What's Your Mama's Name, Child?

Pardon the way that I’ve phrased this title, but it is a question from a song that was made popular by Tanya Tucker quite a few years ago: I’m tempted to sing it?

Thirty some odd years ago a young man came to Memphis

Asking ‘bout a rose that used to blossom in his world

People never took the time to mind the young man's questions

Till one day they heard him ask a little green-eyed girl

What's your mama's name child, what's your mama's name?

It goes on, like many country songs, to become a tear-jerker, a sad story of lost love and it doesn’t even have an old dog and a pickup truck. I’m intrigued by it because the same question that frames this song’s title was once asked by the Apostle Paul in a letter to the Galatians. They were going through a family crisis in this group of churches. The apostle had brought them together as a new Christian unit with Jesus as the Head and they had enjoyed the unity of one family saved by grace. Their family was being fragmented by those who said that all of the laws of Moses had to be added to the grace of God for them to have a complete system of faith. The preachers who came after Paul insisted that to grace had to be added all of the Law so that they could truly be called the children of Abraham, the chosen seed of God. Some have simplified the battle as being between race and grace and it was Paul’s task to write a letter to explain to them that grace was (and is) sufficient. They did not need all of the additives that we so popular among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

In what can only be considered as a Spirit-inspired display of logic, Paul uses a unique family relationship to teach a powerful lesson concerning the nature of God’s provisions for the human family and how Abraham played such a vital role in how it unfolded then and now. Here’s how it unfolds in Galatians 4:21-5:1:

21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. 24 These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written: "Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband." 28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." 31 Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. 1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

The Galatian believers had begun in the euphoria of freedom; they had been rescued by grace, but little by little they were being led back to the bondage of the Mosaic Law. They were trying to mix something with the purity of the Christian faith that was foreign to its essential character. It was akin to allowing a little Old Testament mold to grow on the New Testament bread of life. In time it would render the whole loaf inedible. The believers were being pressured back into the past leaving the power of the Spirit for the wastelands of the flesh. Their new world would convince them of their inability to keep the Law while isolating them from the new life that Christ had died to give them.

We run the same kind of risks today. We can lapse into the ritual performance of spiritual duty and be robbed of the joy of serving the Lord. There is a world of difference between coming to church and following the order of service as opposed to experiencing the touch of God as the Spirit moves in all our lives and a body of believers responds to the inner working of the Spirit. The difference is as graphic as the difference between a funeral and a family reunion. Somehow Paul had to point them back to the core of the faith and get them back on the road to growth rather than the descent to spiritual death. So he took them back to their roots, literally to the beginning of their life as a people under Abraham.

Believe me when I say that they took great pride in their forefather – a man of great faith who believed God and attained friendship with the Almighty. Perhaps what they failed to appropriate was that Abraham predated the Law and his relationship with God was brokered by faith, not works according to a code. Nevertheless, the faith of Abraham was a theme that would get their attention as it did whenever Jesus spoke the patriarch’s name. Yet Paul has a new twist to the old story, one that would make some of them fume with rage. Paul’s letter takes them to a bitter moment in Abraham’s journey, a time when it seems he faltered and took matters into his own hands and, quite literally, into his own bed!

Abraham’s life was complicated by a lack of a male heir and the covenant was still a distant promise. In fact, with advancing age it was getting more distant all of the time. A provision in the legal code of his day, which again we have to recognize as pre-Moses, allowed him (indeed obligated him) to raise a family from within his household. With the full cooperation and indeed the insistence of his wife, Abraham, at 85 years of age, fathered a child with Sarah’s Egyptian servant Hagar and Ishmael was born. Tensions within the household became so great that Hagar was forced out of the home. Genesis 16 has the entire drama of how the covenant was not to be built upon human fabrications and it is this story that Paul uses to teach one of his greatest lessons. It is worth noting that Islam holds Ishmael in very high regard and claims the prophet Muhammad is a descendant of Abraham through Ishmael.

Paul uses the story of Abraham's two sons which is contained in Genesis 16 and 21 to show that the new covenant of grace has superseded the old covenant of law and to mix them is a serious matter. He shows the deep rift between the two, not through Abraham, but by the mothers of his two children. He changes the question from “Who is your father?” to my title this evening: “What’s your mama’s name child?” The question is still a valid one for a number of reasons.

Paul is very skillful has he constructs the case for Grace being superior to Law. He cuts off retreat from merely appealing to paternity. A child can only have one father, but also only one mother. He forces them to choose, not one parent, but both. They cannot call themselves the promised children of Abraham if they remain loyal to the Law or abandon Christ for Moses! They have to choose Sarah or Hagar with the obvious consequences.

We cannot mix our lives before Christ and after Christ. To do so would be to serve two masters or to live with two sources of personal authority. There will be bickering and problems. For one, the title of an old country and western song has some real meaning, “Trying to love two women is like a ball and chain.” Trying to live under both the Old and New Covenants is a similar impossibility. Here’s the way Paul contrasted the difference:

The Old Covenant of Law 

Symbolized by Hagar the slave-girl 

Ishmael, a son born after the flesh 

  • Limited descendants 

  • Expelled from household 

Mount Sinai thundered forth the Law 

Represents Jerusalem in Paul's day, still in spiritual (and political bondage) 

Lived under raw justice. 

The New Covenant of Grace 

Symbolized by Sarah, the free woman

Isaac, born miraculously by God's promise 

  • Innumerable children 
  • Heir of many blessings 

Mount Zion announces deliverance  

Represents the heavenly Jerusalem which is free and glorious 

Lived under mercy. 

Paul is a master at logical argument and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he offers a bold challenge to those who want to live in two worlds. So often we trace descent from our father. All the Jews claimed Abraham. They told Jesus, “We have Abraham as our father.” Paul won’t let that happen. He admits that Abraham had two sons, but he asks the bold question: “What’s your Mama’s name, child?” If they say “Sarah,” Paul will convict them that they should not be living under the Law for Sarah is the mother of the child of promise. None of them would admit that Hagar was their mother, but if they followed the Law Paul says that’s whom they are related to. He forces them to choose either Sinai or Zion! Their answer will identify them as either slaves or free people.

We Christians are children of promise, like Isaac (v. 23), and therefore children of liberty (v. 31). God had promised Abraham a son long before Ishmael was born. Ishmael "was added" (like the Law, 3:19) and was a son of the flesh, a slave's son. The old covenant of law was never God's final plan for Israel. It was added, like Ishmael, and brought bondage and sorrow. God's commandment to Abraham was to cast out Ishmael and Hagar! There is a lesson here on compatibility! Law and grace, faith and works, promise and commandment, can never live in the same household. The Judaizers in Galatia wanted to invite Hagar and Ishmael back into the family again! In fact, Paul says they are marching to Sinai, not marching to Zion! And we too have to decide on our direction.

We need to listen to Paul’s letter with this hymn playing in the background:


Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;

join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song with sweet accord

and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.


We're marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;

we're marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.

Paul refers to Isaiah 54:1 and applies this verse to the church. Just as Sarah was barren and had to wait for many years for her son, so the Jews had to wait many years before God's promises to Abraham were fulfilled. Isaiah described the joy of Jerusalem after the return from exile. Paul sees a deeper meaning: your source of joy is the church in spite of its persecution and suffering. The danger Paul saw in Galatia is with us today. The flesh loves and craves "religious excitement" and feels gratified when it can keep some religious law. There are so many Christians who wander the spiritual landscape looking for the latest craze, the newest fad. They become religious adrenaline junkies until they have nothing to celebrate. While there is nothing wrong with excitement, it is just as wrong to insist on spiritual manifestations as proof of God’s presence as it is to re-invent the laws and regulations of the Old Testament. Once we’ve felt the grace of God, we must beware of inviting Hagar and Ishmael back into the family. If we begin in grace, we must continue in grace. There can be no mixture of the two. God help us to hold fast to His simple grace and the liberty it proclaims.

"Your doctrine of grace and liberty is dangerous!" Paul's enemies argued. "Why, if Christians are free from the Law, they will live wicked lives! We need the Law to control them!" So people have argued down through the centuries, little realizing that grace, not law, is the greatest teacher and "controller" in the world. The Gospel is not designed to restrict you; it is designed to redeem you. It has no interest in legal limitations; it thrives on liberty! We should have works of righteousness, but they should be the outworking of our faith, not the foundation of faith. Hear Paul in his letter to Titus (2:11-14): 11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope--the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

Paul warns the Galatians that to turn back to the old covenant is to rob themselves of the blessings Christ had purchased for them. Christ cannot profit the sinner who rejects grace and trusts law; Christ cannot profit the saint who seeks to live by some legalistic keeping of rules instead of grace. The writer to the Hebrews closes his epistle (12th chapter) with a warning to change direction to those who were marching backwards, but with words that thrill my soul: 22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (The blood of Abel cries out “Murder”, but the blood of Christ of cries out “hope” and “redemption” and “blessing.” Abel was the sad end of a short life, but the death of Christ was the beginning of eternal life for the whosoever will. Abel was killed because of a sacrifice while Jesus was the sacrifice. That’s why His blood speaks a better word.)

Progress Magazine once reported that when Billy Graham was driving through a small southern town, he was stopped by a policeman and charged with speeding. Graham admitted his guilt, but was told by the officer that he would have to appear in court. The judge asked, "Guilty, or not guilty?" When Graham pleaded guilty, the judge replied, "That'll be ten dollars -- a dollar for every mile you went over the limit."

Suddenly the judge recognized the famous minister. "You have violated the law," he said. "The fine must be paid--but I am going to pay it for you." He took a ten dollar bill from his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and then took Graham out and bought him a steak dinner! "That," said Billy Graham, "is how God treats repentant sinners!"

God’s design for our lives is to unleash the power and freedom of grace! Live in this state: “‘Tis grace that bro’t me safe thus far and grace will lead me home!”