Something about this story doesn't quite add up. According to an earlier episode in the saga of Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael - Abraham's son by the slave woman Hagar - is already more than thirteen years-old and is therefore, in Jewish tradition, already a man when he and his mother are sent away. However, in this passage the story reads as though Ishmael were still only a little child, not old enough to understand what is happening. His mother is described as casting him under a bush when she sits down in the desert to die, and then - a little later - she lifts him up and holds him fast in her hand. It would seem, therefore, that he is really little more than a toddler in this particular version of the Abrahamic tradition.
The Hadith, a traditional collection of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, preserves a similar version of the story, in which Ishmael is not yet weaned. In both the Hadith and today's passage from the Bible account of Ishmael's life, the infant Ishmael and his mother are saved from death in the desert through God's gracious intervention.
From this point on, however, the two faiths diverge. The Qur'an tells how Ishmael, presumably now reconciled with his father, goes on to help Abraham found its greatest shrine in Mekkah, whereas in the Bible Ishmael drops out of the story. But the discrepancy in the Bible between the earlier account of Ishmael and Hagar living as part of Abraham's family when he was a teenager, and the alternative description of their estrangement when he was still a small child, led in turn to one of the biggest controversies between Jews and Muslims. Whereas the Bible sees Ishmael as the illegitimate son, cast off by his father and sent out into the desert to carve out a new life for himself apart from the chosen people, some Muslim scholars used this story to argue that he was in fact one of the rightful heirs of Abraham, especially when it comes to Abraham's spiritual legacy.
The Bible does acknowledge that Ishmael was blessed by God and that God heard his cry, and the Hadith says much the same thing, but some Muslim scholars go further and claim that - after an early reconcilation with his father - it was really the thirteen year-old Ishmael, and not Isaac, whom Abraham was asked to offer as a sacrifice, and therefore that it was Ishmael whom God saved from death a second time when he provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead. According to these scholars, then, the greatest test of Abraham's trust was not the call to sacrifice his wife's son, but the son of his slave. And so, in this version of the story, it is Ishmael who is more special than Isaac, both in God's eyes and in the eyes of Abraham. And because, in the Bible at least, the two stories about Ishmael do not quite add up, this allows Muslims to argue that - long ago - Jewish people deliberately obscured the truth in order to show their own spiritual inheritance in a better light than it deserved.
The difference between the two versions of Ishmael's story also allows Muslims to claim the moral high ground. Sarah, the ancestor of the whole nation of Israel, is depicted in the Bible, as capricious, callous and cruel. She doesn't know, and doesn't even care, that God is going to bless Ishmael. She only wants him sent away, so that he will not share - or take away - the precious family inheritance from her own son. And this is despite the fact that it was, in the first place, her own idea for Abraham to have an adoptive son with her slave woman, Hagar, because Sarah thought at the time that she couldn't have any children.
Not only does the Bible cast Sarah in the stereotypical role of the wicked stepmother, but Abraham too - in agreeing to expel his own son from the family - is also depicted as weak and vacillating, prepared to do something very wrong simply in order to appease his jealous wife, whereas, in the Qur'anic account of the story Abraham treats Ishmael throughout as his true heir, and the separation comes about purely as a test of his faith.
And then the Bible version of the story definitely identifies Ishmael as inferior to his brother simply because his mother was only a slave, and not his father's wife, whereas the Muslim version makes clear that every believer is equal before God no matter who their parents are. Unfortunately, no such moral can be drawn from the Biblical account.
Finally, in the Bible story, Hagar sits down in the desert and despairs whereas, in the Hadith, she sets a wonderful example of perseverance as she desperately searches for water to save Ishmael's life.
Of course, the most striking thing about the story is that it shows just how ancient is the antagonism between the Arab and Jewish nations. In Biblical times the Arab people were not that important. Occasionally they raided the land of Israel, but otherwise the two nations went separate ways. However, after the rise of Islam and until the Twentieth Century, the Arab nation had the upperhand over Israel. And then, since the re-establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, the tables have been turned. The bombings of July 7 and th airliner hijackings of 9/11 have both been blamed on the continuing oppression of Muslim and Arab people in Palestine today, making the conflict acutely relevant - even to us in the United Kingdom - and perhaps it's no coincidence therefore, that the Bible version of the story is about the oppression of Ishmael and Hagar by Sarah and Abraham, and about God's concern to rescue the oppressed. It's never right for one nation or faith to act unjustly towards another, even if the oppressors sincerely believe that God is on their side, for God never condones injustice and cruelty.
The story reminds us, then, of the need for compassion towards people who are different from ourselves, especially when they are in need. This could apply to any refugee or asylum seeker, but also to any minority group which finds itself under pressure from the majority. Today, as we read this story, we need to acknowledge that Muslims in our country sometimes find themselves in an uncomfortable place, vilified because they are considered guilty by association of terrorist outrages and hate-filled preaching. The story reminds us of the need not to over-react but to go on patiently loving our neighbours, whatever their creed.
Paul had never been to Rome but his reputation had preceded him. Detractors were saying that he encouraged Christians to feel it was all right to go on sinning because it is God's grace which saves us from condemnation, not any actions of our own.
They had a point, of course. Some Muslim community workers were asked to design a poster for a cultural festival. The organiser wanted his country's national flag printed as the background to the poster itself. But the community workers identified a snag with this. The flag of his country includes the name of God, printed in bold Arabic letters. What if one of the posters dropped off a noticeboard onto the floor and someone accidentally trod on it? They would then be dishonouring the name of God, which is a mortal sin. My immediate reaction on hearing this story was that I was sure God can't be all that concerned about people treading on a poster, and that is essentially a Pauline response to the problem. That is to say, I chose to emphasise God's graciousness over and against the idea of his inflexible holiness and justice. According to Paul, God's default position is to show forgiveness and mercy, to be compassionate and gracious in the face of our weakness and disobedience. All God seeks from us in return is an honest acknowledgement of our sinfulness and of our need for grace.
Of course, it's possible to use this starting point to argue that, if God is always willing to forgive us, it doesn't really matter how we live or what we do. Some of the early Christians interpreted Paul's teaching in exactly this way and thought that he was giving them a licence to behave disreputably without losing favour with God. The Emperor Constantine certainly thought this was what Paul meant. He spent his years as emperor committing crimes which would make modern day politicians seem as white as snow by comparison. But then, on his death bed, he confessed his sins and received Christian baptism. From now on he resolved that he would be a good Christian. Too bad that he was about to die!
But this isn't what Paul means at all. In this passage from his letter to the church at Rome he painstakingly argues that, if we believe in Jesus and in the power of his death to put right our relationship with God, then that belief has to shape - and become the pattern for - the whole of our life. If we believe in the goodness of Jesus, we have to strive to live like him, and if we believe in the power of God's gracious love to free us from sin and disobedience, then we have to begin living in that freedom at once. Anything else would be totally hypocritical.
Because of our trust in God's graciousness, mercy and love we don't have to worry about accidentally dishonouring his name if we step on a poster that's fallen onto the floor. But we do have to respond to his love by treating others with the same graciousness, compassion and forgiveness that we ourselves would like to receive from him.
This is where Abraham and Sarah went wrong in their relationship with Hagar and Ishmael. They thought that they could love and honour God and yet still continue to act unjustly. And, in Sarah's case, she forgot that, if God cared about her and Isaac, he also cared just as much about Hagar and Ishmael. In other words, God has no favourites!
This collection of disparate sayings reinforces some of the issues which we have already explored. The disciple has to behave like her master. We can't adopt a radically different lifestyle from Jesus and still claim to be part of his team, nor can we pretend that we are not his followers and expect him to acknowledge before God that we are his friends. But if we are loyal to Jesus we can be sure that, when the going gets tough, he and God will be on our side. Like Ishmael and Hagar in the desert we are never alone. God is with us and cares about us. In fact, as Abraham discovered, God cares about everyone. No one is ever insignificant or unimportant in God's eyes, not even tiny sparrows. And also, like Ishmael and Hagar, we shall find that or relationship with God goes deeper and is more enduring even than our relationship with our own parents or children. Finally, just as Hagar feared that she and her son were about to lose their lives, but then discovered that in God life is never lost, so we shall find that our relationship with God endures even beyond suffering and death.