Who is really a child of Abraham?

Advent 2 – 2016

Matthew 3:1-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whose image we are made and whose image we are called to project to the world. Amen.

Recently I read a novel entitled A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. In broad terms the plot concerns a family and their family home, the complex family dynamics and how those dynamics shift as the parents age. The Whitshank family had a proud history – albeit only two generations old. Junior Whitshank bought the local construction company and re-named it Whitshank Construction. His son, Red, took over the company and it was expected that Red’s son Stem would take it over in his turn. Stem was not actually Red’s son. Red had three children of his own – two daughters and a son Denny. Stem, whose real name was Douglas, was actually the son of Lonesome O’Brien. Lonesome had the reputation of being the best tiler in town and he worked for Whitshank Construction. No one knew what had happened to Stem’s mother. When asked, Lonesome simply said that she had gone traveling.

Lonesome often took Douglas to work with him when a babysitter was not available. One day, when Stem was only two years old, Lonesome was raced into hospital from work. Red asked his wife Abby to come and pick up the child. Two days later Lonesome was dead and try as they might Red and Abby were unable to locate any next of kin for the child. Abby was adamant that Stem was not going into care and despite Red’s reservations and protestations Stem joined the Whitshank family. It was often remarked that Stem was more of a Whitshank than his brother Denny. Whereas Denny was easily bored, obstinate, thoughtless and unsettled, Stem was good, kind, sweet-tempered and easy-going like Red. Whereas Denny showed no interest in and no aptitude for the construction business, Stem loved working with wood and with people. Over time he became more and more like his adoptive father – even his walk was the same.

So what is it that makes a family? Is it blood or is it common interests? Is it the fact that people live together or are there other criteria? Today, families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes – extended families, nuclear families, single parent families, blended families, families in which there are two mothers or two fathers and families made possible through surrogacy or sperm donation. Families are both relational – that is there have genetic ties – and constructed – that is they bound together by ties that are as strong as family even though the individuals are not related to each other at all.

In today’s gospel John the Baptist challenges what it means to be in God’s family. He proclaims: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Up until this point in time, being a member of God’s family was simply a matter of birth, of being able to claim Abraham as a forebear. To be sure, being a son or daughter of Abraham came with some responsibilities, but essentially it was understood that God was the God of the Israelites and that as such their status as God’s children was inviolable.

John challenges this assumption and the complacency that came with it. Being a part of God’s family is not something that can be taken for granted. As the prophets before him, John bears witness to the fact that there is much more to being a child of Abraham than an accident of birth. From Deuteronomy through to Malachi, the Israelites have been reminded of what God expects from his family. In particular God expects that those who belong to God will share God’s concern for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Members of God’s family are expected “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God” (6:8).

The relationship between God and the Israelites is conditional on their holding and conforming to God’s values. God through Jeremiah says: “If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.” (7:5,6). Being in God’s family means being and behaving like God.

In the world the Old Testament and of John the Baptist there was no social welfare and at least ninety percent of people lived just above the poverty level. Those without any means of support – the widow, the orphan, the disabled and the alien were utterly dependent on the good will of others for survival. The Old Testament made it abundantly clear that it was the responsibility of all the children of Abraham to share with God a care for the vulnerable and for the outsider. By extension, if those were the criteria for being children of Abraham, then anyone who behaved in such a way could be considered a part of God’s family.

This is one of the points that John is making here. He is warning the Pharisees and Sadducees that they cannot simply rely on their lineage, nor can they assume that it is sufficient to make a cynical or superficial show of responding to God’s message. What they need is a complete change of heart. Unless they demonstrate in their lives that they share God’s sense of justice, God’s passion for the poor and the outcast, the alienated and the rejected, they cannot claim to be children of Abraham.

Being part of God’s family is not something that we can or should take for granted, it is both a blessing and a demand, a gift and a responsibility, it requires a response on our part not just passive acceptance. Being a child of Abraham demands an engagement with the world and a passion for justice and equity.

Sometimes even the best of us need a John the Baptist in our lives to shame us, to call us to account, and to remind us of who we really are and to whose family we really belong.

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