Bargaining With God: The 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
With the Bible Conference going on at Franciscan this week, I have to offer a shorter reflection on the Readings:
Who has the guts to bargain with the Divinity? Abraham, our Father in , does. In the Readings for this Sunday, we find united several themes: persistence in prayer, the justice and mercy of God, the generosity of God.
In those days, the LORD said: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great,
and their sin so grave,
that I must go down and see whether or not their actions
fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me.
I mean to find out.”
While Abraham’s visitors walked on farther toward Sodom,
the LORD remained standing before Abraham.
Then Abraham drew nearer and said:
“Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?
Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city;
would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it
for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it?
Far be it from you to do such a thing,
to make the innocent die with the guilty
so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike!
Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?”
The LORD replied,
“If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom,
I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham spoke up again:
“See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord,
though I am but dust and ashes!
What if there are five less than fifty innocent people?
Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?”
He answered, “I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there.”
But Abraham persisted, saying “What if only forty are found there?”
He replied, “I will forbear doing it for the sake of the forty.”
Then Abraham said, “Let not my Lord grow impatient if I go on.
What if only thirty are found there?”
He replied, “I will forbear doing it if I can find but thirty there.”
Still Abraham went on,
“Since I have thus dared to speak to my Lord,
what if there are no more than twenty?”
The LORD answered, “I will not destroy it, for the sake of the twenty.”
But he still persisted:
“Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time.
What if there are at least ten there?”
He replied, “For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it.”
This Reading makes several presumptions about the nature of God and our relationship with him:
a. It is possible for the righteous to intercede with God and influence the Divine will.
b. God is fundamentally just, and justice includes not only mercy for the innocent but punishment for the wicked.
c. If there is a conflict of the claims of justice and mercy, God prefers mercy.
d. God is reticent to punish the wicked, and does so only when fully justified.
These theological convictions, embedded in the narrative, have shaped Jewish and Christian understandings of the nature of God, prayer, justice, and mercy throughout history.
The sites of Sodom and Gomorrah have been discovered at Tall el-Hammam in Jordan, and are currently being excavated. They were populous and wealthy cities in their day, strongly defended and controlling important trade routes that crossed the Jordan River just north of the Dead Sea. They were indeed destroyed suddenly by an intense aerial fire burst (meteors?) that incinerated the whole area. I’ve posted on this subject previously. (Visit http://www.tallelhammam.com/
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was a tremendously traumatic event in ancient Near Eastern society. This Biblical account of the destruction insists that it was the work of God’s providence, and justified by the immorality and injustice rampant in the cities.
Abraham assumes that it is unjust of God to “treat the innocent and guilty alike.” Yet we all know of cases where God appears to do so. Jesus himself tells us that God “sends rain on the just and unjust,” and furthermore, that people who die in natural disasters are not necessarily more wicked than those who survive (see Luke 13:4). The fact is that often in this life we do not see obvious differences in the fate of the wicked and righteous (see Psalm 73). The “moral logic” of God and the universe only holds if there is an afterlife. Without faith in the life to come, it is not possible to justify the ways of God on earth. Critics will say belief in the afterlife is a psychological crutch. I beg to differ. Belief in a final judgment and an afterlife is a courageous affirmation the moral justice of God and therefore of all reality. It is part of a hope-filled worldview that refuses to capitulate to the apparent dominance of evil in this world. Moreover, it is based on the testimony and example of Jesus Christ, who alone among human beings has died and returned in the flesh to speak to us and testify about the reality of the hereafter to those who knew him and would perpetuate his teaching.
Brothers and sisters:
You were buried with him in baptism,
in which you were also raised with him
through faith in the power of God,
who raised him from the dead.
And even when you were dead
in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
he brought you to life along with him,
having forgiven us all our transgressions;
obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims,
which was opposed to us,
he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.
Let’s observe the stress that St. Paul lays on the Sacrament of Baptism. This aspect of St. Paul’s teaching is sadly neglected in American Christianity, which prefers to see St. Paul as the Apostle of “faith alone” to the exclusion of the sacraments. But here in this passage, St. Paul affirms that baptism is a spiritual burial of our old nature and a resurrection to new life in Christ. Baptism is something God does to us, not a mere external sign we perform. There is an implicit comparison with circumcision: as circumcision marked the entrance into the Old Covenant, so baptism is the “new circumcision,” in the sense that it is the rite that marks our entrance into the New Covenant.
In this Reading, we see the mercy of God at work, even as it was in the First Reading. Our merciful God works to bring us to life even when we were “dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of our flesh.” It is not as if we were righteous or even seeking God when he began to work in our life. It was while we were still wicked. So God shows mercy on the wicked—namely, on us. God “errs” on the side of mercy (so to speak), when mercy and justice oppose.
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished,
one of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend
to whom he goes at midnight and says,
‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,
for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey
and I have nothing to offer him,’
and he says in reply from within,
‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked
and my children and I are already in bed.
I cannot get up to give you anything.’
I tell you,
if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves
because of their friendship,
he will get up to give him whatever he needs
because of his persistence.
“And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
What father among you would hand his son a snake
when he asks for a fish?
Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will the Father in heaven
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
In this Gospel we get St. Luke’s version of the “Lord’s Prayer.” Why the difference in wording with St. Matthew’s more commonly-used form? Jesus taught the disciples about prayer on many occasions, and what comes down to us as “The Lord’s prayer” is a précis or abstract of Jesus’ teaching on the subject, which may vary a little from apostle to apostle or eyewitness to eyewitness, as they remembered it. Moreover, remember that Jesus taught in Aramaic but the Gospels are given to us in Greek—that is, with our Lord’s words translated. So the Lord’s prayer comes to us in slightly different forms. The Lord himself may have taught it with variations on different occasions.
The two paragraphs that follow the Lord’s prayer are meant to encourage us (1) to be persistent in prayer and (2) to trust in God’s generosity.
One may ask, if God is so generous a Father, why does he insist on our persistence in prayer. Why not give everything immediately? Or better, why make us ask at all? Why not give us everything we want and need without our asking?
Dr. Stump points out that parents who give their children everything they ask for immediately end up spoiling them; but on the other hand, parents who always say “no” estrange their children from themselves. God is a good parent, however, and the dialogue of prayer actually fosters relationship between God and his children, in which God permits the participation his children into his providential guidance of the universe. God is neither a “sugar daddy” nor a “scrooge,” but a Father who encourages us to make our needs and desires known, always trusting in his goodness.
The best gift of all is God’s gift of Himself through his Spirit, as we see in the final verse of the Gospel. This is what we have received in baptism (as in the Second Reading), and we continue to experience new “fillings” with the Spirit through prayer and our reception of the sacraments. St. James urges us not to waster prayers on material acquisitions for the sake of our pleasure (James 4:3); instead, let’s focus our prayers at this Mass on a greater reception of the Spirit, the best gift God can give us.