The passage 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 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. Though a recent immigrant himself, Abraham cared enough for the original 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 market. So strongly ingrained in the typical tourist mindset is that market stereotype that, having read their guidebooks, some feel a need to bargain about everything. I saw that myself in Israel some 2 decades ago. A group of us had walked to Bethlehem for Mass at the Basilica of the Nativity, but to save time we decided to take a taxi back. When the drivers stated their fares, some in our group immediately started bargaining, trying to lower the amount. Meanwhile, I did a quick currency calculation in my head and said to a priest in the group, who like me was also from New York, “This taxi costs less than a subway ride back home. 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 account, 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 peoples of the earth.
Abraham is sometimes compared to Noah, who (at least from what little we know) showed no apparent interest in his neighbors’ fate. Abraham, in contrast, 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, whether those boundaries be national or racial or ethnic or religious or whatever – expanding them to include others who don’t necessarily look or talk or act like us – doesn’t happen automatically. It takes effort. Abraham, however, got it right – right from the beginning. In this he anticipated his greatest descendant, Jesus, who would intercede with his Father for the entire world.
Sadly, in Sodom’s case, only three were saved from destruction. Whether Lot deserved to be saved is another 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. We often don’t get what we deserve, and thanks be to God for that!
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]. How familiar does that sound? Jesus also 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, like our own, and for us modern Lots who would likewise like to linger complacently in prosperity and comfort.
But at the same time 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 there. If we, undeserving though we are, hope for God’s mercy, that hope rests entirely in Abraham’s descendant Jesus, through whom all the peoples of the world have finally been blessed once and for all, and through whom all of us have been given a lesson in how to imitate Abraham in caring about even those who neither look nor talk nor act like us.
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 as Jesus still does. In the process, 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 all the peoples and nations of the world.
Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Church of Saint Anne, Walnut Creel, CA, July 24, 2016.