The readings today from Genesis 21 (8-21) and Matthew 10 (34-39) can be read as reflections on ‘home’.
As I said last Sunday, Ishmael and his mother Hagar were unjustly cast out of their home - home being the tents of the patriarch Abraham. Hagar being Egyptian and a slave had experienced the absence of home and the presence of injustice before.
The matriarch Sarah is portrayed as being in charge (as if women are ever in charge in these patriarchal stories!) and worried that the status of her son Isaac will be secondary to Hagar’s son Ishmael (which it was since Ishmael was first-born). So Sarah tells Abraham to cast him out. Abraham seemingly wanting to keep the domestic peace obeys. And the God character in the story goes along, embedding the injustice.
The weave of exclusion from home due to status and fear, race, and injustice are all here. Ishmael and Hagar become refugees.
The Gospel reading from Matthew is also about home.
The text about Jesus bringing division within the household has long vexed Christians. It reflects the thinking of the late first century Jesus movement and is based on Micah 7:5-6 about sons dishonouring fathers and daughters standing up against mothers (which the Micah text disparaged). In Mediterranean societies a person’s primary loyalty was to blood relatives, especially parents. The failure to honour parents meant the loss of face, of honour, and let to ostracism. So a saying like this challenges social and religious practice at its very core. The patriarchal household, claimed since Aristotle to be central to any city or state and a microcosm of empire, is undermined.
The Jesus movement used the phrase ‘take up your cross’ to talk about dying to the old loyalties and commitment to the new Jesus ‘household’ and its practices. Similarly ‘sword’ was a metaphor for the radical severing of those ties. There is no evidence followers of Jesus, at least in the first century, advocated armed conflict.
As for what that the Jesus ‘household’ and its loyalties might have looked like, here is the Aussie Bible translation of Luke 5:29, 30:
Then Matt Levi turned on a humdinger of a barbie on his front veranda, and all his mates from the tax office were there, getting stuck into the snags and tomato sauce along with Jesus and his mates. So the lawyers got all snide and yelled out, “Why are you hanging around with that bunch of sharks?”
These dining stories of Jesus point to the values and structure of the early post-Easter Jesus movement. Chiefly they challenged the predominant understanding of purity. The labels ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, or ‘righteous’ and ‘sinner’, were used to kept people apart and the pure feeling pure. Jesus deliberately mixed it up, eating with both. Scandalously he broke bread with the ‘sinner’ Levi and other tax collectors (sharks), he allowed a disreputable woman to wash his feet, and he was accused of eating with gluttons and drunkards.
By dining with so-called sinners, Jesus made himself one. He became contaminated like the sharks, the sick, and the scandalous. By dining with ‘sinners’ he challenged society’s whole notion of sin.
But these table stories of inclusion, and parables of a similar recipe (like the Great Banquet), also alert us to the nature of the new ‘home’ the movement was constructing – a home where the outcasts were welcome, where women were not just included but were leaders, where patriarchal family ties did not predominate, but a table fellowship, a community of equals, was being coaxed, coached, into life.
Table fellowship in the ancient world symbolized spiritual unity. And it was loyalty to this unity with the contaminated, the nuisances and nobodies, that our Matthew text today tells us was the new loyalty that took the place of patriarchal family loyalty. This was the new home and the excluded and expendables were their brothers and sisters.
Home is not just a physical place, but an interior space. Home is about feeling safe, feeling wanted, and being familiar with the smells and habits of that place. Home is also, maybe primarily, about relationships. Home is at best a sanctuary, a sacred ground.
Home is also where God is primarily experienced. In most faith traditions the divine is largely a mystery, and not containable or controllable by human power. But each faith tradition offers access points to God. For Christians there is the Bible, music, prayers, and buildings. More importantly though, there is dining, relationships, and our common mahi (work). All are access points into this mystery. Home is where we know we can breathe in this mystery called God, and where we know we are safe and belong.
The experience of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons is that many of these markers of home have gone. The house and community of one’s childhood has gone. The safety and comfort of familiarity has gone. The access points for faith may also be gone. The refugee can become not only a stranger in a strange land, but strange even to themselves.
One way of understanding the Bible is that it is a collection of stories about home and homelessness, and about wandering and finding welcome.
There are big, macro stories in the Bible of dislocation and relocation. There is the story of the family of Jacob being forced by famine to relocate to Egypt; and then some generations later due to persecution fleeing from Egypt into the Sinai wilderness and eventually coming to Canaan. The historicity of some of this is of course disputed. What is not in dispute is the power of the home and homelessness myth shaping the Jewish faith and Jewish ethics. As the Torah says (Leviticus 19:33-34): “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him or her wrong. You shall treat the stranger, who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love her or him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Another macro story is the Babylonian exile, a reference to the invasion of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonian Empire and the forced deportation of many Jews to Babylon. There they stayed for some 60 years until the Persian conqueror of Babylonian, Cyrus the Great, allowed them to return. Interestingly during that time of exile the oral stories and traditions of home would take written form in the Torah, and from that time on the written word would be very powerful for both Jews, and later Christians, as a means of centring our faith and providing an access point to God.
The prophet Zechariah (7:9-10), writing shortly after this return from exile, reiterates the ethics of welcome: “Thus says (God)… show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
There is a tension between holding to values and traditions of the past and welcoming and inviting in those of other values and traditions; and this tension is repeated time and again in cultures, faiths, and nations. We want to be hospitable to refugees, but we don’t want to change too much. Our leaders and politicians want to get the balance right, but usually they err on the side of those who want to preserve the status quo or are frightened of what change might be required.
Jesus is a politician’s and a Christian’s nightmare. Home for the adult Jesus was not Nazareth, or Capernaum, or Jerusalem. Home was in the mahi, the mission of God, symbolised by inclusive table fellowship. And that mahi was the work, often the hard work, of including the ostracised – the sick, foreigners, refugees, even the enemy - into the home of faith.
Let us always remember that church primarily is not an institution, or a set of beliefs, or a place of worship. It is an inclusive table fellowship – inviting in the excluded, being transformed by such inclusion, and continuing to be a sanctuary, a home for all on the margins of society, a sacred space.