One day, in order to get a class discussion going, sociology professor Tony Campolo asked his students what some of the world’s great religious leaders might have said about prostitution. The discussion was lively and intense. He was setting up the class to evangelize, and when he felt that the time was ripe, he asked what seemed to be the crucial question, “What do you suppose Jesus would have said to a prostitute?”
He was all primed to point out to the class the compassion and understanding which Jesus had for the colorful women of the night. He was all set to do his best to make Jesus look greater than all the great religious leaders put together. Once again he asked, “What do you think Jesus would have said to a prostitute?”
One of his students answered, “Jesus never met a prostitute.” He jumped at the opening. He would show this guy a thing or two about Jesus and about the New Testament. “Yes he did,” he responded. “I’ll show you in my Bible where….”
The young man interrupted him. “You didn’t hear me Doctor. I said, ‘Jesus never met a prostitute’.”
Once again Campolo protested. Once again he reached for his New Testament. He started to leaf through its pages searching for those passages, which showed Jesus forgiving the fallen women. He searched for the place where he gave the woman at the well a chance for spiritual renewal.
Once again the student, who was Jewish, spoke out, this time with a touch of anger in his raised voice. “You re not listening to what I am saying. I am saying that Jesus never met a prostitute. Do you think that when he looked at Mary Magdalene he saw a prostitute? Do you think he saw whores when he looked at women like her? Doctor, listen to me! Jesus never met a prostitute!”
Campolo fell silent. He was being corrected by a Jewish student who, in some ways, may have understood Jesus better than some of us who go by the name Christian. (The preceding illustration was provided by The Rev Fred Demaray and published in Aha!, Wood Lake Books)
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I love this story because it reminds me that one of the most notable characteristics of Jesus was the fact that he paid special attention to the outcasts of his society.
Most people feared the lepers and insisted that they stay far away from them and announce their presence by shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” But Jesus welcomed them and even touched them. While most people hated the tax collectors, Jesus invited Matthew to be one of the twelve disciples and stopped a parade under Zacchaeus’ tree so that he could go have dinner at his house. While everyone looked down upon the prostitutes, Jesus welcomed them and cared for them. When the woman was taken in the act of adultery and all the religious leaders stood in a circle around her pointing condemning fingers at her, Jesus looked on her with compassion and said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Everywhere we turn in the New Testament, we find Jesus looking for the outcasts of society and welcoming them into his presence. And Jesus is always easier on those who have fallen into sin than he was on those filled with pride and eager to condemn those with sins more visible than theirs.
Until I looked closely at today’s text, I would have assumed that the New Testament revealed something new about God in these actions of Jesus. But as I looked at our story for today, I realized that God always showed himself as the God of the outcasts.
Our impression of the Old Testament is that God was busy selecting the people of Israel as his chosen and special ones, and rejecting everybody else. We almost get the picture of a fraternity-God who blackballs certain people and tribes just because they were not the Chosen Ones. Cain’s offering is not accepted, but Abel’s is. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt just because she looked back at Sodom. Noah and his family were exclusively selected to survive the great flood. Israel was chosen but not the other tribes of the world. Isaac was chosen but not Ishmael.
But today’s scripture shows a picture more consistent with the actions of Jesus in the New Testament. While God may have had a chosen people and his preferred plan, God is also the God of the outcasts.
In our story, we focus on Hagar who is an Egyptian slave girl who is unwittingly brought into the drama of the story. She is chosen like a brood mare and given to Abraham so that she can provide barren Sarah with a child by proxy.
Today with modern technology, people attempt the same kinds of thing by using artificial insemination and surrogate mothers. Many of today’s stories turn out just as complicated as this one does.
It’s an ugly scene. Neither Sarah nor Abraham come off as the noble characters we like to make them out to be. Instead, they seem a lot like us – impatient with God. At Sarah’s suggestion, they decide to take the inheritance matter into their own hand. God had promised descendants, but none were forthcoming. So Sarah sends Hagar, her handmaid, in to lie with Abraham and produce an offspring. Like most of our mistakes, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But the consequences erupted out of control.
We have to speculate a bit to understand the true complications of the relationships. Abraham might have enjoyed Hagar’s presence just a little too much. Sarah becomes an outraged, jealous wife. Hagar lets her fertility go to her head and starts making snide remarks about Sarah’s infertility. Every time Abraham dotes on his only son, Ishmael, Sarah fumes with jealousy. Finally, in their old age, God grants a child to Sarah, the one she names Isaac, which means “laughter.”
Instead of easing the complicated relationships, they get worse. One day the whole sordid matter came to a fiery head when Sarah observes Ishmael playing with the much younger Isaac. I prefer to interpret this act as innocent playfulness, but some scholars have looked carefully at the Hebrew language and Sarah’s extreme reaction and concluded that there was sexual misconduct between the teenaged Ishmael and the preschool-aged Isaac. Whatever happened, Sarah saw Ishmael as Isaac’s competitor for the promises of God. And suddenly, she insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert.
Sarah’s disdain for the fertile slave girl is shown in the fact that she never refers to Ishmael or to Hagar by name. She says, “Banish the son of this slave girl.” Sarah refers both to Ishmael and to Hagar only by social status.
Abraham was understandably hesitant. Like any parent, he loved both his sons, and he probably cared deeply for Hagar as well. But Abraham finally relents when he gets a special word from God that Hagar and Ishmael will be taken care of by God.
Hagar and Ishmael are sent forth to wander in the wilderness of Beer-sheba until their meager provisions are exhausted. Racked with thirst, she casts her child under a bush and sits down a bowshot away so that she will not see him die.
And here God shows that he is not only with the Isaac/Israel lineage. God demonstrates his Divine care and mercy for those who are outside the special Covenant relation in two ways.
First, the angel of God informs Hagar that God has heard the child’s cry, and that she should arise and take the child’s hand, for “I will make him a great nation” (21:18).
And secondly, Hagar’s eyes are opened so that she sees a well of water nearby from which she and her child may drink. Ishmael grows up under divine protection, becomes an expert bowman, marries an Egyptian woman, has twelve children and becomes the father of a great nation himself just as God promised. Ultimately all of those who follow Islam would trace their heritage back to Abraham through Ishmael.
Once again, there are lots of lessons to learn, but I can’t help but notice that these early stories in the Bible demonstrate that the people of the 1990’s were not the first to suffer through dysfunctional families. We love to say that the world has changed too much, and we yearn for those good old days in the past, way back in the fifties, when things were so much better. It’s so easy to paint a rosy picture of times gone by, but the truth is people have struggled with many of the same problems since the very beginning of humankind.
This is a heart-wrenching story because it’s our story. When we read it, we find ourselves holding on to our chairs, trying not to run away. We realize it’s not just about our ancestors; it’s about the mixed family that so many of us experience now – first wife, second wife, surrogate parenthood, children, conflict. This story rings with a contemporary flavor with blended families who talk about “your kids,” “my kids,” and “our kids.” Poor Hagar may have been the first to have to make a special name for the man who should have been simply her husband. Like so many today she makes reference to “the father of my children.” Here we find what was perhaps the first single mother thrown out to survive on her own. It’s the story of a boy who becomes alienated from his father. Yes, it’s a painfully modern story.
Bill Moyers makes the following observation about this passage in his book based on the TV show in which he gathered a variety of scholars to discuss the book of Genesis:
“Sometimes the details of the stories we are discussing from Genesis sound like pulp fiction. In this one we come to the first triangle: Two women share the bed of the same man. The squabbling gets mean. Everybody gets hurt. The stuff of a cheap novel and a fast read. But peel back the layers and the Bible is Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Faulkner. The themes in this story are deep and painful – a woman’s infertility, surrogate motherhood, class differences, and the price human beings pay for God’s will to be done. And something else: This triangle does set off fireworks, and by the dawn’s early light Judaism and Islam go their separate ways.”
Because it is our story, there is probably someone here saying, “I don’t feel chosen; I feel rejected, lost, bereft; I identify with this poor forsaken woman and her tears and her dying child?”
That’s why the text suddenly takes this detour, leaving the history of the chosen ones to follow the lost and the outcasts. The God who chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of all the tribes and peoples of the earth.
The God who saw the burdens and heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the God who came down to save them with a mighty hand, is the same God who sees the outcast child under the bush in the desert, hears his mother weeping, and tenderly brings them to water and promises that they too are highly regarded by God.
The message is not just about nations and tribes; it’s about people, about individuals, about us. When all have forsaken and forgotten us, when life has passed us by and all around us is a desert, and our dreams are over there dying under a bush. That’s when we need to remember this old story. We need to know that God sees the tears of an outcast woman and an abandoned child. We need to know that God hears us even when we feel godforsaken.
Fred Craddock tells of the time he and his wife slipped away to the mountains for a few days of relaxation. As they sat in a little restaurant, they saw a man going from table to table greeting diners. Eventually he made his way to the Craddock’s table and, learning that Fred was a minister, he insisted on telling them his story.
The man said he had been born just a few miles from that spot, across the mountain. His mother had not been married when he was born, and the criticism directed at her also hit him. His schoolmates learned from their parents how to ridicule, and the boy learned to stay to himself at lunch and recess, lest their insults strike too hard. Even more difficult were trips to town with his mother when he could feel the looks and the shaking of heads, and he heard the question, “I wonder who his father is?”
When he was about twelve, a new pastor came to the little community church. People talked about his skill as a preacher, and the boy began to go hear for himself. He was fascinated by the preacher, but he was always careful to slip in late, sit in the back and leave early, lest someone catch him and ask, “What’s a boy like you doing here?”
One Sunday, though, he was so caught up in the service that he forgot to slip out before it was over. Suddenly he felt a big hand on his shoulder, and as he turned around he saw the face of that preacher. The preacher said, “Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?” His young heart sank at the question, but then the preacher went on: “Wait a minute. I know who you are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. You are a child of God!” And with that he patted the boy on the back and added, “Boy, that’s quite an inheritance. Go and claim it.”
As the boy changed to manhood in that restaurant, the old man said to Fred and his wife, “That one statement literally changed my whole life.” He explained that his name was Ben Hooper and he had twice been elected governor of the state of Tennessee. His had been a successful and respected life, made possible by a small-town minister who cared enough to encourage a little boy.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 1999, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.