Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB
Before we begin to reflect on this morning’s readings, I want you all to know that I did not choose these Scriptures! I did, however, hear two stories recently that make today’s Scriptures a bit clearer for our time, I think.
The first is about an old lady who said to a politician, “Well, sir, I just want you to know that you’re my second choice.” Point: choice is an awesome kind of power. And the politician said, “I’m flattered, Madame, but who’s your first choice?” And the old lady said, “Anybody else who’s running.”
The second story, in the face of Scriptures that appear to be about God’s treachery with Hagar and Jesus’ abandonment of us, comes to us from the second century.
The desert monastics tell the story of Abba John who prayed to God to take his passions away so that he could become free of inner turmoil. “And, in fact,” Abba John reported to his spiritual elder, “I now find myself in total peace.” But the old monastic said to him, “Really? Well, in that case, go and beg God to stir up warfare within you again, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.”
It is, in other words, a dangerous day to go to church. Why?! Because today’s Scriptures call us to spiritual warfare, call us to choose between what is our will for God and what is God’s will for us. Scripture, the rabbis say, is simply the history of God’s multiple attempts to communicate with humanity, to get through to us!
Scripture is not about sanctity; Scripture is about holy warfare. It’s about the voice of God calling to us across the ages to make right choices in the midst of the confusion and the chaos we have managed to create in our starving world, in our conflicted country, and even, at times, in ourselves by our blind plunge into self-interest.
Today’s Scriptures may look old and out of date at first glance. They seem to deal with things that have nothing to do with us. After all, we don’t keep slaves, we don’t do polygamy, we don’t measure women—or men—by the birthing of male heirs. So what could these Scriptures possibly have to say to us today? And all that is true, of course, but, on the other hand, if you look at them again, newly, they are as fresh as this morning’s paper.
Think of it: What we have in these readings is a family in conflict with itself. The family is riven by internal and competing claims. Once apparently loving and stable, this family is now one against the other.
The tribe is being torn apart. It is brother against brother, wife against wife. The very Word of God hangs in the balance. Clearly there are choices to be made here. Big choices, important choices. And Abraham, the patriarch—the one chosen by God to make them—contends he is listening to God but obviously cannot yet be sure to distinguish God’s voice from his own.
Who of us does not recognize a situation like this all too well? You see, everything is very right here—and very wrong—at the same time. Everything is according to Hoyle. All the choices are legal; all of them are socially acceptable.
And everyone in the scene is right. Sarah is right: she could not bear a child—the duty of the righteous woman—so she fulfills her responsibility through her Egyptian maid servant, Hagar, a perfectly legitimate resolution to the problem according to the Semitic law of the time.
And Hagar is right, too. She gives the patriarch an heir, Ishmael, a first-born son—the very future of the family. If only Abraham will recognize the child. And Abraham is right, as well. He is, he says, simply listening to God who tells him to listen to Sarah and “send Hagar out”—the Scripture says euphemistically—meaning out to die in the desert.
But listening to God is one thing. Having the spiritual depth to hear God, to discern the word of God from all the other voices around us and, most of all, within us, is entirely another. We do not, after all, “hear God” at sixteen the way we hear God at thirty-six—or sixty-six. No, we grow into the Word of God. All of us. Slowly.
It takes psychological development, emotional maturity, spiritual effort—and a passel of experience—to hear the voice of God with all its resonance. And more, it takes spiritual warfare to deal with it. But warfare is only beginning in this story.
The truth is that everyone in this story—although right at one level—is also wrong at other levels. Very, very wrong. Sarah, for instance, is jealous. Her Egyptian servant Hagar and Hagar’s son, Ishmael, are staking a claim on Abraham. And Sarah has come to resent it. Sarah fears that Hagar’s position—the position she put her in, incidentally—now threatens her own status and, worse, the status—and inheritance—of Abraham’s next son, Isaac: Sarah’s son, the first-born son of the wife.
Sarah’s motive is not to do the will of God. Sarah’s motive is to see that God does hers. And Hagar, once simply an Egyptian servant, is now the mother of the first-born son. Hagar has come up in the world. And she knows it. And it shows.
Hagar has become both haughty—and ambitious. Her motive is not to preserve the family; her motive is to elevate herself and her son, Ishmael, over Sarah and her son, Isaac. The problem is that there’s no doubt that each of them has a legitimate stake to claim, they each have an argument to be considered, they each have a position to protect.
The fact is that they’re both right and, ironically, they, too, both make choices—choices that seduce them into sin by virtue of their very righteousness.
And Abraham, man of God? Abraham is the perfect example of the rest of us. He is an icon of those who find themselves in service to competing commitments, the eternal Sarahs and Hagars of every life:
Work and family, maybe.
The material and the spiritual, maybe.
Nationalism and globalism, maybe.
God and mammon, maybe.
And all of those are good things, too. The truth is that it’s not difficult to choose between good and bad. That’s obvious; that’s easy. No, what is difficult is to choose between what is good—and what is best. Sarah, in her commitment to Isaac, gives in to jealousy; she chooses for domination. Hagar in her commitment to her new status gives in to ambition; she chooses for self. And Abraham, though Scripture says he grieves about “sending Hagar out,” does send Hagar out, regardless of her innocence, regardless of the child.
Indeed, Abraham gives in, too… To what? To his prejudice against Egyptians? Maybe, of whom his own biracial son is one. Certainly he gives in to his preference for false peace rather than for facing the divisions within himself, rather than for freeing himself of the moral cowardice that stops him from making the choice that is just to both Sarah and Hagar, let alone Ishmael and Isaac.
Indeed, worse, Abraham not only gives in but he blames his choice on God. No doubt about it: This is not a story about sanctity; this is a story about sin that calls upon the law and God to confirm it—as we all so often do. “I was right,” we say. “That’s what the law says,” we say. “I had no choice,” we say. “This is the will of God,” we say about things that clearly deny the will of God, that make a mockery of the life of Jesus.
But today’s gospel belies that kind of moral chicanery. Today’s gospel answers those choices with a non-negotiable challenge: “I have not come to bring peace,” Jesus says. “I have come to bring division.” But don’t be afraid, the gospel also says. I have come to make you make choices on the side of justice and right, of mercy and compassion, of love and self-sacrifice.
It’s clear now: there’s no escaping it. This is a story that calls us to face the divisions in ourselves. To separate ourselves from their seductions. Indeed, “I do not come to bring peace,” Jesus says to us clearly today. I come to bring division. But don’t be afraid, I’ve come to divide you from your worst self. I’ve come to ask you not to do what the world expects; do what I expect. And don’t be afraid. I’m not asking you to do what is easy to do; I’m asking you to do what must be done if the world is ever to be whole, if you are ever to become holy, and don’t ever be afraid.
I’ve come, in other words, to make you face the ruptures in yourself, to forego the jealousies of Sarah, the pride and ambitions of Hagar, the discrimination and delusions of Abraham and to choose, instead, the spirit of God.
Now we understand: Stir up warfare in yourselves, the monastics of the deserts teach, wrestle with the divisions in the self and so reject what divides you from me. The psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp says of it, “the most significant battles in life are the battles waged within the self.”
Indeed, we must face the warring divisions within us, and risk the social divisions that justice demands of us. We must remember always that Abraham was wrong. It was Sarah and Abraham who wanted Hagar sent out. It was not God. God, after all, rescued Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s selfish, sinful hand. Clearly the will of God is not violence and oppression—not racism, sexism, homophobia, ecological devastation, disregard for the poor, and the wholesale barbarism of modern warfare! It is love and care, mercy and justice, community and compassion. For everyone. That is God’s will.
So Jesus comes today to tell us that we must make choices, that we must take sides, we are required to take a stand for what is right, and we must work harder to change what’s wrong.
Why? Because time changes nothing; people do! This is not someone else’s work, the gospel tells us today, this is our work. Here and now. Whatever our status, like Sarah, whatever our social barriers, like Hagar, whatever our age and discomfort, like Abraham, this work is waiting for us to do now.
After all, as the ancients tell us: If you think your work on earth is finished and you’re still alive—it isn’t.
So, like the old lady, choose well, dear friends, choose for anything better than what we’ve got now. And whatever you do,
Don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.