Ishmael, Isaac, and Palm Sunday

4-5 This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:
Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
foal of a pack animal.” 

Matthew 21:1-11

Between 1979 and 1981, twenty-nine young black people fell victim to a serial murderer in Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t know any of their names. I do have the name of JonBenét Ramsey indelibly sketched in my mind. Unlike the black children in Atlanta, JonBenét was a white American child of promise; thus, obsession with the drama surrounding her murder swept the nation in 1996. As news ratings soared, and reporters gained new levels of fame, those of us in ghettos across the nation pointed frustratingly to the contrast in the coverage of these two tragedies.

It took twenty-nine murders for the country to notice Atlanta’s missing children, while the theater surrounding JonBenét emerged immediately and was sustained for years. Shouldn’t the death of all children be treated as equally tragic and heartbreaking?

The contradictory responses drive me to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and ultimately to our Gospel for today. Isaac was a child of promise. Ishmael was not. Abraham, Isaac’s father, seems to have given little thought to sending Ishmael and his mother into the wilderness to die. I rarely hear much drama attached to the deportation of this young man and his mother. Like the children of Atlanta and so many of today’s deportees, Ishmael’s horrors seem obscured by the drama of a child of promise.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s impending death by sacrifice has garnered much theological attention throughout history, attracting the interest of biblical voyeurs, hungry for ever-increasing intrigue. Perhaps it takes a lowly ghetto-based theology to connect the story of the banished child to that of the child of promise. I imagine that Abraham was forced to confront the question, “If you think it’s OK to let kids die, then why does it feel so bad to see your own child of promise on the alter.” Like so many today, it seems Abraham needed the dramatic spectacle of his own son, being bound and dressed as a sacrificial offering, to be shocked into consciousness about oppression, injustice, and privilege.

“The Lord is God, shining upon us. Take the sacrifice and bind it with cords on the altar.”

Psalms 118:27 (NTL)

In this week’s Gospel, we read about Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem. He comes representing the marginalized Ishmael, the children of Atlanta, and also the children of promise, akin to Isaac and JonBenét. His entry signals the truth: that injustice and iniquity certainly devour the disregarded but also sacrifice the children of promise. The makeshift path of honor and shouts of Hosanna certainly marked the Savior as a child of promise. But, his chosen chariots, a beasts of burden, surely fixed him among the most lowly esteemed, those whose horrors can’t compete with Hollywood headlines. His entry is a setup, intended to shock us into the reality that even highly favored children of promise are sacrificed at the altar of power-lust and injustice. Jesus seems to be crying out, “Take note of the praises but prepare to see what they do to your child of promise.”

There is a myth; it says that going along with oppression or maintaining a posture of silence in the face of it will somehow insulate us from the damages of injustice. The triumphant entry of the Blessed One “who comes in the name of the Lord” lays bare this myth. His celebrated procession toward the cruciform alter calls us to watch, reflect, and move to righteous action. We must, because iniquity continues its mission to devour all children, be they the forgotten ones living among the world’s trash heaps, slums, and ghettos, or those cloistered behind gated communities.

In the case of Ishmael, the problem child survives, as does Isaac, the child of promise. Jesus, on the other hand, the one who represents both children, does not. We are thus left to respond to the everyday spectacle contained within the drama of humanity; sin continues to devour forgotten problem children in ghetto streets and children of promise in addiction centers. We have much before our eyes to shock us into consciousness. May the crucified one help us to see through his eyes.

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional