As I pondered the readings for today I found myself wondering what happened to Ishmael. To get a quick answer I wandered down the hall to talk to my colleagues who teach Old Testament. One of them said, “He became a wild ass of a man,” quoting today’s reading. The other noted that the Ishmaelites were quite numerous, just as the texts said they would be. So God’s promise to Hagar, was, in an important sense true. God did what he said he would do.
My colleagues made me promise that I would not say this text from Genesis was about lack of faith. Apparently, many people think that Sarai’s consent to allow Abram to have a son through Hagar was a form of losing confidence in God. She got tired of waiting, lost heart, and allowed this to happen, but she really shouldn’t have. She should have had confidence. My colleagues pointed out to me that Abram, Sarai, and Hagar were really behaving normally for people in their culture. There is not lack of faith.
I found their comments helpful, especially as I reflected on the text from Genesis in dialogue with the reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Here Jesus speaks harshly against those who misuse religion. They may be religiously observant—saying Lord, Lord, and even doing mighty deeds—but their religiosity masks a fundamental corruption. It is not difficult to think of examples of such individuals in our own culture. Religion is often misused, and self-aggrandizement masquerades as righteousness. Sandy are the foundations of many who claim to serve God’s people, or at least this is a warning Matthew would have us hear.
Hagar was no such person. On the one hand she was tempted to use her chosen status as continuing the bloodline of Abram as a way to look down on Sarai. On the other hand, in the end she accepted correction, resumed her rightful place and trusted that God’s promise to her would be fulfilled. In fact, she “listened to the words of the Lord and acted on them.” We may not like the social realities of Abram’s, Sarai’s, and Hagar’s world—it is hard to think of submitting to a master or mistress as a good thing. Here I am tempted to allegorize and ask—to what responsibilities are we bound, responsibilities from which we flee, but to which God wishes us to be faithful and out of which God will fulfill his promises to us? On this day it is Hagar’s example of faith the comes to the fore. Too bad her witness is so easily missed.
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