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25th June 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
23 June 2017


Genesis 21: 8-21

Because Sarah never had any children she arranged for her slave to be a surrogate mother to provide an heir for her husband.  However Sarah subsequently has a son of her own and then wants to ensure the inheritance for him and so the cycle of biblical dysfunctional families begins. 

Maurice Andrew writes that the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael reintroduces the theme of death into the narrative.  However, in this episode death is transformed to life for this foreign women and her son when an angel calls to Hagar alerting her to the well..[1]  Hagar and Ishmael survive on the resources of the land rather that what is provided by the patriarchal household of Abraham. Abraham therefore becomes the father of two people’s and three religious traditions. 

Matthew 10: 24-39

In his commentary Warren Carter heads this section of Matthew’s Gospel ‘The courage, impact, and reward of faithful mission’ and it certainly brings us to the hard sayings of Jesus. 

The disciples are to be like their teacher and master, imitating his mission.  That will cause division even in families and disciples are likely to suffer the abuse that Jesus receives from those in authority.  But the disciples are also reassured that the future is in God’s control and God’s purpose for them is to live God’s realm into reality.[2]


We live in a world of often vigorous debate about immigration, overstayers and refugees.  There are more displaced people in the world than ever before.  22.5 million which is considerably more than Hagar and Ishmael although the percentages of children are the same, 50% of the world’s refugees and displaced persons are children. 

We are most aware of refugees from the places like Iraqi, Afghanistan and Syria.  However, the biggest crisis is in South Sudan.  There are also 40.5 million people displaced within nations that don’t make the news headlines and Columbia has 50% of these people

I am grateful to my colleague Rev Michelle Shin for posting those figures on Face Book and you will note from her name that she is part of the growing diversity in New Zealand, and in our churches, that brings us a wider perspective on who are neighbours to us.

Much of our anxiety about immigration, including accepting refugees, is about preserving our territory, our jobs and housing which is understandable.  It is similar to Sarah’s anxiety about the son of a foreign slave inheriting her nomadic household enterprise.

But even in the frightening world of ever increasing population we need to remember that in this nation of ours we are also all migrants or descendants of migrants. 

I like the story that has been circulating for a while now about the American who takes exception to a woman on public transport speaking in a language he doesn’t understand.  When the call finishes he says: ‘I didn’t want to interrupt your call but you are in the United States now you should be speaking English, if you want to speak Mexican you should go back to Mexico.’  To which she replies, ‘I was speaking Navaho, if you want to speak English you should go back to England’  

On one level the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael is a story of greed, selfishness and desperation but it is also a story of hope.  It is a story of beginnings of two clearly different peoples who grew to make extraordinary contributions to the world we now live in.  Those two peoples brought three of the world’s great faith into existence.  Although Arabs and Israelis are now regularly involved in violent territorial disputes I doubt humanity could have launched rockets into space without Arabic numbers and the beginnings of science that arose in the Moslem world.  Roman numerals would just not compute.  On another integration of ideas and cultures we know for sure that the United States could not have sent a man into space without the maths of women descended from slaves brought from Africa.   Although greed and desperation seem to be very much part of human history diversity is an important part of the development of nations. 

Many New Zealand families have very civilised stories of their pioneer ancestors settling in New Zealand but my predecessors were somewhat driven by want and uncertainty.  My branch of the Perry tribe were iron smelters and came to exploit the iron sands around Taranaki.  Their reason for coming was they had a large family of sons and there was growing unemployment in England.  They were economic refugees.  Unfortunately, they lacked the technology to process Taranaki iron sand so they were cast into a developing wilderness that the New Zealand Company had considerably exaggerated. 

The other significant figure in our family history was Joseph Masters who, like Ishmael, was cast out of his home as a small child by his step father rather than his step mother.  His wilderness journey began in the slums of England, crossed the globe via Australia and in Wellington found a husband for his daughter from the Perry Family.  They then all continued their wilderness journey over the Rimutaka Ranges and after much bush bashing became settled agriculturists. A journey from a nomadic life to settled agriculture like the descendants of Isaac but in a completely different part of the world. 

The reasons for Pacific migration to these uninhabited Islands has been lost in both the mists and myths of time but for those Polynesians, who waited until the world had planes rather than canoes, overcrowding and economic circumstances are still the driving force.  That is also true of a surprising number of other peoples in the continuing diversity of immigrants that have shaped and continue to shape New Zealand society.  My mother and her family came from England between European wars. Although I knew Campbell Erickson for years it was only when researching for his funeral last week that I discovered that his parents came from Finland.  For those of us who are worried about Asian migration I have a number of Chinese friends whose ancestors came to mine gold in Otago and they tell me we would not be eating fresh vegetables without them. 

Interestingly at least one of them expressed concern about contemporary wealthy Chinese migrating here because he saw them as the people his ancestors fled from to face isolation in the gold fields of Otago.

That introduces us to the family division Jesus speaks of in our Gospel reading. 

For good comfortable middle-class Christians, the idea that a commitment to Christ would divide families seems appalling.  The reality is that families are divided by faith and ideals and the story of the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael shows that there is not only hope in such division but it is part of the story of human development and migration across the face of the planet.

More importantly Jesus’ comments about not bringing peace and causing division among even the closest of relationships points to the need for a loyalty to the total family of all humanity that is greater than even our closest relationships. 

One of the brutal murders in our recent history involved an intelligent man’s elaborate plot to murder his ex partner.  It was a typical example of murder within intimate relationships where the man kills the women after she leaves him.  What was even more appalling was that he asked several friends to help him dispose of her body and, although they would not help, they didn’t go to the police because he was their mate.  In that group of friends, mate-ship was believed to be a higher ethical response than the community’s law not to murder and superseded any sense of justice they might have for a woman they all knew.   

In cases of violence against children the death of the Kahui twins on the 18th June 2006 was a classic case where the family supported each other and refused to talk to police so no conviction for their murder was possible. 

Of course, incarceration might not be the best form of justice and revenge does not bring the closure many expect but without a conviction in a civilised society neither victim, victim’s family or perpetrator can be helped.  The essence of Jesus’ message is that we are our brother’s and our sister’s keepers, we are members of the total family of all humanity. 

In Christ we are all one and therefore we have loyalties beyond our immediate biological family. 

All systems of human government try to impose an ethical framework that demands greater loyalty to the state than to families but governments are themselves human and therefore corruptible. 

So humanity must ground its ultimate values beyond an individual group or society and that is one of the core tasks of religion.  The laws and ethical codes that help guide our lives and make our communities safe and enriching must be God’s laws and values. 

That is because religions get co-opted by human rulers to support the agendas of tyrants or religious organisations try to rule and get corrupted by the power they hold.  According to the gospels Jesus rejected such temptation in his forty days in the wilderness.  Matthew tells us that the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said: ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ (Matthew 4:9) 

That is the trouble with human authority, even the desire to do good can be corrupted by personal ambition or the need to protect a leader’s position.  John Clarke as Fred Dag expressed that thought when he sang ‘If I ruled the world, one or two people will have to sort out their ideas’.  Once a leader needs to sort out other people’s ideas there is a potential for violence and evil to prevail.

From Jesus’ perspective, the Temple authority that ruled on behalf of the Roman Empire was corrupt and they would react violently to anyone who suggested that they were not representing the true faith in the true God.  That was of course true and Jesus was crucified. 

What would also be true was the fact that within the families of Jesus’ followers some would choose to continue to follow Jesus and others would stay with the traditional temple faith or the Pharisaic Judaism that replaced it.  Indeed, there is evidence that by the time Matthew wrote his gospel a curse of the Nazarenes was added to synagogue worship.  That was a division between the religious family of Judaism and such divisions would also run through biological families.  But for the Jesus way to become the church, and one of the world’s great religions, people would have to endure that division that separated people from their families.  That has been true of all great reforms, both religious and secular. The desire for a society that is ordered by laws also needs people to speak out for justice even when doing so goes against loyalty to family or mates. 

To continue to follow the way of Christ against an ancient religious tradition must have made those first followers of Jesus feel very much like Hagar and Ishmael cast into the wilderness.  But the well of insight they had been given by Jesus and the Spirit he released to them allowed them to survive. 

Just as that first division of Abraham’s family gave the world two nations the division that Jesus caused gave the world two great religious faiths. 

To be followers of Christ who claim to be both reformed and reforming we too must face the risk of division to live in a just society and live God’s Realm into our world.

[1]Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.67.

[2] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) pp.239-244


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