Genesis 16-18, Psalm 6, Matthew 6
Genesis 16 – 18
Because she could not give birth to a child, Sarai did what was permissible in ancient Jewish society. She let Hagar, her servant, have sexual relations with her husband and become pregnant. The child that Hagar bore would then belong to both Abram and Sarai. Hagar soon looked with contempt upon Sarai, who treated her harshly. So, Hagar fled into the wilderness.
An angel of the Lord visited her by a spring and brought her solace. The Lord instructed her that her son would be called Ishmael. He is said to be the ancestor of all Muslim people, just as Abram and his son Isaac are the spiritual ancestors of the Jewish people.
In chapter 17, we read more about how God will create his Covenant with Abram. First, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Whenever someone’s name is changed in the Bible, it is almost always a sign that they have had a direct encounter with God and a new chapter of their life is about to take place. To this day, monks and nuns change their names after they have taken final vows to enter a monastery or convent as an outward symbol that they have encountered God in a profound way and that their life has changed.
The outward and visible sign of the covenant that God has established with Abraham and the Jewish people will be circumcision. On the eighth day, every male Jewish child is circumcised, a religious practice that has passed down through the centuries to this day. It reminds the Jewish people of the covenant that God “cut” with them. This cut is literally born in the flesh of the male descendants of Abraham and Sarah.
In Genesis 17:21 the Lord explains to Abraham that Sarah will bear a son the following year and that she should name him Isaac, which means “one who laugh.” It is Isaac, not Ishmael, says the Lord, who shall bear the covenant that God has established with Abraham.
In order to give more meaning to this pronouncement, in chapter 18 we read how the Lord appeared again to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. This is one of the famous encounters between God and a human being. This time God comes in the guise of three strangers, who are believed by the Jews to have been angels.
It was customary in Jewish law to offer hospitality to the stranger for in doing so many have entertained angels in disguise. Here Abraham asks Sarah to prepare cakes of choice wheat, while Abraham slays a calf to prepare a meal for them. One of the visitors announces that Sarah will conceive and bear a son the following year.
Overhearing the conversation, Sarah laughs. From this episode, comes a deeper understanding of the meaning of Isaac as “the son of laughter.” When asked why she laughed despite her old age and the seemingly improbability of her being able to become pregnant, the angel of the Lord said, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14)
Our focus is then turned to the plight of Sodom and Gomorrah, where we are told that grave sin has occurred. The three angels of the Lord are headed in that direction. When Abraham learns of God’s intent to destroy both cities as punishment for their sin, he addresses God. What follows is the longest conversation between God and a human in the Bible. Abraham, like a master negotiator, secures a bargain with God that if ten righteous men are found in the city, God will not destroy it.
Psalm 6 is a true “lament,” which is one of the major forms of the psalms. Other forms include enthronement psalms, royal psalm, psalms of thanksgiving and praise and psalms of penitence. This is said to be a prayer for recovery from a grave illness. People undergoing suffering and loss can resonate profoundly with these words.
The author calls upon God to “save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.” (Ps. 6:4). The word steadfast is a translation of the Jewish word hesed, which means the kind of love that is necessary for keeping a covenant. It is a tenacious love that hangs on at all cost to maintaining a commitment. It is the kind of love that we need to honor our marriage partner and our family and to maintain the loyalties that we create.
We discover the word “Sheol” in verse 5, which refers to what the ancient Jews believed was a shadowy afterworld, where people would inhabit following death. Ancient Judaism held several beliefs about what would happen after a person died. One belief was that they would dwell in Sheol. Another is that they would lie in their graves on the Mount of Olives until the Messiah entered Jerusalem walking the Good Friday path that Jesus used. When the Messiah passed by they would rise from their graves.
Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6. It is considered the most important address that Jesus ever gave and the most famous religious speech in history. For this reason, it is wise to read it over several times. (Matt. 6-8) Scholars believe that rather than being a single sermon that Jesus preached in its entirety, this sermon is actually a compilation of Jesus’ greatest teachings.
Throughout this discourse, we find profound sayings that can easily be applied to our daily life. Jesus offers clear instructions about almsgiving, which is to be done privately and not for public display. Fasting is similarly to be done in secret and not to elicit the admiration or praise of others.
Jesus instructs his disciples regarding prayer. He urges them not to pray lengthy prayers, noting that God understands all that needs to be said before we even open our mouth. Jesus then offers what has become known as the Pater Noster or the Lord’s Prayer as a model for all prayers that humans shall utter. It is not the only prayer that we should offer, but it models for us the basic elements needed to communicate and create a profound relationship with God.
We are invited in this prayer to address God as Father, which in Aramaic is actually Abba. This word may be translated as Daddy. In addressing God with such a term of endearment, Jesus demonstrates the closeness that he shares with God and invites us to share a similar intimate relationship with our Creator.
Jesus consistently teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry for more than this day will bring and not to rely on money or wealth, but to rely upon the grace of God. “You cannot serve God and wealth (or mammon),” notes Jesus, in one of his most famous lines. (Matt. 6:24) He adds, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)
Jesus speaks more about money and material possessions than any other topic except for the Kingdom of God, because he knew that money and possessions are his chief rival for claiming the human heart. As we free ourselves from reliance on money and objects, we liberate ourselves to love and serve God. It is remarkable how we can serve and follow God, if we do not need to earn a princely salary.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth not rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)
Read slowly and meditatively. If you have to break the days reading into parts and read it over the course of day that is fine. If you cannot complete the day’s reading, that, too, is fine. The important thing is to read a portion of the Bible each day in a prayerful and meditative manner. Over time, this will bear great fruit in your life.
Are your surprised by some of Jesus’ teachings? What did you not expect to hear from Jesus? What teaching seems most important for you to apply to your life today?
Loving and Generous God, we bow before you in humility as earthen vessels that are misshaped. Help restore us to your image and to your service. We are imperfect, and we rely upon your grace. Help perfect us each day so that what we say and do might be pleasing to you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie