Cut Cleanly to the Light

Genesis 21:8-21

Psalm Ps 86:1-10, 16-17

Romans 6:1-11

Matthew 10:24-39

25th June, 2023

                                                                     ©Allana Wales

“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” These words from Jesus are part of the twin threads of sent, and of being seen, both of which are held up to the light in the Missionary discourse of the Gospel of Matthew and in the deeply disturbing Genesis account of Hagar and her son Ishmael. In these readings we are invited to look at the systemic patterns of brokenness and violence, and to see what God sees.

In the narrative from Genesis, the naming of names tells us important things about systems of subjugation. We are reminded that the Hebrew meaning of HaGar is “the foreigner”, “the alien”, “the sojourner.” Wilda C. Gafney contends that this is not the name an Egyptian mother would have given her child, and marks this naming as an indication of alienation.[1] The relationships that surround Hagar are integral to her story.

When Abraham and Sarah enter Egypt they agree to conceal Sarah’s identity in order to protect Abraham’s life. When the deception comes to light the pair are sent from the city. When Sarah is unable to conceive a child for Abraham, Sarah offers Abraham her slave-girl, Hagar. Hagar conceives, and “looks with contempt on her mistress.” The child’s name is Ishmael. After all these events, Sarah and Abraham are indeed given a son, Isaac, but what is clear is that both Sarah’s integrity and the costly gift of childbirth are things that have been pulled into desperation: preserving Abraham’s life, and preserving of the line of Abraham. As such, perhaps Sarah seeks Hagar’s dishonour in the same way.[2] The questions of worth, of currency and of ownership are visited again and again, and contempt is fuelled.

You will have heard in Genesis the subtly similar variation of names for Abraham and Sarah. Their names are changed with the promise of being bearers of children, of families, and of nations. The tragedy of disrespect in this story is that Ishmael and Isaac, inheritors of future nations, are also inheritors of all that has gone before. What is it that these women must have pushed through their hearts in order to live in a world in which their progeny determine their value? Sarah orders Hagar away, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 

Hagar and Ishmael are cast out.

The water that Abraham sends with them has run out.

They have been sent to death.

What is the sword which will cut cleanly through this suffering?

The proclamation from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is part of a larger arc of what is known  as the Missionary discourse, sending the disciples to learn in the world, to learn about the sword that is wielded in response to the coming of the Messiah. This is the response to the disciples proclaiming their faith in an unhearing and hurtful world.[3] This is the context into which Jesus speaks. In the Greek, the verb for bringing this peace is more akin to “throwing” something than bestowing.

What has been opened up to God is Hagar’s desolation. These echos of being asked to witness the death of her child have strange echos in a future where very same friends of Jesus would have to decide whether the will stay and watch their teacher die. This is the very same Jesus who has cut cleanly to the light the inhumanity of dissension, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. This is same son of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who must watch her son die.

How can we see what God sees? We are asked to come alongside Hagar, sent, waiting, watching, in extremis. The distance of a bowshot, she sits, as if she will be executed by the death of her child. Just far enough away to know the agony, but far enough to live in the knowledge of it. God sees. God has seen the sun and the dust and the wasteland between the untethered mother and child. “Do not be afraid.” Hagar and Ishmael live.

How might we traverse the ground between us and what will perish, and nurture it to live?

If the result of the proclamation of good news in this fearful world is to divide mother from daughter, and father from son, how will we come alongside each other to see what God sees?

We may not know this same desperation, but we may know something of being untethered, or of being sent away, or of loving someone we wish to protect. We may know something of what it means to receive the love of a God who knows the deep courage inside of us. May we be reminded that this God will always travel the long way around to find us. May our human-ness traverse our familiar grounds of conversation, of recognition, and of coming alongside. The God who sees every ounce of value that each creature holds on the earth also hears each truth that is told in the light. We are sent as disciples, as learners, to hear truths we may not yet know. If we were to sit down in the desert next to Hagar and look over that distance with her, we would see what she sees. We would see just what she has lost, and what she is at pains to keep sacred.

Gafney uses her sublime imagination to hold Hagar up to this light, in a burial for a woman whose suffering was seen by God. In borrowing from the funeral passages of Genesis, she imagines this deep recognition of the end of Hagar’s life. You will not find this celebration in Scripture, but you will find it here:

And Hagar lived one hundred-seventy years; this was the length of Hagar’s life. Hagar breathed her last and died in a good old age, an old woman and full of years, and was gathered to her people. Hagar died at Heliopolis in the land of Egypt; and Yishmael her son went in to mourn for Hagar and weep for her. And Hagar’s daughters and sons from the man she chose for herself mourned with Yishmael and his daughter Mahalat. After this, Yishmael had his mother embalmed and mummified and placed Hagar his mother in a sarcophagus in a tomb in Heliopolis in the land of the Nile. The tomb and the land that is around it passed through the generations of the Hagrites as a burying place. There Hagar was buried, with her man.[4]

These times of outright certainty in the East African country of Uganda which would pass a bill to deal the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”[5] is something that divides, that forces away, that gravely overlooks the consensual, mature relationships that make us beloved and human. What would we see if we came alongside such a person named by this law and looked at the wasteland with them? What would the God, who names and loves, see?

May we move into this time as learners and hearers of truth, sent into a world that seeks to divide, to un-see, and to avoid the deeply uncomfortable results of systemic dispute. What are the truths that are broken open, and told in the light? We are sent to learn, and to be the response to the merciful and deeply God-given witness in others.

As we bear witness to relationships that bring light and spill goodness onto communal and corporate life, may we be the ones to learn about different relationships. May we recognise clearly relationships which show belonging, love and protection. Laws which seek to divide and send to death are what may be held cleanly up to the light, for the sword of awareness. We cannot un-hear, or un-see, if we are human. What we read in Scripture is from a different time, but the same God abides. May we walk gently alongside each other. May we listen for the truths we do not yet know, and have courage to receive the gifts of our inherited compassion.


[1] Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 36.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Lewis R. Donelson, “Matthew 10:34-39” in Feasting on the Gospels, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, Matthew, vol. 1, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 273.

[4] Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 45.

[5] Rachel Savage, “Uganda enacts law imposing death penalty for LGBTQ ‘serial offenders’.”