Gospel Reflection for Wednesday, July 5, 2023
Today, our first reading is one of those very difficult stories in the Old Testament to understand. It seems exceedingly unfair.
Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Isaac grew, and on the day of the child's weaning
Abraham held a great feast.
Sarah noticed the son whom Hagar the Egyptian
had borne to Abraham
playing with her son Isaac;
so she demanded of Abraham:
"Drive out that slave and her son!
No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance
with my son Isaac!"
Abraham was greatly distressed,
especially on account of his son Ishmael.
But God said to Abraham: "Do not be distressed about the boy
or about your slave woman.
Heed the demands of Sarah, no matter what she is asking of you;
for it is through Isaac that descendants shall bear your name.
As for the son of the slave woman,
I will make a great nation of him also,
since he too is your offspring."
Early the next morning Abraham got some bread and a skin of water
and gave them to Hagar.
Then, placing the child on her back, he sent her away.
As she roamed aimlessly in the wilderness of Beer-sheba,
the water in the skin was used up.
So she put the child down under a shrub,
and then went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away;
for she said to herself, "Let me not watch to see the child die."
As she sat opposite Ishmael, he began to cry.
God heard the boy's cry,
and God's messenger called to Hagar from heaven:
"What is the matter, Hagar?
Don't be afraid; God has heard the boy's cry in this plight of his.
Arise, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand;
for I will make of him a great nation."
Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.
She went and filled the skin with water, and then let the boy drink.
God was with the boy as he grew up.
- Gn 21:5, 8-20a
Indeed, we may wonder why the loving God, who is the Father to all, would allow Hagar and her son to be treated so harshly. Of course, this is not the only instance in the Old Testament when what is the rightful inheritance of the older son is taken from him and given to his younger brother. Recall Esau and Jacob. Esau, the oldest son was his father’s favorite. Jacob steals his inheritance through taking advantage of his hunger. Then, through the deceit of his mother, he tricks his father into giving him the blessing that was due his brother. On its face, this is absolutely outrageous given that it appears God is rewarding lies and trickery. Again, Jacob purposefully blesses Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim instead of Manasseh, against their father’s complaints.
Jesus spoke through parables and he told many stories regarding similar themes. He said many hard to understand things such as, “The First will be last and the last will be first.” “For he that has, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that has not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath.” He also tells of hired workers who work only for an hour but are paid as much as those who worked all day in the heat.
Could God be unfair? No just judge would allow such. It violates our very moral conscience. Yet, this is the Word of God. How can we make sense of it?
Consider, for a moment, that the books of the Old Testament are very much parable mixed with history. The stories have a deeper religious meaning than may be perceived taken only at face value. Moreover, the Church teaches that the Old Testament foreshadows the New, while the New Testament explains the Old. We must understand the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.
To Abraham, God gave His first covenant, making the descendants of Abraham His chosen people…. if they would follow His commands and worship Him as the one, true God. To Moses, He gave the Ten Commandments and led the people out of slavery in pagan Egypt, to the Promised Land. Yet, the history of the Hebrew people, as told in the Old Testament is truly a parable for all of humanity. No matter how clear God makes His Laws, no matter how simply He gives His message, no matter how many amazing prophets and strong leaders He gives them, no matter how richly He blesses them, they turn aside and refuse to listen.
After leading them out of Egypt with dramatic miracles, even while God was still thundering in clouds of fire at the top of the mountain, speaking to Moses, the chosen people turned back to the pagan idol worship of Egypt. The story goes on to tell us of their complaints against God in the desert and rebellion against Moses. God gave them manna, the “bread from heaven” in a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, but still they complained and rejected His gifts. Although God chastised them with snakes and even the earth swallowing up entire families who rebelled, they would not obey Him. When they came to the Promised Land, they did not trust in God to give it to them. As punishment, they wandered 40 more years in the desert.
For 4,000 years or so, the saga unfolded. The Jewish people would wander far from God, disobeying the Law, worshiping pagan idols and falling to all manner of sin. God would raise up pagan kings to war against them, enslave them and destroy the Temple. Again, and again they came to repentance, pledged to worship God, alone, and to follow the Mosaic Law. When asked how many times should a man forgive his brother, Jesus answered, “seventy times seventy”, a sum denoting infinity. In God’s patience and understanding of human weakness, He forgave them at least as many times, allowing Israel to reestablish and the Jews to have their Promised Land.
Then, the world changed.
By the time of our Lord’s birth, Israel was not a strong nation. They had fallen under Roman rule even given the heroic deeds of the religious and nationalistic Maccabees. We must wonder why? Jesus explains that the religious leaders of the time had come to emphasize the letter of the law over its spiritual meaning. He called them “hypocrites” and “White-washed tombs”. He excoriated them for punishing people for violating minute details of the law and demanding expensive tithes, while providing them with excuses not to follow the commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” He openly defied them by encouraging His disciples not to follow such symbolic practices as ceremonial hand washing and leading them on long walks on the Sabbath when religious Jews were only allowed a number of steps on that day. He allowed His disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath and He healed the sick on that day on which the religious leaders said it was forbidden. He outraged them by saying that He was the Lord of the Sabbath, and “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
The religious Jews of the time could not understand His words. This was also a punishment, as Jesus explained. Because they had rejected and executed so many of God’s prophets, they would hear His words and see His deeds but not be able to understand that the Messiah so long awaited had come. They would accuse Him of being demon-possessed and a blasphemer. They had come to worship the Law and the Temple and could not recognized God in their midst. They no longer had the first covenant, a relationship with the true God, and what they had would be taken away.
Jesus established a new Covenant and a new Church. Through Him we are adopted into the Family of God and made “heirs”. What had been given to the older brother was taken and given to us. May we never take our inheritance for granted. No longer “slaves to the law”, we have been given a free gift through God’s favor. The word for that is Grace. Each one of us has been given the gift of grace, and each one of us may not only reject it, but lose it just as easily as did Esau because he valued a temporal, worldly meal of lentils over long term blessings.
Just so you don’t get hungry and become tempted, here is my favorite lentil recipe:
I start by sweating down onions, celery and garlic in bacon fat or olive oil. I add chicken stock, some canned or fresh, crushed tomatoes, dry lentils and let it simmer. Salt and pepper to taste, add a few herbs and some crushed red or cayenne pepper. If it is not a Friday, I’ll add the bacon back in, too. The soup is spicy, garlicky and very satisfying – a true meal in a bowl, and one that is good year ‘round because it is spicy enough to be warming on a winter day but light enough for summer.
Judson Carroll is the author of several books, including his newest, Confirmation, an Autobiography of Faith. It is Available in paperback on Amazon:
His new podcast is The Uncensored Catholic https://www.spreaker.com/show/the-uncensored-catholic