Even one person can work wonders

  • July 12, 2007
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C), July 29 (Genesis 18:20-21, 23-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-14; Luke 11:1-13)

Fifty – 40 – 30 – 20 – do I hear 10? The image of Abraham and God haggling and bargaining for the fate of a city and its inhabitants is rather disconcerting. It is one of many all-too-human images of God in the Bible, and reflects the mentality and understanding of people at the time it was written.
God does not destroy cities, nor does He need to. Human beings accomplish that quite well without any divine help. Human beings cannot bargain with God or manipulate the divine will. Contrary to customary belief, God’s wrath in the story is not related to homosexuality. Both scholarship and the rabbinic tradition agree: the sin of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah was injustice and the abuse of hospitality, a sacred duty in the ancient near east.

The point of the story for us is this: the righteousness and prayers of a few far outweigh the evil of the many in power and influence. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and ineffectual in the face of the world’s negativity and injustice. What can I do, I’m only one person? We should never feel helpless or think that our positive actions are ineffectual or silly.

Focusing on living a life that reflects God’s ways is far more effective than ranting or moralizing. Righteous and holy living has a multiplying and transforming effect far beyond what mere numbers would suggest. The goal is not to destroy evil but to overcome it with good. Darkness is the absence of light; become light and even the darkness is transformed.

Some ancient spiritual traditions taught that the world is held together by 50 extremely righteous and holy individuals. Are we one of them? Would we be part of Abraham’s bargain? We can at least try.

The author of Colossians is on the same page and gives us some guidance on how we can accomplish that. Baptism means dying and rising with Christ — leaving the past behind — and more importantly, being revivified by the divine life. To live one’s life in Christ means to be an extension of Christ’s saving power. Living in Christ will cost us our ego, pride and fear, but considering what we gain in the process, it is a very uneven trade. 

Teach us to pray — here’s something that should be as natural as breathing. Luke gives more attention to prayer than all of the other gospels. At every critical point in the life of Jesus, we find Him at prayer. It is natural for the disciples to want to be let in on his “secret”. Jesus at first gives them an abbreviated version of the Our Father. All of the essential elements are there: forgive, trust God totally, pray that the world reflect God’s will, live a life that glorifies God’s name. It is to be prayed and lived, for it is a formula for a godly and happy life.

But the two rather odd stories that follow were meant to be humorous and appeal to everyday experience.

The first described someone who gets out of bed to answer the strident and inconvenient requests of a pesky neighbour just to shut him up. Persistence in prayer is an important theme in Luke. It is not that God needs to be worn down or cajoled into answering our prayer. Someone who gives a minimal effort to the practice of music or sports will never be a great musician or athlete. One must practise these things until the skill becomes effortless and second nature. In a similar way, persistence in prayer transforms us into praying people rather than people who pray.

The second illustration is an example of rather dark humour. No normal parent in their right mind would give their child a snake or scorpion in response to the child’s request for nourishment. Can we expect any less of God? The promise is made that our prayers will be answered and our path illuminated when we are willing to ask, seek and knock. Not once, not twice, but continually. God is not some sort of cosmic vending machine for our needs and desires. True prayer means joining our own spiritual energy with God’s and being transformed in the process.