Two of the verses I find most challenging in the Bible are Ephesians 5:1-2: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
What I find particularly disturbing about these verses is that they keep popping up in my heart or soul or conscience as I read accounts of how God cared for people whom I might be inclined to ignore or avoid and as I read accounts of how God cared for people in ways that are above and beyond what I want to do.
For example, in Genesis 16 we find the story of God’s care for a woman named Hagar. As the chapter begins, we are introduced to Abram and Sarai. They are important people. Their names mean “Exalted Father” and “Noble Lady.” Then we meet Hagar, an Egyptian maidservant, who is not considered the “cream of the crop.” In fact, her name means “Flight,” as in “to flee” or “to run away,” which leaves us wondering: How did she get pegged with that name? Did she run away from something or someone in Egypt? Did she run away from a previous master or mistress? And why?
We don’t know a lot about Hagar, but we know that her status was so lowly that Abram and Sarai decide that she can be the vessel through which they will begin their long-awaited family. Since Abram and Sarai had not succeeded in conceiving a child, and since Sarai was well advanced in years, the ancient Babylonian law of the time, the Code of Hammurabi, stipulated that an infertile wife should provide her husband with a surrogate child-bearer. Unfortunately for Hagar, that was the only status she was given under the law. Legally she did not replace Sarai as Abram’s wife or become a second wife to him. She was regarded only as the vessel through whom, as Sarai said it, “I can build a family.”
When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai grows angry and Abram grows distant. Hagar received Abram’s child but not his love. Sarai begins to mistreat her, so Hagar runs away. She ends up alone in the desert—impoverished, abused, pregnant, disillusioned, and miserable. Ann Spangler says of her, “There is almost no worse nightmare for a woman.”
Then God’s love shows up. An angel of the Lord comes to Hagar and, with a play on words, asks, “Hagar (Flight), from where are you fleeing? And to where are you flying?”
Let me condense the rest of the story. The angel says to her, “You are now with child, and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.” “Ishmael” means “God hears.” This child’s name would be a constant reminder to Hagar (and to everyone else) that God heard the groaning of Hagar’s heart and cared for her.
Then Hagar declares, “You are the God who sees me,” and she named the nearby well, “Beer Lahai Roi” which means “The well of the Living One who sees me.”
Hagar experienced God looking out for her and listening to the cry of her aching heart.
When I read this story in light of Ephesians 5:1-2, what I find is that I am called to look out for those who are disenfranchised, who find themselves impoverished, abused, pregnant, disillusioned, or miserable.
And I find that I am called to take notice of those who are alone, powerless, or hurting.
And I find that I am called to listen to the cry of people’s aching hearts.
May God help me and you to imitate His love! ■
—Tom Tripp is the Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Colusa.