21 June 2020

Some questions on Father’s Day
for a ‘Sorrowful Mother’s Day’

Hagar and Ishmael abandoned in the wilderness (Source)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 21 June 2020

The Second Sunday after Trinity (Trinity II), Father’s Day

The Readings: Genesis 21: 8-21; Psalm 86: 1-10, 16-17; Romans 6: 1b-11; Matthew 10: 24-39.

There is a link to the readings HERE

‘Hagar in the Desert’ (1960) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last Sunday (Genesis 18: 1-15, 21: 1-7, 14 June 2020, Trinity I), we heard how Sarah laughs when she hears from the messengers who visit Abraham at Mamre that she is going to be pregnant and give birth to a child within a year.

But the joy and laughter of those readings is in sharp contrast to what seem to be very sad and gloomy readings, filled with tears, this morning. Although it is Father’s Day, these readings may seem more appropriate for a Sorrowful Mother’s Day.

In our first reading (Genesis 21: 8-21), Hagar and her son are abandoned in the wilderness. It appears to be a story of cruel marginalisation and exclusion of a young mother and her helpless child.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 10: 24-39), family divisions and the cruelty that only family members can inflict on one another are brought to the fore again. Where do we find the love of God in these Bible readings, and where is the love of God to be found in the Church today?

Following the visit to Abraham, and the promise to Abraham and Sarah of a child, which we read about last week, Isaac has been born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age, and the child has been circumcised as a sign of being one of God’s people.

Sarah has said, ‘God has brought laughter for me’ (verse 6), and the name Isaac means ‘he laughs.’

Now, at the age of three, Isaac is weaned, and a religious feast is called for.

Earlier passages (16: 11 and 16: 16) identify Ishmael as ‘the son of Hagar’ (verse 9). The name Ishmael means ‘God harkens,’ but Ishmael is not named in this reading – an indication that he ranks lower than Isaac. When Sarah did not bear a son for Abraham, he exercised the legal option of producing an heir with a slave woman.

At the feast, Sarah sees Ishmael playing or laughing with Isaac. She sees this as a real threat to her own life, so she asks Abraham to cast out’ Hagar and Ishmael (verses 9-10).

Abraham hesitates, for he loves Ishmael and is forbidden by law to do this. But Abraham hears God telling him to do as Sarah asks, promising Abraham’s line of descent will continue through Isaac, but that Ishmael too will also become the father of a nation (verses 12-13). Abraham gives Hagar bread and water and sends her and her son out into the wilderness of Beer-sheba (verses 14-15).

When the water runs out, Hagar realises death is near, and fears for her child’s survival (verses 15-16). God hears Ishmael’s cry and Hagar sees a well. God is with the boy, he grows up, lives in the wilderness of Paran, in northern Sinai, and marries an Egyptian woman (verses 17-21). All this is seen as his exclusion from God’s plan, and Genesis continues with the story of Isaac.

I imagine this story would be heard with shock, dismay and a sense of cruelty by many women as they think of their children and wonder what has happened to them.

Imagine the plight of this abandoned woman. The man she once had a child for has cast her aside, left her and her child, apparently not caring whether they live or die.

Until recent decades, Irish families, worried about the way a woman in the family conceived, sent her away. But, unlike Hagar, they were often sent away even before they gave birth. They were abandoned in so-called ‘Mother and Baby’ homes, county homes and Magdalene laundries in every county in this land.

So often not just the Church but society at large moralised about these women and sent them into isolation, not worrying how they would survive or about the future facing their children.

Families often remained silent in the face of these great and grave injustices. But silence did not always mean acceptance or acquiescence. It was a shameful time, where shame was transferred unto young and vulnerable women, when the real shame lay with those who exercised control in this way on behalf of all society.

Silently, many sisters, mothers, and to be honest, fathers and brothers too, grieved in their hearts at this harsh judgment, this immoral moralising.

And even today, to speak out about what has happened divides families, communities and societies. A deep, searing division that makes it easy to understand Christ’s apocalyptic warning in the Gospel reading: ‘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’ (Matthew 10: 34-36).

In the history of Judaism and of Christianity, there have been complicated, tortuous efforts to justify Abraham’s gross injustice towards Hagar.

The Apostle Paul makes Hagar’s experience an allegory of the difference between law and grace (see Galatians 4: 21-31). But he is not passing judgment on either Hagar or Sarah; he is simply using them as examples to illustrate a point about law and grace, whether we should live by the letter or live by the spirit of our spiritual and religious values.

Later, Augustine said Hagar symbolises an ‘earthly city,’ or the sinful condition of humanity (see Augustine, City of God 15: 2).

Yet Hagar committed no sin, did nothing wrong, for she only did what Sarah and Abraham had suggested. Certainly, her child Ishmael was innocent beyond doubt when they were both abandoned to seemingly certain death.

Augustine’s view was built on by Thomas Aquinas and by John Wycliffe, who compared the children of Sarah to the redeemed, and those of Hagar to the unredeemed, who are ‘carnal by nature and mere exiles.’

Surely if Hagar was ‘carnal by nature’ then so too were Abraham and Sarah; yet they go without any condemnation.

The rabbis were much kinder when it came to Hagar, and often describe her as Pharaoh’s daughter.

The rabbinic writings (the Midrash Genesis Rabbah) say Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter but that Sarah treated her harshly, imposing heavy work on her and striking her. It sounds like the forced labour conditions imposed on hundreds if not thousands of women in county homes the length and breadth of Ireland from the 1920s on.

Some rabbinical commentators identify Hagar with Keturah, the woman Abraham marries after Sarah’s death, saying Abraham seeks her out after Sarah’s death. One great mediaeval rabbi suggests Hagar is given the name Keturah to signify that her deeds are as beautiful as incense and that she remains chaste from the time she Abraham abandons her until he returns for her.

So even Abraham can get things wrong, and think that when his family puts pressure on him he is listening to the voice of God.

Two of the most boring passages in the Gospels must be the genealogies of Jesus (see Matthew 1: 1-17; Luke 3: 23-38). Archbishop Rowan Williams reminded a conference in Cambridge many years ago (June 2014) that these genealogies tell us that God cares for each generation, including individuals who are marginalised or forgotten, as part of God’s plans for the future.

Both genealogies are almost exclusively male. But, unlike Saint Luke, Saint Matthew includes five women among the ancestors of Jesus. Saint Matthew is anxious to prove the royal ancestry and lineage of Christ, so we might expect his choice of women to include queens, princesses, or the daughters of mighty warriors or great prophets. Instead, he names five women on the margins of society. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary are seen as prostitutes, foreigners, adulterers or single mothers – certainly not the sort of women one might want to boast about in a family tree in some Biblical version of Burke’s Peerage or Burke’s Landed Gentry.

But Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary challenge the Jewish restrictions on marriage to Gentiles, on socially acceptable marriages and the very definition of Jewish-ness which depends on a mother’s Jewish identity. By those definitions, Perez, Boaz, or Solomon, or for that matter David and the whole line of kings of Israel and Judah could never be acceptable.

God still looks lovingly on the women we would push aside and marginalise in our families and in our society. God ignores the moralising, narrow-minded judgmentalism of society, of the religious authorities of our day, or even in our own families.

Hagar, when she is abandoned in the wilderness and when the water she is left with dries up, expects her child to die, and even begins to mourn his death. Like many unmarried mothers in Ireland must have done, she lifts up her voice and weeps, crying out: ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child’ (verse 16).

But God, not Abraham, is the model of the loving, caring father. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?’ Christ asks rhetorically in the Gospel reading, and then answers, ‘you are of more value than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10: 29-30).

God sees these two, cast away like two sparrows sold for a penny. God hears the voice of the boy; and the angel of God asks his abandoned mother: ‘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 opens her eyes, and she sees a well of water. She fetches fresh water, and gives the child a drink. She realises now, in that almost baptismal-like moment, that God is with the boy (verses 17-20).

Hagar thirsts not just for water but for justice, truth and mercy. Her parallel in the New Testament is not Mary Magdalene, for there is not a shred of evidence to identify Mary Magdalene with a prostitute or the woman about to be stoned for adultery. Indeed, the Magdalene laundries are not only a shameful blot on our history but, ironically, they were misnamed.

Hagar’s parallel in the Gospels is the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar (John 4: 5-42), who is also seen as living an immoral life. While the disciples refuse to engage with her or to talk with her, Christ reveals himself to her as the Living Water. In yet another baptismal-like moment, she comes to a fullness of faith and becomes one of the first great missionaries.

How is God working through the horrific narrative of the abandoned mothers and the babies left to die from malnutrition and curable diseases, the unloved women used as slave labour in the Magdalene laundries, Mother and Baby Homes and County Homes across this land, even in my own lifetime, in my generation?

The voice of the Church needs to be heard – not defensively, but speaking out for them. We may have abandoned them as a society, but God never abandons them.

We may have misread the Bible to provide justification for society’s sins, but God never sees them as sinners. And the whole Church, irrespective of denominational boundaries, must speak with one voice saying this was never God’s judgment on these women. This was wrong, it always was, and always will be.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Whoever does not take the cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10: 38) … the Byzantine-style crucifix by Laurence King (1907-1981) in the crypt of Saint Mary le Bow on Cheapside in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 10: 24-39 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 24 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 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!

26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 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. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 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;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 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; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

‘Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10: 37) … Station 5 in the Chapel at Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary time, Year A)

The Collect of the Day:

Lord, you have taught us
that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
Send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Loving Father,
we thank you for feeding us at the supper of your Son.
Sustain us with your Spirit,
that we may serve you here on earth
until our joy is complete in heaven,
and we share in the eternal banquet
with Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Ibrahim/Abraham/Avraham’ by Stephen Raw in the ‘Holy Writ’ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral in 2014, bringing together the traditions of the Abrahamic faiths (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


323, The God of Abraham praise
108, Praise to the Holiest in the height
620, O Lord, hear my prayer
599, ‘Take up thy cross’, the Saviour said

‘Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10: 37) … Christ is given his cross, a fresco in Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? … you are of more value than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10: 29-30) … old pennies on a table in a bar in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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