Twickenham URC 12 Aug 2001
People who can be trusted (Gen. 21, 22-34 + Matt. 5:17-26, 33-48)
If you were here for part 12 you’ll remember that I mentioned that we had skipped the latter part of Genesis 21, but would return to it at a later date – and today is that date.
The passage focuses on Abraham’s relationship with Abimelech, king of Gerar. Those with long memories will remember that we have met Abimelech before. In part 2 of this series, nearly three years ago, we looked at the passage from Genesis 20 – also taking it out of sequence – where Abraham, thinking only of his own safety, tries to pass Sarah off as his sister when Abimelech was attracted by her. Through divine revelation the king found out that she was a married woman and was horrified by the idea that Abraham’s dissembling might have made him an adulterer. At the time we noted that the moral right does not always lie with those claim the name of God; sometimes those who don’t can show us up.
And so to today’s passage. Although this series has put a great distance between the two passages in which Abraham and Abimelech appear, in Genesis they do of course appear in adjacent chapters. The background to today’s passage comes from the earlier one. In spite of Abraham’s behaviour Abimelech realised that Abraham is being blessed and protected by a powerful God – he greets Abraham with the words “God is with you in everything you do.”. Such a man has to be respected, feared even. And so the earlier narrative ends with what might be considered to be undeserved generosity on the part of Abimelech:
Then Abimelech brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.” (Gen. 20:14-15)
And so Abraham was able to take his flocks over Abimelech’s territory, digging wells to provide water. But over time Abimelech’s uneasiness returns and he seeks from Abraham an assurance that his hospitality will not be exploited: “Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you.”. Kindness is more than the benevolence one might show to an aged aunt; the original word, hesed, describes the loyalty one owes to one’s kind, one’s kin, one’s family. Because Abimelech, from earlier experience, does not feel that he can rely on Abraham’s word he asks him to swear an oath before God.
Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t need to give oaths or bolster what we say with categorical assurances. ‘My word is my bond’, should be as true of us as of yesteryear’s city gents. Last month I enjoyed a performance of Guys and Dolls at Richmond Theatre. Those of you that know the story, will know that most of the male members of the cast are illegal gamblers. They put down ‘markers’ for amounts they owe, but their code of conduct is very clear: welshing on your marker, failing to pay up, is quite the worst thing you can do, and it would make you a social outcast. “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No'” is our Lord’s instruction to us.
Whilst the summit talks are going on, Abraham raises the question of a well that he dug that had been taken over by Abimelech’s men. The king’s response confirms our earlier impressions of him as someone of integrity. He’s only too ready to sort out the situation but points out that he had not been told about it before now. How true this is of many human relationships, both personal and in business. We will tell everyone about the problems we are having with someone except the person themselves or the person who is able to resolve the situation. So often people store up resentments about family members or partners until the dam breaks and they all come spilling out.
Not for nothing does the Psalm tell us not to let the sun go down on our anger. In our second reading Jesus tells us much the same: harbouring anger and resentment is, he tells us, just as much a sin as anything else. Indeed, if you’re about to lay a gift at the altar and remember an unresolved difficulty with someone, go and resolve it first, then come back. Don’t be like Abraham and the well, simmering internally at some injustice that you feel has been done to you.
To confirm the importance of the well to him, Abraham gives Abimelech seven ewe lambs. The place where the well is is named Beersheba – the well of the seven. Abraham plants a tree by the well. The place will be one to which he can repair for refreshment and relaxation: a reliable source of fresh clear water and a place of shade. He calls on the Lord: it is to be a place of spiritual refreshment too, one that will be special place for Isaac and Jacob in years to come. The name he uses for God, Eternal God in the NIV, is one not used elsewhere. So often we live life at a breakneck pace: we – well some of us anyway – buy meals we can cook in minutes, wear clothes that don’t need ironing, read or listen to reviews that will tell us about new books without having to read them and so on. This is the age of the sound-bite, not the detailed report of yesterday’s parliamentary proceedings that was once a part of every serious newspaper.
Are we willing to dig deep, to create for ourselves sources of refreshment, or, like Abimelech’s men, do we just want to take that which others have created? Chuck Swindoll notes that modern day Christians may proudly say that they intend to burn out before they wear out, but goes on to say that there is no merit in this. We are spiritual people, but we are physical people too, so we need to let our bodies refresh themselves, whether we do this by going down the allotment, strolling through the countryside or whatever. We need to, like Abraham, to guard that source of refreshment. Let’s not feel guilty about taking time out to recharge our strength.
In Paul’s words, we may be in this world but not of it. We will however have to relate to many around us who may or may not share our views and beliefs. They are to find in us people of integrity, people whose word can be trusted, people who are willing to give and to share with those in need, people whose relationships have a special quality. Like Abraham we will often be found wanting, but we must strive to be perfect. We cannot do this is our own strength, but in the strength of the one who is our Lord and Saviour. His word can be trusted; his is the well that will never dry up, the one that will, provided we take time to repair to it, refresh us.
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Hymns R&S 717: Give praise and thanks unto the Lord; 200: The kingdom of God is justice and joy; 90: O Lord, all the world belongs to you; 371: Take my life, and let it be