Ishmael as God’s own. Why have we not learned this lesson?
Today the world is divided between those who belong and those who do not. Those who are Christians and those who are not. Those who are heterosexual and those who are not. Those who are white and those who are not. Those who are gender-conforming and those who are not. Those who are “Americans” and those who are not. Those who are wealthy and those who are not. Those who are healthy and those who are not. Those who are able-bodied and those who are not. The list goes one. We find any number of ways to cast people out, to define an us versus them.
Of course, if you’re reading the text from Matthew you may feel that you are justified in doing this. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus makes some outrageous statements about bringing a sword rather than peace and how family members will rise up one against another. This passage was meant to reassure those who were losing everything for their faith in Christ. It was not meant to give permission to hate and dismiss and destroy those who are “different.” Jesus, who taught loving God, loving self, and loving neighbor in the way that he, Jesus, loved, would be horrified at the hatred spewing out of the mouths of those who claim his name.
In Romans Paul asks if we should continue in sin so that God’s grace may flow. He answered his own question with a resounding, “No!” As we told the children at VBS this last week, we are blessed to be blessings to others. We are loved by God so we are to love one another. It really is that simple. Sarah may have hated Hagar and Ishmael, but God showed them great mercy and love and claimed them as God’s own. When will we welcome the outcast, the refugee, the immigrant, and all others we label as “different” or “unwanted” with the same kind of love and mercy and claim the kinship God intended? Like Paul, we must ask ourselves if we should continue in sin. By the grace of God, may we all answer with the same resounding, “No!”
RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 25, 2017
Genesis 21:8-21 with Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 or
Jeremiah 20:7-13 with Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18