The distraction of our own day is this illusion that racial injustice, the dehumanizing of the “other,” and the imbalance of power is only a political problem. When we read Genesis, it becomes apparent very quickly that these are human problems; these are moral problems that have spilled out into economic and political systems constructed by sinful human beings.

Genesis 21:8–21  

 

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

 

Matthew 10:24–39

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

More Value Than Sparrows

In today’s passage from Genesis, the marital troubles of Abraham and Sarah spill out of their own tent and begin to infect the whole community.

Remember how they got to this place. After God had promised them an heir, and they waited and waited and waited without conceiving a child, they decided on a plan to fulfill the promise themselves instead of waiting any longer.

Back in chapter 16, Sarai (her name before it was changed) told Abraham she had a plan for them to have a child. They were having trouble conceiving and in the world of human possibility, time had run out for Sarai to have children. She did not think she had any children in her; but, she told Abraham, I have a slave-girl named Hagar. You go to her tent and conceive a child with her. After all, Sarai reasoned, she owned Hagar, so any child she had would belong to Sarai.

What could go possibly go wrong?

Abram (his name at this point in the story) went along with Sarai’s plan without any objection, at least none recorded in the scriptures. The writer of Genesis is silent on the subject of Hagar’s consent. Since she was a slave, her consent did not seem to register in the mind of Sarai, Abraham, or our narrator.

So, by the time we get to today’s passage, Abram is Abraham, Sarai is Sarah, and Sarah’s plan has unfolded. Abraham and Hagar have a son. His name is Ishmael and he is about 15 years old. The part of Sarah’s plan that did not work out is that just because Hagar belonged to Sarah, that did not result in Hagar’s son belonging to Sarah. Ishmael was Abraham and Hagar’s son, not Sarah’s.

Sarah’s resentment spread like a virus throughout the family system.

To complicate matters, God finally came through and fulfilled the promise: Sarah, hilariously, conceives and bears a son when she is 90 years old and Abraham is 100. There is so much laughter around this impossibility that they name their son “Laughter,” or, in Hebrew, “Isaac.”

By the time we get to the passage above, Sarah’s laughter has faded. The narrator tells us that, at the party for Isaac’s weaning, Sarah sees Ishmael Isaac-ing with (or at) Isaac. The NRSV translates this as “playing” with his younger half-brother, but those who read Hebrew better than I say that there is more to it—Ishmael is making fun of Isaac at least, laughing at him, or perhaps toying with him in some way that Sarah sees as abusive.

Whatever 15-year-old Ishmael is doing, it brings all of Sarah’s resentment to the surface. That’s enough, she decides, and she turns to her husband and tells him, as she told him when Hagar first conceived Ishmael, to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. Get them out of her household, get them out of her sight, send them into the wilderness to die of exposure, and absolutely, cut them out of the Will. No son of a slave is going to inherit any portion of the estate that Sarah’s precious son Isaac should have all to himself.

It is such a troubling story.

If we go to the Bible looking for exemplary children of God, Abraham and Sarah certainly disappoint us. Sarah leverages her matriarchal power over Abraham in unwise ways. She exercises her ownership of Hagar in shockingly dehumanizing moves against Hagar, blaming others for a situation of her own making.

And Abraham? The unspoken miracle in this story is that Abraham can still walk after being fileted of his spine.

“Have relations with your slave-girl? Sure, Honey, whatever you say!”

“Send my son and her mother out into the desert to die of exposure? If you say so, Honey.”

Abraham and Sarah loom large in God’s plan to make a great nation, but they are a long way from Eden. The fall of humanity into a swamp of sin has been steep in the chapters before, and by the time we get to this point, we recognize the world of human relationships.

Sarah’s dehumanizing of Hagar and Ishmael looks familiar. It resembles the violence of racism, the dehumanizing of immigrants, and the imbalance of power in our own social and economic environment. It is as if the resentment born in Abraham’s embrace of his wife’s slave seeped out of the tent, spilled like a waterfall from generation to generation, and spread like a virus that remains with us today.

The distraction of our own day is this illusion that racial injustice, the dehumanizing of the “other,” and the imbalance of power is only a political problem. When we read Genesis, it becomes apparent very quickly that these are human problems; these are moral problems that have spilled out into economic and political systems constructed by sinful human beings.

It is the nature of human beings that when we construct a system to benefit society, whether it is capitalist or socialist, libertarian or authoritarian, it is constructed in such a way as to primarily benefit those who built it, even at the expense of those who, like Hagar and Ishmael, had no say in its creation.

It’s not because of intentional malevolence so much as it is from the blindness of human sin. Abraham and Sarah didn’t ask what Hagar thought of the plan and dismiss her opinion because of her social position. They simply never asked. It never occurred to them that the Egyptian slave’s consent in this hare-brained scheme might be relevant.

So, is that just the way it is, as the Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs song says? “Some things will never change?”

The Gospel answers that question as the song does, with a resounding “No.”

The reading from Matthew seems to be a collection of a variety of Jesus’s sayings, some of them quite difficult; but, they have this in common:

Because of Jesus, the world is not doomed to be as it has always been.

When we commit ourselves to the path that Jesus sets before us, it will not always be easy. It will not always be without conflict. Jesus does not settle for a peace that suppresses the rage of victims of injustice, so neither will his disciples.

The world God is bringing into existence through the cross of Jesus Christ is not simply the world as we know it but with nicer people. It is a world redeemed; a world in which everyone’s voice can be heard, a world in which the artificial hierarchies constructed by sinful human beings, from families, to communities, to nations, will be dismantled.

I was about 12 years old when I learned to drive a tractor. Before we planted the hay meadow, we had to break up the ground. My father attached a disc plow to the old Massey-Ferguson and taught me how to shift gears and pretty much turned me loose to learn the rest on my own. Dad told me, “Plow your rows straight across this field. I don’t want to see rows zig-zagging all over the hay meadow.”

So, I drove the tractor slowly trying to hold it in a straight line and kept looking behind me to make sure the rows were straight. They weren’t. The more I looked at them, the crooked-er they got.

Dad saw my struggle and waved me down.

“Don’t look so much at the ground right in front or behind you. Choose a spot on the horizon, far in the distance, and aim at that.”

Jesus tells us about the Kin-dom of God, a spot far off on the horizon. It may seem impossibly far off and difficult to make out the details in the distance. But, that’s how Jesus describes the life of discipleship: paying attention to our immediate surroundings, sure; but never losing sight of the horizon, the Kin-dom of God.

What would happen if all who profess the name of Jesus lived into God’s kin-dom now? If we lived as if we had reached that horizon, a world in which there is no ranking of people by east or west, north or south, rich or poor, straight, gay or trans, Jew or Gentile, black, white, or any shade in between?

That’s the scandalous, imaginative, and sometimes irrational life of a disciple of Jesus Christ—to believe the Gospel; not to be resigned to the world around us as just the way it is; to dare to believe that what we say and do matters because, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are part of God’s mission to redeem the world.

For such a life of joy and meaning, we can be thankful.