Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.” Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.Galatians 4:21-31
Wow. At first reading this makes my head spin. What do these two women have to do with the Law? At first I got caught up in the place names, and the comparisons to other places, wondering what might be going on. But it seems to be much more simple than all of that. Men in those days might have had children from their slave women, but those children were never brought in to the will, the inheritance. In this case, those children born of slave women would never have the inheritance that Isaac would have, because they were not part of God’s promise to Abraham. That promise was to come through Isaac. And, Paul alludes to this when he says, “Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children … for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the one who is married.” Sara was barren until the promise of God came to her that she would be the “mother of nations.” And the promise came to be.
But imagine what Sara must have gone though all those years of being childless while wanting a child. Or, later, of seeing Abraham have a child with her servant Hagar. We know she was upset, because the bible tells us that she treated Hagar harshly 1 – jealous, most likely, at Hagar’s good fortune of fertility. Even later, when she herself gives birth to Isaac – through whom God’s promise was to come – she again treats Hagar harshly; this time probably not from jealousy, but more likely fear that Ishmael would try to usurp Isaac’s rights, or even kill him 2. Obviously, we can only speculate at her intentions based on what the scripture tells us, but the end result is that Ishmael is kicked out of Abraham’s group of people.
These speculations on what Sara might have been thinking come from my experience of being in ministry, and watching others in ministry. There are times where our ministries and lives seem to be spiritually barren, where nothing quite seems to go as expected, even though we believe with all our might that God has brought us to that place. And yet, despite our work, our ministries and lives seem to bear no fruit. Meanwhile, others seem to enjoy the fruits of God’s blessings, their ministries flourish for no apparent reason, and they are gifted with God’s promise of abundant ministry. Being human, we often tend toward anger, bitterness, and maybe even mockery, instead of rejoicing that God is accomplishing work in the world in partnership with others.
What’s even more odd, is that often when ministry does take off, when God’s blessing seems to rest with our work in partnership with God, then when we see someone else who might infringe up on “our” work, we often enter into the same anger, bitterness, and mockery. I’ve seen it happen where a new pastor at a church has demolished the work of others – good work, bearing fruits within the community – simply because they feared that the others would take the spotlight, or take over their own ministry. Those people were, in every sense of the word, banished from the community, simply because the new pastor feared their work.
It is good to remember, though, that Paul is simply giving us another example of how we are related to God’s work in this world. We have received a promise through our belief in Christ, and that belief frees us up from being slaves to rules and regulations to being free to relish in the promise and live our lives according to the joy that comes with a promise of that magnitude, rather than in the fear of retribution for failing to keep all the rules. Also, we’re not an only child; we are children of the promise, which means that everyone who believes shares that promise. Just because one’s work is bearing fruit at this time does not mean that we will miss out on the promise; we’re all going to get the same, regardless of how mundane or fantastic our ministries or lives are here on this earth. That alone should be a freeing thought.
- Genesis 16:4-6
- Genesis 21:9 and Genesis 25
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He will attend Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022.