By Michael Fitzpatrick
A Reading from Galatians 4:21-31
21 Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by an enslaved woman and the other by a free woman. 23 One, the child of the enslaved woman, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. 24 Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. 27 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.”
28 Now you, my brothers and sisters, are children of the promise, like Isaac. 29 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. 30 But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the enslaved woman and her child, for the child of the enslaved woman will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” 31 So then, brothers and sisters, we are children, not of an enslaved woman but of the free woman.
Liberation from slavery is the overarching metaphor of the entire Bible, with the central event in the Hebrew Scriptures being God’s deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from captivity in Egypt. St. Paul draws a parallel in his epistles, contending that Christ’s death and resurrection are deliverance from the slavery of sin that holds all people captive.
In Galatians 4, St. Paul has already been reminding the church community at Galatia that they were slaves to the inferior powers of this world, admonishing them not to become slaves all over again. This is the meaning of his pointed remark about “you who want to be under the law.” So he draws upon his tradition to tell them a story, about a free woman and a slave woman, and how the son of the free woman is the one who receives the inheritance. To follow Christ is to be children of the free woman, not the slave woman.
We must not lose ultimate point here that Christ is about freedom from slavery. So we can press St. Paul for more on his figurative reading of the story of Sarah and Hagar. For it was not God that St. Paul is quoting in v. 30, but a jealous slave-owner who wishes to supplant Hagar’s son with her own. God’s response is to declare to Abraham that both children will be blessed. And when Hagar and Ishmael are left to die in the wilderness, God has compassion on them both and rescues them, and “God was with the boy as he grew up” (Gen. 21:20).
The promise of Christ is indeed to become a child of the promises of God. But the work of God is also that both sons, Isaac and Ishmael, might be in the end be said to be sons of “free women.”
Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in philosophy at Stanford University. He attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Calif., where he serves as a lay preacher and teacher.
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