In order to understand this morning’s epistle, one must have a basic familiarity with the events surrounding Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation in the Old Testament book of Genesis. We recall that Abram came from Ur of the Chaldees (modern day Iraq), settled his family in Haran, and with his wife Sarai proceeded to explore the land of Canaan (modern day Palestine), and even ventured south into Egypt for a while. He was responsible for the rescue of his kinsman Lot from the evildoers of Sodom, an event which was marked by the sacrificial offering of bread and wine at the hands of the priest and king Melchesidech. God promised him the land of Canaan and promised to make his “descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the sea shore.”
That promise was remarkable in that Abram and Sarai were already relatively old—perhaps in their eighties—and had no children at all. In fact, because of her barrenness, Sarai arranged for Abram to take her servant-girl Agar as a concubine who might bear children in her place. (Having more than one wife is something we occasionally see in the Old Testament, but definitively halted by our Lord Jesus Christ!) And in the course of time, Agar did bear a son for Abram named Ismael. Not surprisingly, the relationship between Sarai and Agar was “strained,” to say the least, even though the concubinage had been Sarai’s suggestion.
Not long after the birth of Ismael, God entered into a covenant with Abram (changing his name from Abram to Abraham, and Sarai’s to Sara); promising them that within the year Sara would bring forth a son of her own for Abraham, whose name would be Isaac; and that the very numerous descendents of Abraham and Isaac would be recognized by the custom of circumcision. Ismael too would be the father of a great nation, but God’s covenant would be specifically with the descendants of Abraham through his younger son Isaac.
The event that Saint Paul relates today to the Galatians took place shortly after Isaac was weaned. Sara saw his half-brother playing with Isaac, and realized that the two would very likely share the inheritance of Abraham, probably to her son’s detriment, and demanded that Abraham put him and his mother out of their home: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
Of course, that sounds outrageous to Christian ears—as it sounded outrageous to Abraham as well, who “took this grievously for his son.” But God had plans of His own in this and intervened, telling Abraham that He would protect Ismael and Ismael’s mother—and God brought them to settle in the wilderness of Pharan in the northern Sinai. It would seem that God intended His covenant to be unique, flowing only through the descendents of Isaac, and excluding those of Ismael.
If I might digress very briefly, it also set the stage for a very trying test of Abraham’s trust and obedience of God, in which Abraham was directed to take his (now) only son and offer him in sacrifice on Mount Moria. We know, of course that God intervened, and provided an alternate victim. And we know that centuries later God would offer up His only begotten Son on the same Mount, in the sacrifice of the Cross.
But, let us come back to the expulsion of Ismael for a moment or two. It has great importance, even in our own time. The covenant of the Circumcision made with Abraham, was made void by the Crucifixion of Christ. But there are still enormous feelings of superiority and of resentment on the part of the descendents of Isaac and Ismael who today populate the Holy Land; those of the Jewish and the Moslem faiths. For these two diametrically opposing forces both see themselves as the legitimate descendents of Abraham—and neither recognizes the Kingship of Christ, the living Son of Abraham, who gave His life on the Cross to (among other things) extinguish this family rivalry. We therefore have a serious obligation to pray and work that the kingdom of the Sacred Heart of Jesus may be extended within the countries of the Middle East. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism may, all three, be monotheistic religions, but only the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ is effective in bringing peace among men. There is no sacred heart of Allah of the Koran, nor even a sacred heart of Yahweh of the Old Testament; it is only in recognizing God as Father that mankind can recognize its brotherhood in Jesus Christ, the Son of God conceived by the Holy Ghost. This is an urgent matter, and your prayers are needed!
But, finally, let us recognize Saint Paul’s epistle to the Galatians as being addressed to us as well. While we live almost four thousand years after the covenant of the Circumcision, and two thousand after it was set aside at the Crucifixion, we have the same choice to make as the Galatians. No, we will not choose between Isaac and Ismael, for Saint Paul tells us that that choice is an “allegory”; that is to say that it only symbolizes the choice which we must make. We must choose, he says, between the worldly Sinai and the worldly Jerusalem on the one hand, and the heavenly Jerusalem on the other. We are not bound in this by any matter of heredity—it doesn’t matter whether or not we have any hereditary connection to Abraham, or Isaac, or Ismael.
“That Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother.” Paul is calling on us to declare ourselves the adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, and to act in ways consistent with that family tie to heaven. At least implicitly, he is asking us to declare God our Father, and Mary our Mother. He is asking us to take up the “new and everlasting covenant,” in place of that which has been replaced. “For,” together with Christ, “we are children of the free woman—in virtue of the freedom wherewith Christ has set us free.”
 Epistle Galatians iv: 22-31.
 http://www.bible.ca/maps/maps-the-exodus.htm The map is of the Exodus, several centuries later. Note Canaan in the north-east corner. Ur in the Chaldees would be further to the north east (off the map). The wilderness of Pharan is shown at the northern edge of the Sinai.
 Genesis xii-xxiv.
 Cf. Genesis xii:1-7; xxii: 7.
 Matthew xix
 Genesis xvi: 15.
 Genesis xxi: 10.
 Genesis xxi: 11-21.
 Genesis xxii.
 Council of Florence, Decree for the Jacobites, Cantáta Dómino, 4 February 1442 (Dz. 712), http://www.dailycatholic.org/history/17ecum11.htm; Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corpóris Christi, 29 June 1943, para 29-30, http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12MYSTI.HTM.