Scripture Readings: Genesis 21:8–21 | Psalm 86 | Romans 6:1–11 | 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.” (Matthew 10:24-25).
Few practices seem as obviously evil to us today than slavery.
And yet, for most of human history, slavery was simply a given. It was the status quo. In the ancient world, one could become a slave in several ways: one could be born a slave, or become one through being defeated in war, or being abducted… or as a legal punishment for a crime. Or one could end up sold into slavery in order to pay off debts. But whatever the cause for individuals becoming enslaved, the practice of slavery shaped the world as we know it.
Basically every ancient civilization that we still tend to admire for their achievements and success was built on the backs of slave labour… exploiting the lives of our fellow human beings, oppressed and forced to serve others against their will. And tragically, though we usually tend to think about slavery as a thing of the past, it’s cruel reality continues to shape our world today.
Though it’s officially illegal, modern day practices of slavery are everywhere, and people continue to exploit and oppress those who are vulnerable in all sorts of ways. Think of the abusive labour conditions that help produce so much of the consumer goods we enjoy, or the engrained prejudices and systemic racism that keep on perpetuating generational poverty. Or the truly heinous human trafficking and sex-slavery that’s going on in society’s shadows, preying especially on young women and children, to feed dehumanizing desires.
Sadly, slavery is very much alive in our world today. The world you and I are called to serve, care for, and protect.
Back in the beginning of the Bible, in the first Chapters of Genesis, we are told that humans were all made in God’s own image, and we were supposed to be partners together with God, to care for His good creation… but after the Fall, we turned against each other… and started seeking to dominate and rule over one another.
And so, when we see slavery at work in all its forms, we see the fruit of human evil: the distortion and corruption of God’s gift of life.
But if slavery is so evil, why doesn’t God do more to protect slaves in the story of Scripture? Why does He not do more for folks like Hagar and Ishmael, for those who are vulnerable, exploited, and oppressed? And if we’re to follow God’s lead… what does all this have to tell us about our responsibility to our neighbours today?
Wrapped up with these important questions is our understanding of who the Living God truly is, and what it means for us to love this God, and to love all of our neighbours as well. And I can think of no better place to seek to understand these things than in the pages of Holy Scripture: which is where we encounter the story of God’s dealings with Hagar and Ishmael… Sarah’s Egyptian slave, and Abraham’s firstborn son born to Hagar… both of whom were cast away and forsaken by none other than God’s chosen couple.
Before we dig into the story though, there’s something that needs to be said: Just because God chose to bring His blessing through Abraham and Sarah does not mean that everything they do is in line with God and His holy ways!
Sometimes we assume that the characters we read about in the Bible are all supposed to be spiritual heroes and models of proper morality. But that’s not the case at all! Most often, the characters God interacts with in Scripture are the prime examples of people who get things completely wrong… those who go completely off course… and yet, time and again, the Living God continues to work with these messed up people in order to bring new life out of the destruction we humans have created.
In short, the Bible, is not about people who do what is right… it’s about how God keeps bringing His blessings out of our wreckage. Turning even our worst failures and faults into fertile ground for His new life to grow.
Now this is not the same thing as saying that God caused these evils in the first place. Or that God wanted them to happen… that God makes people do horrible things so that something better might come about.
Some Christians teach these kinds of things. But I can’t. And I believe that to do so takes the story of our Saviour… of who the Living God has always shown Himself to be, and drags it right through the mud, completely missing the point of who God is, and what He is up to in our world.
So, let’s look a bit closer at the story of Hagar and Ishmael, a story that finds it’s beginning in the lack of faith of Abraham and Sarah… and see what it has to shows us about the kind of heart God has for the oppressed, and what that means for Christians like you and I today.
Back in Genesis Chapter 12, God had promised to Abraham that, despite his old age and the fact that Abraham and Sarah his wife had not been able to have children, that he would become the father of nations, and that through his descendants, God’s great blessing would flow into the world. God’s gracious gift of this miracle was to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was the LORD’s own hand at work bringing His healing touch to our broken world.
But in the face of what seemed like the sheer impossibility of the hope God had offered to them… rather than believing… than trusting God to do what He had promised, Abraham and Sarah came up with their own plan to bring about a family: Sarah would use her Egyptian slave, a woman named Hagar, to get a son for her husband. You can read all about this turn of events in Genesis Chapter 16.
Long story short, their plan ended up with Abraham sleeping with Hagar, and she became pregnant. Hagar had been treated as a tool to get what they wanted, and nothing more. An expendable instrument to bring about their own desires… which they thought God would be on board with! They used Hagar’s body, and she gave birth to a son, Abraham’s firstborn… named Ishmael.
But this was not the plan that God had for Abraham’s family. That was not the kind of gift that He had in store. It may have seemed good in their own eyes at the time, like sin so often does… but their selfish abuse of Hagar would serve to create more and more conflict instead of peace.
And yet… instead of just giving up on this messed up couple… God does something surprising: He re-affirms His promise to Abraham, and even explicitly says that Sarah will bear him the promised son… not because they somehow deserved it… but because that’s what it would take to bring God’s great rescue plan for all the world to life.
And so, in time Abraham and Sarah bear a son, Isaac… but only because the Living God is gracious… giving us humans far more than we deserve… and He longs to bring His salvation to all the oppressed of the earth, including those that Abraham and Sarah have had a hand in oppressing.
But in the midst of the story, that saving purpose is not all that clear. At times, it even seems like God doesn’t care all that much what happens to Hagar and her child, like when God tells Abraham to let Ishmael and Hagar go, like Sarah demanded… essentially sending them off to die alone in the wilderness.
But we know God hears the cries of those who are oppressed, and He sees the pain that we humans cause one another… the callous indifference we show, instead of compassion and love. And as the story goes on, God shows His compassion to Hagar, precisely when all hope seemed lost. (Genesis 21:17-19).
“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.”
In that moment, God provided water for them in the wilderness… but much more than that, God saves them from their bondage to Abraham and Sarah!
When she saw herself as forsaken and abandoned, God showed Hagar His saving love, and led her into new life… with the promise that Ishmael, would also become a mighty nation… that her family would be blessed by God with a brand new beginning, one they could not have imagine possible.
Now there are many things we could explore and focus on in Hagar’s story, but this is the one we’ll contemplate together today: that God sees and loves the ones who are used, oppressed, and forsaken, even by those who were supposed to bring God’s blessing to the world. God Himself defends them. God sustains them. And God weaves even their painful stories into the tapestry of His salvation.
Of course, this good news goes far beyond the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Like Abraham and Sarah, we know that God’s people have been guilty of causing all sorts of grief and oppression in the world too. We too lose sight of our loving Saviour, and turned back to our old ways of self-centeredness and sin.
As Christians today, we must own up to our share of the responsibility for the broken shape of our world, both in centuries past, and in the present: for the open or hidden support of slavery… and the oppression of our neighbours… whether the reason be religious, racial, political, sexual… or anything else.
Just because we have come to know that the Living God is gracious and doesn’t give up on us, or abandon His promises to us, doesn’t mean that He ignores the wrongs we have done, or forsakes those we have wronged.
No, the New Life of God that Christ Jesus gives to us is meant to break our bondage to these sin-filled ways of being… to set us free from fear, from violence, from selfishness, and from everything that urges us to dehumanize and abuse our neighbours, instead of caring for them as fellow bearers of God’s image.
As St. Paul reminds us in our reading from Romans Chapter 6, following Jesus is meant to be a radical break from these sins that so easily ensnare us.
Romans 6:6-11, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. 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 no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Because of what Jesus Christ has done for us all /at the cross, we no longer need to serve the old ways of sin and death. Through His Holy Spirit at work in us, we are free instead to become like our Master… to share in the life of Jesus Christ, the crucified and Risen Lord.
In order to save the world, Christ Jesus gave Himself over to be abused, rejected, oppressed, and forsaken… becoming one with all those who suffer at the hands of their human neighbours. As the truly righteous one, Jesus gave up His life to God’s own people who crushed Him. Driven by jealously, and fear… they cast out and killed the Firstborn Son of the Most High God.
Like Hagar and Ishmael, Jesus was cast off as unwanted… left to die a cursed death… but it was through the very horrors of the cross that God’s gracious gift of New Life for all came about. And rising again from the grave, Christ broke through the chains of sin and death that kept us all in bondage. Bringing forgiveness, and setting free all who place their faith in Him.
Through Jesus, God’s saving love has turned the story of human destruction into hope for all the world: hope for a whole new way forward, that changes how we see and relate to everyone… especially to the people in our own lives today.
In Jesus, we have a new way to see those who hurt, use, and oppress us: He gives us a freedom from fear, trusting in the Lord who sees all, and who will never forsake us.
As Jesus said in our Gospel reading: …“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 apart from 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.” (Matthew 10:26-31)
We can trust the heart of God that Christ Jesus shows us… even if we must face our own crosses, we know that His saving love will finally set us free.
And just as importantly, Jesus gives us a new way to see those who are oppressed in our world, by ourselves or others:
In Jesus, we are being set free… free to be forgiven, yes… but also free to make amends… to bring help and hope to others… to work to undo the wrongs done by ourselves and others, so that God’s new life can flourish. In other words, we are to become true instruments of righteousness… tools in God’s saving hands, serving Him as He works to set our world back on course.
As St. Paul also reminds us in Romans 6:12-14: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
In Jesus, we are God’s servants, God’s joyful slaves… bound not by cruelty, or by self-centered desires, but by His gracious love, set free to share His saving love, and the freedom it brings to our world.
As Christians today, we are meant to become like our Master, Jesus Christ… the one who joined Himself to the outcasts and the oppressed of the earth, so that God’s redeeming love and compassion might reign forever.
What would it look like for you and I this week to become more like Jesus in this way? To let His Holy Spirit set us free to serve as God’s instrument of righteousness?
As we seek the answers to this question, I’ll conclude with the words of a familiar prayer:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School