Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39.
Great separations come about, for petty or profound reasons. Yet God goes with the separated.
The theme uniting the readings for this Sunday is separation. There are separations between tribal clans (Ishmael and Isaac) and faith traditions (Judaism and Islam), separation from the former self now dead (Romans 6), and separation of lesser things from the one supreme value (conflict within families).
The Torah reading is the separation of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, from Isaac, the later and more favored son. The thrust of the passage is that Ishmael, too, will have a blessing and will be the father of a mighty people. Abraham’s sons do not go without God’s blessing.
The destiny of nations may be worked out through petty human motivations. In our story it is Sarah’s jealousy and envy of the slave woman’s son that leads to the separation and the need for a special blessing from God for Ishmael. Sarah sees the boys playing together and she wants none of this mixing. “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.’” (Verse 10, NRSV.)
Abraham is upset by this, but he receives assurance from God that this separation is OK, because the first son too will have his destiny. Abraham goes to Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, loads her with supplies and sends her out into the wilderness.
The rest of the story is hers. (The basic Hagar-in-the-wilderness story is used twice in Genesis, in chapter 16 as well as here. The story in both places assumes that Ishmael is a small child, not a young adolescent male as the chronology of chapters 17 to 21 makes him.) When the water is exhausted, she despairs, casts the boy under a bush and waits desperately for the end. God hears the crying of the child and intervenes to show Hagar where there is water. He assures her that the boy will be saved because “I will make a great nation of him” (verse 18).
Ishmael is the father of the Arabic peoples, and when they become a great people they will receive the prophet Muhammad and become muslims (those who submit [to the only God]). This story of the separation of Ishmael and Isaac is the ancestral link between Judaism and Islam. In the Qur’an Abraham and Ishmael rehabilitate the holy place in Mecca and initiate Islam as the service of the true God.
We [Allah] enjoined Abraham and Isma’il [saying]: “Purify My House for those who circle it, for those who retreat there for meditation, and for those who kneel and prostrate themselves.” And [remember] when Abraham said: “My Lord, make this a secure city and feed with fruits those of its inhabitants who believe in Allah and the Last Day.” (Qur’an, 2:125-126, trans. Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Qur’an, New YorkUniversity Press, 2002, p. 23.)
And while Abraham and Isma‘il raised the foundations of the House, [they prayed]: “Our Lord, accept [this] from us. Surely You are the All-Hearing, the Omniscient. Our Lord, cause us to submit to You [i.e., become muslims], and make of our posterity a nation that submits to You. Show us our sacred rites, and pardon us. You are, indeed, the Pardoner, the Merciful. Our Lord, send them a Messenger from among themselves who will recite to them Your Revelations, to teach them the Book and the wisdom, and to purify them. You are truly the Mighty, the Wise.” (Qur’an, 2:127-129, ibid., p. 24.)
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17. The Psalm reading invites us to hear the cry of the boy Ishmael as he is on the verge of death in the desert.
Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you. …
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving girl. (verses 1-2, 16, NRSV)
There is even a hint of the themes that will dominate Islam.
There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God. (verses 8-10, NRSV)
The brothers Ishmael and Isaac may be separated, but they have a common voice in the prayer of the needy before God.
The reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans is about the believer’s death to the old life of sin.
There is a separation from the old that is complete. In this teaching the Christian ritual of baptism re-enacts the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The old self dies as one submerges below the water. The person who emerges from the water rises “to walk in newness of life” (verse 4, NRSV).
What one is separated from in this passage is Sin. Here, especially, Sin represents a cosmic power that binds and enslaves a person beyond all capacity to master it – until its power is broken by an intervention from the outside.
The power of Sin here is like that of addiction, as many recovering people have come to know addictive bondage in their lives. Some have come to hear this passage in such terms as these, substituting their addiction for the word “sin.”
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of our addiction might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to our addiction. For whoever has died is freed from our addiction. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death [from our addiction] no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to our addiction, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to our addiction and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Verses 6-11, NRSV adapted.)
The Gospel reading is most of the later part of Jesus’ commission to the disciples to take the good news and the good works of God to the needy folks of Israel – and later, as understood by the end of the Gospel, to all the nations. This section of the discourse emphasizes the costs of discipleship, the separation of the disciple from the conventional values of the society.
The first point is what to fear and not fear. Do not fear the persecutors (described in the previous passage, verses 16-25), because they can only imprison you, beat you up, run you out of town. Fear the one who can sustain or destroy your inner integrity and the eternal value of your life (verses 26-31).
The second point is the eternal value of what you stand for. Who (or what) you proclaim and confess in the public realm will determine how you will be registered in the annals of heavenly renown and glory, what your life truly represents for the ages (verses 32-33).
Finally, one of the hardest sayings in all of scripture is the declaration by Jesus that he came not to bring peace but a sword – a sword which cuts apart and separates. This passage (verses 35-39) insists that the ultimate issues of life do create conflict, and the emphasis here is on conflict within the most intimate groups, the family.
Put most sharply, “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” (verse 37). This is nothing less than a totalitarian claim that must be an absolute scandal to those who place “family values” above all else. This apostolic mission of Jesus pulls persons out of their natural social matrix and makes them absolute instruments of God’s service. The image is similar to the Elijah and Elisha roles in the days of old Israel.
The disciples addressed in this passage had to expect intense division within their society. They are told at the beginning to go only to the “lost sheep” of the house of Israel, not to the nations or the Samaritans (10:5-6). The conflicts within families are conflicts among Jewish people, conflicts precipitated by the claim that Jesus was the Anointed One (the Messiah), who had already come and had now received heavenly authority to call all nations to be baptized and learn his teaching (28:16-20).
The Gospel According to Matthew was written in a Syrian world in which Jews and Christians were separating, beginning seriously to go their own ways, at the cost of intense and agonizing separations – separations of family members, and of two great religious traditions of the Western world.