-Fr. Martin Browne OSB
There is a touch of comedy about the scene in today’s first reading, as Abraham negotiates with God. God is angry with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and is planning to destroy them. Emboldened by his obvious favour in God’s eyes, Abraham dares to try to talk God down from his rage. ‘Surely you wouldn’t wipe them all out if there are 50 decent men there? You wouldn’t want to destroy the decent men as well as the criminals now, would you?’ And then he delivers the killer blow. ‘Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ – a passive aggressive way of saying: ‘I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but really, that kind of thing just isn’t what a good God is supposed to do!’ It was a ‘courageous’ ploy… Trying to corner an angry all-powerful deity with clever arguments like this could have resulted in Abraham’s own immediate destruction by a thunderbolt or fire or some other weapon of divine wrath. But he got away with it. ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’
And so, he continued bargaining: ‘What if there are only 45? How about 40? And if there are only 30? What about 20? And even if there are only 10?’ There’s a touch of Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper in the TY series, Fr Ted in his repeated and insistent deprecations – ‘Ah, go on, go on, go on!’ Again and again, he ups the stakes, and again and again the Lord God concedes that he won’t destroy the city for the sake of 50, or 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or even just 10 just men. ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’
Thus ends the reading we heard this morning. If you opened your Bible and read on from where the reading ends, you would discover that in the end, not even ten could be found, and so, after allowing Lot and his family to escape, the Lord God did in fact destroy the city… So, what’s the point of us reading this rather bizarre and fantastic story at Mass? Well, when we listen to it alongside the Gospel we’ve just heard, there’s surely something in it about having the courage and the confidence to ask God for things. We heard in the Gospel: ‘Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’ Jesus literally tells us to ask God for what we need.
Despite the offence that human activity often causes, and the wrath that human sinfulness surely warrants, the God of Abraham, the Father of the Lord Jesus, hears the cries of those who call on him and shows mercy to them. For that is God’s nature. As Abraham so cheekily pointed out, far be it from God to slay the righteous with the wicked. It is God’s nature to act with tenderness towards his people, for he is a loving Father, and that’s what loving Fathers do. Loving Fathers don’t give their children snakes when they ask for fish and they don’t give them scorpions when they ask for eggs. They give them what they need and what will nourish and sustain them.
For many people, prayer can tend to be only about asking God for things. We’re doing fine on our own when things are going well and often forget about God, but when a problem arrives, we remember God and turn to him. Even for some people who pray regularly, their praying can involve long lists of petitions and intentions. It would be easy to look down on this kind of prayer as a bit childish. Certainly, a deep relationship with God needs regular attention and a good deal of listening as well as asking if we are not to reduce God to being some kind of fairy godmother or genie. But if today’s readings tell us anything, they assure us that there’s nothing childish or immature about asking God to be present and to make himself known when we are in need. Abraham was brave enough to ask when the Lord was full of wrath, and was listened to. Jesus, whose own relationship with the Father was the most intimate of all, taught us to do the same. To ask, and to ask again. And again and again, assuring us that ‘everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds’.
Sadly, I’m sure all of us have at some time prayed earnestly and wholeheartedly and repeatedly for intentions where the outcome was not what we had hoped for. The assurance that everyone who asks receives can seem very hollow indeed to someone suffering from a terminal illness, or to someone standing by the coffin of a loved one. Was God deaf to their prayers? Is he fickle and capricious? Does he even exist? I think we have to take Christ’s word for it when he says that everyone who asks receives. They might not receive exactly what they asked for, in the way they asked for it, but surely, they will receive from him. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways…’ We may not be able to corner or manoeuvre God like Abraham did, but he looks upon us with love, is present to us, and hears our prayers. Trusting that he will answer, in his way and in his time, is a leap of faith. Today’s Gospel encourages us to take that risk and to make that leap.
Even when apparently absent or deaf, God is surely present and listening. There is some comfort, I think, in remembering that Jesus’s own prayer in Gethsemane that ‘this cup pass’ him by seemed not to have been heard. But he even though he could not avoid the Cross, ultimately, he triumphed. His prayer was answered, but not quite in the way he might have hoped as he suffered and sweated in his agony. As Pope Francis writes:
Holy Saturday is not the final chapter, because on the third day, Sunday, is the Resurrection. … On the second-last day, there is temptation, when the devil makes us think he has won… But the evil one is never lord of the last day: God is the Lord of the last day. Because that belongs to God alone, and it is the day when all human longings for salvation will be fulfilled. Let us learn this humble patience, to await the Lord’s grace, to await the final day. Very often, the second-last day is very hard, because human sufferings are hard. But the Lord is there. And on the last day, he solves everything.