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Lectionary Living

Laughter Lost

June 21: Genesis 21:8-21 and Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17  •  Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18  •  Romans 6:1b-11  •  Matthew 10:24-39

    As today's Genesis reading begins, Sarah had just had a son, Isaac, which means he laughs. The bitter laughter of last week's reading, the nonsensical idea of having a child in her old age, was replaced by the true joy of a new baby. In those early months of Isaac's life, Abraham and Sarah would have been watching him closely, and laughing, as each small grin grew into a smile.

    And yet already, laughter is lost as intense worry creeps back into the story. Now, Sarah is upset that Abraham's son Ishmael might share in her son's inheritance. Never mind that Ishmael is the child she had arranged for her slave Hagar to have with her husband, and the child now playing with Isaac. It is to the eternal credit of the scriptures that these stories (in Genesis 16 and 21), casting both Sarah and Abraham in a negative light, were recorded for us to consider. What happens next is almost too difficult to contemplate. Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out into the wilderness, an act meaning almost certain death for the child and his mother, alone in a harsh environment: a fact they all – Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham – must have understood.

    In the story, God intervenes, first reassuring Abraham, next speaking through an angel to Hagar, and then providing for her and Ishmael. Putting all this fancy footwork aside, though, let's return to the point where all three players understood what was at stake, and the choices that were about to be made. Although an extreme case, these decisions are not unusual in life. Often, family resources and attention are unequally distributed; spouses and children can be treated as expendable outcasts.

    Three questions come to my mind. First, what was Abraham thinking, casting out his first son? Second, what happened to Sarah, who – at least in her own narrative – was going to be happy, once she had the child she had longed for? And third, what happened to both of them, thinking that Isaac was better off without a brother?

    Taking the third question first: Playing together gives children lessons like how to stand up for themselves, how to share, and how to have fun. Big brothers, however, can be big teases, possibly upsetting to both the father and the first-time mother of a precious son of their old age. Next, they started worrying about Isaac having to share his inheritance with Ishmael someday. Pushing Hagar and Ishmael away – distancing and cutting off from them – probably calmed the parents down for a while, although the story's worried focus on their son would (spoiler alert!) continue. 

    Sarah, for her part, had woven quite a story for herself: if only I had a child, then I could be happy. What happened after the child was born was quite different – a continued anxious unhappiness, focused on the presence of another child she saw as threatening to her son. The if only narrative is the trap of helplessness and immaturity. Seeking maturity involves thinking about one's own purpose in life. For Sarah, many years earlier, her emotional desire for a child might have led her to a more mature intention of kindness towards all the children in her world, including the son of her slave.

    Abraham, for his part, also seems immature for his ripe old age, choosing to cut-off from Hagar and Ishmael rather than dealing with the emotional reactivity stirred by their presence. He simply could not think it through. If Abraham had a thoughtful principle that all his partners and progeny mattered, he might have found another solution besides banishing one set from the camp. For both Abraham and Sarah, maturity would involve seeing their responsibility to a branch of the family that they had, after all, arranged to create, and to live accordingly, respecting the dignity of every human being.

Reflections

Morning: What are my responsibilities for myself? To others? What are my own principles for living?

Evening: When did I distance or cut-off from another? How can I stay in touch while managing my own emotions? When was I at my most mature today? My least?

Psalm 69:14 Rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.

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