Sunday, July 28, 2019

Becoming a Blessing

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 once great cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that no longer exist, because (so the story says) of the outcry against them – so different were their citizens from Abraham, whose generous hospitality we heard about last week. Yet, although Abraham was himself a recent immigrant in the region, he cared enough for the local 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 shopper in some stereotypical middle-eastern marketplace. So strongly ingrained in the typical tourist mindset is that marketplace stereotype that some, who have religiously read their guidebooks, feel compelled to bargain about everything. I saw that myself in Israel when I was studying in Jerusalem in the early 1990s. A group of us had walked to Bethlehem for Mass at the Basilica, but to save time we decided to take a taxi back. When the drivers stated their fares, some in our group started trying to bargain down the amount. Meanwhile, I did a quick currency calculation in my head and said to someone else in the group, “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 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]. Now, 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.

In this, Abraham is sometimes compared favorably to Noah, who (at least as far as we know) did not intercede for 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 automatically (as contemporary events in our own country and elsewhere keep reminding us). 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 finally from destruction. Did Lot deserve to be saved? 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]. 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.

Meanwhile we 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 how we experience 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 all the peoples and nations of the world.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 28, 2019.

(Photo: Israel's Mount Sodom,  a hill along the southwestern part of the Dead Sea in the Judaean Desert , featuring the pillar named "Lot's Wife.").

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