Call me Ishmael

25 June 2017
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 7A (RCL)
Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

The lections are not happy ones. In an act of cruelty, Abraham sends away Hagar and her child, Ishmael. Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace but a sword. We do not like hearing these parts of scripture.

But I find something redemptive in these readings. In the first instance, the writer(s) and redactor(s) of Genesis recognize the roots of ethnic violence in the act of their own patriarch. In the book of Judges, the Ishmaelites were classed together with the Midianites, enemies of the Israelites. In later literature, the descendants of the Ishmaelites are classed among the Assyrian peoples, again enemies of Israel. When God had promised progeny to Abraham, and Sarah could not conceive, she suggested that he take her slave-girl Hagar, and have a child with her. But then, Sarah worried that Abraham’s patrimony would pass to the child of the slave girl, and with God’s permission, she had Abraham send the woman away. God heard the cries of the child in the desert, and promised his mother that he would become the progenitor of a great nation, skilled with the bow.

Genesis (as indeed much of the Old Testament) was put into its final form during the period of the Babylonian Exile, and much of the material from the Northern Kingdom was put into written form after the Assyrian conquest, when the elite fled south to Jerusalem. This passage from Genesis recognizes Israel’s implication in its own destruction. The seeds of ethnic violence were sown by their own patriarch. This is a level of self-criticism rarely reached in political historiography, and can probably only be reached by those who have lost imperial power. As long as a people remains in power, they can blame what little discomfort they experience on the machinations of others. In order not to lose faith, a conquered people might come to see that its own misuse of power sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus continues to give instruction to the Twelve whom he has sent out to announce the Kingdom. He guarantees that they will encounter opposition to the truths they are compelled to proclaim. The divisions he enumerates sound eerily familiar: our political climate divides father against son, friend against friend, mother against daughter. It may be too early to do the kind of self-reflection that the author of Genesis engaged in, but the time is coming. Our claim to special status in God’s plan may be blinding us to what God is doing among those we despise.

Jesus announces a kingdom in opposition to the Empire of Rome. He calls for all those oppressed by Rome to enter solidarity with one another, and turn their attention to building the kingdom at the local level, in the forgiveness of debt among neighbors, in the welcoming of the outcast, the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead. To do that, we may have to proclaim some uncomfortable truths, but Jesus promises that not a hair of our head will be hurt, because that truth is so much more powerful than Caesar’s truth.

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