Brief synopsis of the readings: Today’s first reading centers on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. While God is clearly angry at the inhabitants, Abraham is hoping to save those two cities. In a back and forth dialogue Abraham asks if God will spare the city if there are 50, or 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or 10 righteous men. God promises if there are even 10 righteous men he will not destroy them. In the Gospel, Jesus’ followers ask him how to pray. Jesus answers with what we all recognize as the Lord’s prayer. He then went on to explain that God’s generosity is greater than our generosity to each other.
Twenty seven years ago, as a seminarian, I spent the summer at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole, Alaska (no kidding). I joined the pastor (Mike) and a retired priest (Joe). At the time the parish wanted to purchase a trailer and negotiated with its owner. Joe told us that he met with the owner and said: “He wanted too much money for this but I Jew’d him down.” In our horror Mike and I tried to explain to Joe that this was a horribly anti Semitic and offensive statement, but to no avail. The next Sunday we read this reading from Genesis and Joe exclaimed to us: “See? It’s not offensive. It’s what Abraham was doing to God!”
Joe died a few years later and I pray that when he got to Heaven he ran into Abraham who told him he was wrong.
These readings are about prayer and how we should approach prayer. Too often I think we think of prayer as polarized between two very different extremes. On one end God created the world in much the way a watchmaker builds a watch: the watchmaker then winds the watch and walks away. In this scenario the watch will unwind the way it was intended and there’s no point in praying to the watchmaker because he has walked away and moved on. God has given us free will, and we are in charge of how we exercise it.
On the other end God created the world and watches us with great interest. Here God listens to all of our prayers (all of our prayers) and decides which prayers to grant and which to deny; in other words “God always answers prayers, and sometimes the answer is no.”
It’s been my experience that most of us find the first scenario horrifying and the second welcoming. The call for us to pray, to communicate with God, goes back to the Garden of Eden. And the idea of using prayer to ask for something, what we now call petitionary prayer, finds its origin in Genesis 4:14. The sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, found themselves in competition and Cain murdered Able. Enraged, God banished Cain and Cain responded: “Since you have now banished me from the soil, and I must avoid your presence and become a restless wanderer on the earth, anyone may kill me at sight.” Simply put, Cain asked God for mercy; and God responded with mercy promising to protect him.
It’s easy for us to look at this scene, and the first reading, as humans persuading God to act one way or another. If our prayer is fervent enough, or pious enough, or sincere enough, God will grant it to us. This is certainly popular: televangelists in our own time have made an obscene amount of money coaching us how to ensure we use the best formula to convince God on the righteousness of our prayer.
Joel Osteen tells us to “[k]eep a good attitude and do the right thing even when it’s hard. When you do that you are passing the test. And God promises you your marked moments are on their way.” I’m not suggesting we should not keep a good attitude but this quote essentially tells us that if we do what God wants us to do, God will find us deserving of our desire. It’s a cosmic “Let’s Make a Deal.”
It also goes the other way. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks conservative Christians claimed that God allowed this to happen because of the Americans who supported abortion, gay rights, and feminism. Proponents of abortion, marriage equality, and feminism not only didn’t enjoy God’s generosity, they caused the death of innocents.
So let’s dial back our first reading and look at it through new eyes. Maybe Abraham wasn’t so much trying to persuade God as to understand God. As the dialogue between Abraham and God progresses, we see Abraham’s words growing more and more meek as he fears angering God. But he does persist. And as he does persist, God’s response becomes more and more generous. Taking aside the fact that Sodom and Gomorrah was eventually destroyed, the more Abraham pushed God, the more merciful God answered. I like to think Abraham walked away from this dialogue impressed at God’s mercy.
If we think of dialogue with God as prayer, the transition to the Gospel is seamless. When Jesus’ disciples saw him praying, they asked him how to do it. Like anything, if you want to learn how to do something you ask someone who knows how to do it to teach you. Alcoholics Anonymous is based on the concept that you find someone who has what you want and you ask has him/her how to do it.
Jesus’ disciples hardly needed to find people who knew how to pray. Jews of the time knew all sorts of learned people who would be happy to instruct them. But they (and Jesus) knew that most of their prayer wasn’t so much prayer as bragging (“God, I thank you for blessing me with the wealth I earned”).
And so when they asked Jesus how to pray he gave them the prayer that we now recognize as the Lord’s Prayer. Many of us pray the Lord’s Prayer so often that we can easily zone out and not pay attention to what we’re asking for.
We shouldn’t: there is an elegance to this prayer. Here is what we promise: We will hallow (honor) God’s name. We will forgive others. Here’s what we ask of God: We ask that God’s Kingdom come and God’s will be done, both here and in Heaven. Give us what we need (our daily bread) and forgive our sins (trespasses). Help us avoid temptation and deliver us from evil.
Later in this mass we will recite this prayer. As you pray it, listen with new ears. Recognize that we are asking for what we need, not what we want or think we deserve. Let us see prayer not as a way of changing God, but as a way of changing ourselves.