The excerpt we just heard [Genesis 18:20-32] from the Old Testament saga of Abraham takes us back some 4000 years to the heights overlooking the then great cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Those cities now no longer exist, because (so the story tells us) of the outcry against them – so different were their citizens from Abraham, who (recent immigrant though he himself was) cared enough for the established native population that he was willing to plead with God to save them from destruction.
For some, what stands out most strongly in this story is the picturesque image of Abraham bargaining with God, as if he were some tourist in some stereotypical middle-eastern marketplace. So strongly ingrained in the tourist mindset is that marketplace stereotype that some tourists, who have religiously read their guidebooks, feel compelled to bargain to the point of apparent absurdity. I saw that myself 20 years ago in my first Sunday in Israel. A group of us had walked to Bethlehem for Mass at the Basilica, but to save time decided to take a taxi back. Then the drivers stated their fares, members of the group started trying to bargain down the fare. Meanwhile, I did a quick currency calculation in my head and said to the priest in the group, “This taxi costs less than a subway ride back home. What are we bargaining about? Let’s just get in the cab and go!”
Foreigner though he was, Abraham was certainly no tourist – a pilgrim perhaps in a land not yet his, but certainly no tourist. And his relationship with God was anything but commercial or transitory. Just before today’s excerpt, God who (as we heard last Sunday) has just experienced Abraham’s generous hospitality, suddenly says he cannot hide from Abraham what he is about to do, because Abraham is destined to become a great nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him [Genesis 18:17-18]. In this serious debate in which the fate of civilizations literally hung in the balance, we witness Abraham already at work anticipating that promised blessing for all the nations of the earth.
Abraham is sometimes compared favorably to Noah, who (at least from what little the story tells us) had no comment on the fate of his neighbors. Abraham, however, cared not only for his nephew Lot and Lot’s family, who were then living in Sodom, but for the whole population of the doomed cities. For far too many of us, far too often, Noah’s narrow concern may seem normal. Expanding the boundaries that limit those we care about – expanding them to include others who don’t necessarily look or talk or act like us – doesn’t just happen. It takes some effort. Abraham, however, got it right – right from the beginning. In this he anticipated his greatest descendant, Jesus, who would intercede with God for the entire world.
Sadly, in Sodom’s case, only three were saved from destruction. Whether Lot deserved to be saved is a question. He seems to have liked his settled and comfortable life in the prosperous city and lingered when the time came to leave. But, for Abraham’s sake, God got him out in time.
The fate of those cities has never been forgotten. The prophet Ezekiel said they were proud, sated with food, complacent in their prosperity, and they gave no help to the poor and needy [Ezekiel 16:49]. Jesus used Sodom’s story as a warning. Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words – he said to his disciples – it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town [Matthew 10:14-15].
In a sense, those corrupt cities stand for human civilization in its most advanced and successful state of development, complacently prosperous and comfortable and deserving of judgment – a salutary warning perhaps for other advanced and successful societies and for modern Lots who would likewise like to linger complacently in prosperity and comfort.
On the other hand, the story also suggests that for the sake of just a few innocent people God would have been willing to spare the cities. Unfortunately there were none to be found. If we, undeserving though we are, hope to be saved, that hope rests entirely in Abraham’s descendant Jesus, through whom all the nations of the world have finally been blessed once and for all.
The way Abraham insistently interceded for the citizens of Sodom says a lot about the seriousness of his relationship with God. After all, the way I ask for a favor always says something significant about my relationship with the one I’m asking the favor from!
Today’s Gospel [Luke 11:1-13] challenges to ask ourselves about our relationship with God. Is he a Father who can be counted on to give us that fish or that egg he knows we need even better that we may know it? A Father, who will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?
In inviting us to call his Father our Father, Jesus enables us to enter into a special relationship with God similar to his own – sufficiently similar that we can confidently pray to God as frankly and freely as Abraham did and Jesus does. Thus, we may become more like Abraham and ultimately more like Jesus, who by becoming a blessing for us enables us to join our prayer to his and so become a blessing for the whole world.
Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 28, 2013.