Genesis 18 (NRSV): 20 Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me, and if not, I will know.”
22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[a] 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to my lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh, do not let my lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to my lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh, do not let my lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”
Sunday was the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, or the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (according to Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s way of numbering the Sundays). And this year that means the pericopes, or assigned readings, for the day in the Revised Common Lectionary were like a graduate seminar in prayer.
Or — in my case — more like remedial Prayer 095, the course you take in community colleges when you’re not quite ready yet for the 100-level freshman classes.
The gospel reading for the day is Luke 11:1-13, which we all know almost by heart. Jesus’ disciples ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus replies with the Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father, then tells the story of the man who asked his friend for three loaves of bread after midnight. The friend doesn’t want to get out of bed, but relents because of the man’s persistence. Ask, and it will be given to you, says Jesus. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, would give a snake instead of a fish? Or, in some translations, a stone instead of bread. “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Like so many of Jesus’ parables, Sunday’s is a little thought-provoking and unsettling. It invites further examination. The psalm for the day also invites further reflection. “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, / you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies,” reads Psalm 138, which is mostly a hymn of praise to the Lord; “you stretch out your hand, / and your right hand delivers me. […] Do not forsake the work of your hands.” And the Old Testament reading is about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
A lot there to chew on. And, for me, a new way of thinking about prayer, especially when 21st-century America is beginning to bear more than a passing resemblance to Sodom and Gomorrah.
The readings for the day also come at an opportune time for me (do they ever come at an inopportune time?) because I’ve been wrestling lately with how and when — and to whom — to pray. A further stroke of luck, or divinely ordered coincidence: I got to take two whacks at it, first in the livestreamed Sunday morning service at my Lutheran parish church and then Wednesday evening during a Zoom session for Dominican associates (not all of whom have to be Catholic), lay people who commit to the Dominican charism based on “pillars,” or standards, of prayer, study, community and service in their daily life. This is all very new to me, but prayer seems foundational to the others and I’m making it a priority for now.
Let’s pause now and give thanks for livestreaming and Zoom technology! Even the emailed prayer requests for sisters, associates, their families and friends draw me into community in this time of pandemic and voluntary self-quarantine.
So, after discussing how two years of isolation, loss, grief — and consolation — during the pandemic have affected us, we turned to the story in Genesis of Abraham’s bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. If there are 50 righteous people in the city, will you destroy it? How about 45, 40, 30, 20, 10? Will you destroy them?
So we talked back and forth, these people I’m coming to know primarily as images on a computer screen. I’ve been hearing that story all my life, in and out of the church, but this time the thought struck me as we shared our different perspectives: Hey, the guy’s praying! I hadn’t thought of it that way before
My next thought: Hey, I can do that!
After the Zoom call ended, the story of Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom stayed with me. Like a good parable (are there any bad ones?), it was a little unsettling and invited further reflection. So I looked it up.
My go-to secular source, Wikipedia tells me most secular “historians view the patriarchal age […] as a late literary construct that does not relate to any particular historical era” but adds, “Abraham’s story, like those of the other patriarchs, most likely had a substantial oral prehistory. […] At some stage the oral traditions became part of the written tradition of the Pentateuch; a majority of scholars believe this stage belongs to the Persian period, roughly 520–320 BCE.” Not much help there, although Wikipedia does pull together a sizable bibliography and 124 footnotes. The stories, including Abraham’s, are foundational to three world religions. And whatever else the scholars say about them, they’re clearly very old — and powerful.
More immediately useful was the Working Preacher, a website put up by Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., that features commentaries geared to the pericopes in the Common Lectionary. I suspect most working preachers would choose to do Sunday’s sermon on the Lord’s Prayer instead of Sodom and Gomorrah. But a commentary in Working Preacher by Samuel Giere, an associate professor of homiletics and biblical Interpretation at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, offers some context on what he calls this “whopper of an appeal from Abraham to the Lord.”
I don’t even remember when I first heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, probably as a little boy in Sunday school. And I’m pretty sure I always knew Abraham made a covenant with the Lord. But this part, as Giere puts it, went over my head till now:
The righteous serve a particular function in the economy of the Lord’s mercy toward the whole, righteous and wicked together. The presence of the righteous serves as a catalyst for God’s mercy toward the wicked. Just ten righteous folks stave off the judgment of the Lord Almighty. In this fascinating back-and-forth between Abraham and the Lord, Abraham urges the Lord toward mercy, fulfilling the purpose of the covenant.
Of course there’s a bit of a problem here. Sodom, in the end, will not be spared. As Guiere wryly observes, “it does not turn out so well for Sodom and Gomorrah.” He continues, and I think the point he makes is important:
Yet, at this point in the story, Abraham’s repeated appeal to the Lord’s mercy is at the heart of Abraham’s fulfillment of the covenant. God is free to exercise judgment. At the same time, Abraham’s faithful embodiment of the covenant petitions the Lord from justice to mercy.
I can’t help but think of the prophet Jonah here. His story turns Abraham’s on its head. When God threatens to rain down destruction on Nineveh, “that great city,” the last thing Jonah wants to show the people of Nineveh is mercy. He hates the people of Nineveh. But as commanded, he preaches anyway (and successfully, too, he’s the only prophet I’m aware of whose message was fully heard). Nineveh repents, to Jonah’s chagrin, and the Lord spares more than 120,000 “persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals.”
There’s a profound message there, and I think there are messages to be learned from taking the stories of Abraham and Jonah together. All the more so because I can’t recite a tidy-minded little “moral of the story” in 25 words or less to either.
In the meantime, there’s something I love about the the Hebrew scripture — the way God walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day; the way God and Abraham haggle over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah like a couple of shade-tree mechanics negotiating the price of a junkyard auto part; even what an angry Jonah blurts out (in Jonah 4:2-3), telling God exactly why he never wanted to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah:
“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment.
And God, being everything Jonah says God is, spares Jonah too.
At least for me, it’s a new way of thinking about prayer. I grew up with rote prayer, and prayers were something you said in church — if it didn’t match the sonorous cadences of the Book of Common Prayer I heard every Sunday growing up in the Episcopal Church, it wasn’t quite a prayer. After many years away from the church, I returned. But when I did, I had turned into a something of a spiritual mutt.
Now I try to start my day (at least on my good days) with a combination of the morning prayer in Luther’s Small Catechism —“I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected me through the night from all harm and danger. I ask that you would also protect me today from sin and all evil, so that my life and actions may please you” — and Buddhist author Jack Kornfield’s lovingkindness meditation:
May [I, you, … people everywhere, animals, all beings, the whole earth] be filled with lovingkindness.
May [I, you, etc.] be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May [I, you, etc.] be well in body and mind.
May [I, you, etc.] be at ease and happy.
Again, that’s only on my good days. (But it helps explain where the web address for my blog, https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/, comes from, even though Kornfield isn’t strictly in the tradition of Buddhism.) In the past two or three years, I’ve been reading James Martin’s Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (my copy is held together with clear duct tape), and I keep coming back to an excerpt from his Learning to Pray on America magazine’s website, “God’s voice or mine? 7 tips on what to listen to in prayer.” The idea that prayer is a two-way conversation — a “conscious relationship, or friendship, with God,” as William A. Barry puts it on the IgnatianSpirituality.com website — is quite new to me, and I take comfort in something J.J. O’Leary, SJ, says on the IgnatianSpirituality.com website: “If you want to pray, you are already praying.” It takes time, though, and I’m just getting started.
And that’s where Sunday’s lectionary reading comes in. It must sound almost blasphemous, but I wish I could back-talk God like Abraham did and pray for Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, I wish I could pray like they all did in the Hebrew Scripture.
O God, teach me to walk with you in the cool of the day, the way they did in the beginning; to call on you, the way the psalmist did, as a friend in the midst of trouble; and, yes, sometimes to pout and sulk like Jonah secure in the knowledge that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
William A. Barry, SJ, “Why Do We Pray?” IgnatianSpirituality.com, Loyola Press, Chicago https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-what-how-why-of-prayer/why-do-we-pray/.
Samuel Guiere, “Commentary on Genesis 18:20-32,” Working Preacher, July 24, 2016 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17-3/commentary-on-genesis-1820-32-2.
Michael Hurley OP, “The Four Pillars of Dominican Life,” DominicanWitness.com, Immaculate Conception Chapter, Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic, Province of St. Joseph, Washington, D.C. http://www.dominicanwitness.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/4pillars.pdf.
Martin Luther, Small Catechism, Christ the King Lutheran Church (ELCA), Houston, Texas http://ctkelc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Martin-Luthers-Small-Catechism.pdf.
James Martin, “God’s voice or mine? 7 tips on what to listen to in prayer,” America, Jan. 21, 2021 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/01/21/james-martin-book-excerpt-prayer-god-239756.
J.J. O’Leary, “A Short Course on Prayer,” IgnatianSpirituality.com https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-what-how-why-of-prayer/a-short-course-on-prayer/.
Nahum M. Sarna, “Abraham in History,” Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 3, no. 4 (Dec. 1977) https://www.academia.edu/38039132/Nahum_M_Sarna_Abraham_in_History_Biblical_Archaeology_Review_vol_3_no_4_December_1977_5_9.
[Published Aug. 3, 2022]