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.
Paul is urging his readers to claim the freedom that God is giving them as heirs of God’s promises, as the children not of slavery, but of promise. And this passage builds up to the verse, that we shall read tomorrow, that is surely one of the most stunning in the whole of the New Testament. But these verses are not so easy to read as chapter 5 verse 1. After Margaret Atwood’s astonishing and chilling book, The Handmaid’s Tale, Paul’s argument and the story he recounts may stir in us a sense of anxiety and fear. The story of Sarah and Hagar is one full of sorrow and tragedy, of abuse and threat. While it is true that one woman finds joy in a miraculous pregnancy, another is first pressed into service to provide a child for another and when no longer needed, she and her child are discarded. And the whole form and structure of the story seems to assume that if one person is to be free, another must be enslaved. Paul is writing to a people who, he thinks, are choosing a form of slavery rather than the freedom that God is giving them. ‘No’ he wants to say, ‘God has set you free.’
As someone who enjoys many freedoms, not least among them the freedom of faith, the freedom that comes from forgiveness and grace, when I read the story of Hagar I cannot simply identify myself with Sarah. I cannot be free unless Hagar is free too. I cannot be free unless all women (and men) are free. I cannot be free unless slavery, abuse and exploitation are being. If I am truly free, then I am bound, to give myself to finding Hagar and setting her free too.
O God of Abraham and Sarah, O God of Abraham and Hagar, O God of Ishmael and Isaac, O God of Paul and the Galatians, O God who is my creator and redeemer, give me courage to live the freedom you grant and grace to call for freedom for all. Free my brothers and my sisters, all those who are enslaved by outer or inner chains, and set me free to be a freedom fighter in your kingdom. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the minister of Taunton URC.