Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Do we hear and actually feel moved to act and obey?

June 25, 2023

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 21:8-21

Hagar and Ishmael are two of the greatest underdogs in the patriarchal narrative. Among the patriarchs, Abraham, his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob, the multitudinous nations of the people of Israel emerge. Yet God promises to Hagar here in this text, “I will make a great nation of [Ishmael]” (21:18). God even comforts Abraham with these same words, so that Abraham is not distressed at the second and final departure of Hagar and his eldest son, Ishmael. 

For this is indeed Hagar’s second leaving—the first occurring soon after she conceives her son Ishmael with Abraham (16:6). In that first story, Hagar is treated so badly by Sarai that she runs away into the wilderness. It is there that God meets Hagar and speaks to her—indeed, before the text reports of God speaking to Sarai—and God comforts Hagar with the first promise that her son will be the father of multitudes (16:10). Hagar names God “El-Roi,” the God Who Sees (16:13).

So while Hagar has been mistreated, God sees her and brings her comfort and strength to go on. For her own protection, and for the safety of her unborn child, Hagar needed to return to Abraham and Sarah in order to benefit from the security of living within a larger clan. She would not have lived long giving birth to a baby by herself in the wilderness. God saw her, and so she named God “El-roi,” the God Who Sees.

In this Sunday’s lectionary text, God hears (21:17). While it is Hagar who lifts up her voice in verse sixteen, it is her son Ishmael whom God hears: “God heard the voice of the boy” (21:17). And turning to Hagar, the angel of the Lord inquires of her, “What troubles you, Hagar?” God calls Hagar by name; God has seen Hagar again, and God has heard the voice of her son, whom Hagar fears will die. But God reassures Hagar, just as God did on her first escape, and the angel of the Lord tells her: “Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation from him” (21:17-18).

When my colleague, Song-Mi Suzie Park, and I co-taught a course based on our book The Flawed Family of God: Stories about the Imperfect Families in Genesis, one of our seminary students preached on this text. Kailen Soncksen pointed out how the Hebrew word for “hear” in this text, as in “when God hears Hagar,” is not a word that connotes passive listening. The word is shema, which may be familiar if you know the passage in scripture known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Shema is a prayer within Judaism, and it is called so because of the first word of the verse: shema

As Kailen preached to us from her study of the text, this word for “hear” is not about simply passively taking in, but actively listening and following through with action. This kind of hearing is associated with obedience. The call to “Hear O, Israel” is a call to hear-and-obey. 

So when God hears the voice of the boy, God is obeying what that voice is crying out for: acting on the cries of the child and coming to the rescue. 

And yet Kailen also pointed out that God does not seem to hear Hagar: God hears her son, but not her. This is the last we hear about Hagar; her son’s story continues, but the last we read about Hagar is that she got her son a wife. 

As is the case with many marginalized groups, we only see them in their stereotypical roles: mothers as caregivers, perhaps matchmakers, but not history-makers. There are many people whose stories continue to go unheard in our society. We may see them, but do we hear what they are trying to tell us? Do we hear and actually feel moved to act and obey? 

The story of Hagar has long been seen by women descended from enslaved Africans as a story they can relate to; the forced surrogacy of Hagar is not unlike the experiences of enslaved women living in the antebellum South or the modern underpaid childcare jobs of women of color caring for white women’s children. Perhaps the most famous of these reflections is by Delores Williams: Sisters in the Wilderness.1

God continues to reassure women who are marginalized: God sees them. 

The question remains, do we hear them? And are we as a church willing to support them in the ways they need? To fight for greater equity in the healthcare system, where women of color have much higher rates of maternal mortality than their white counterparts because staff discount their complaints and ignore their concerns? To work for greater access to childcare and better public schools, so that their children will have a greater chance of success? To challenge the school-to-prison pipeline where children of color are disproportionately targeted for stricter punishment in schools and viewed as “delinquent”? Can we hear the weeping of the mothers of Black and brown boys and girls when their children are victims of police brutality?

If we hear them, then we must not remain passive, but must act accordingly. We must not only listen, but truly hear-and-obey, living out our faith in the world.


1. Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 1993.