July 28, 2019: 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Genesis 18:20-32

In those days, the LORD said: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great,
and their sin so grave,
that I must go down and see whether or not their actions
fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me. 
I mean to find out.”

While Abraham’s visitors walked on farther toward Sodom,
the LORD remained standing before Abraham. 
Then Abraham drew nearer and said:
“Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? 
Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city;
would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it
for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it? 
Far be it from you to do such a thing,
to make the innocent die with the guilty
so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! 
Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?” 
The LORD replied,
“If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom,
I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 
Abraham spoke up again:
“See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord,
though I am but dust and ashes! 
What if there are five less than fifty innocent people? 
Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?” 
He answered, “I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there.”
But Abraham persisted, saying “What if only forty are found there?” 
He replied, “I will forbear doing it for the sake of the forty.” 
Then Abraham said, “Let not my Lord grow impatient if I go on. 
What if only thirty are found there?” 
He replied, “I will forbear doing it if I can find but thirty there.” 
Still Abraham went on,
“Since I have thus dared to speak to my Lord,
what if there are no more than twenty?” 
The LORD answered, “I will not destroy it, for the sake of the twenty.”
But he still persisted:
“Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time. 
What if there are at least ten there?” 
He replied, “For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it.”

This week’s first reading actually continues the Old Testament reading we heard last week, which is very unusual. As you recall, last week we heard of Abraham’s encounter with the three visitors (the Lord and two angels) and the promise of a son (Genesis 18:1-10a).

When the visit was over, “the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off.”

The dialogue that ensues between God and Abraham over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is a theological inquiry into the nature of divine justice.

In those days, the LORD said: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, that I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out.”

This reflects what is thought to be a primitive theology (see also Genesis 11:5 – the Tower of Babel) wherein God does not see all, but receives reports.  God has heard the outcry against oppression and wishes to investigate the situation before deciding on a course of action.  (We must remember that Abraham lived about eighteen centuries before Christ.)

While the two men walked on farther toward Sodom, the LORD remained standing before Abraham.

The two angels (appearing in human form) go ahead to the cities, while the Lord remains behind with Abraham.

Then Abraham drew nearer to him and said: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty, so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?” 

The underlying question that drives the exchange between Abraham and God is one of justice.  There is tension between communal guilt and innocence and individual guilt and innocence.  If the city is guilty it should be punished, but what if there are innocent individuals in that city?

In traditional societies, identity and significance are more communal than personal.  Within this construct (referred to as “corporate personality”), more emphasis is given to the group than to the individual member.  Furthermore, the consequences of the actions of the head of the group are felt by the members; for example, the effects of the first sin.

Within this context, one can ask: If the guilt of some can result in the suffering of all, cannot the innocence of some hold back the hand that inflicts the suffering?

The LORD replied, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Abraham spoke up again: “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes! What if there are five less than fifty innocent people? Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?”

Abraham exhibits extraordinary deference toward the Lord.  In customary Near Eastern style, he prefaces each of his inquiries with adulation.  However, it is still he who boldly initiates the exchange that probes the nature of divine justice.

We might think that this story will be about whether or not Sodom and Gomorrah are sinful towns, but it is not. The story is about whether or not God is a just God.

“I will not destroy it,” he answered, “if I find forty-five there.” But Abraham persisted, saying, “What if only forty are found there?” He replied, “I will forebear doing it for the sake of the forty.”

Abraham will question God a total of six times about the parameters of divine justice, and each time God admits that he would not destroy the city if that number of innocent people were in it.

Then he said, “Let not my Lord grow impatient if I go on. What if only thirty are found there?” He replied, “I will forebear doing it if I can find but thirty there.” Still he went on, “Since I have thus dared to speak to my Lord, what if there are no more than twenty?” “I will not destroy it,” he answered, “for the sake of the twenty.” But he still persisted: “Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time. What if there are at least ten there?” “For the sake of those ten,” he replied, “I will not destroy it.”

Abraham moves progressively from fifty to ten people whose innocence is strong enough to withstand the punishing arm of God, which is raised against the city.

The conclusion: God is just.  The fate of the guilty and the innocent are not the same.

2nd Reading – Colossians 2:12-14

Brothers and sisters:
You were buried with him in baptism,
in which you were also raised with him
through faith in the power of God,
who raised him from the dead. 
And even when you were dead
in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
he brought you to life along with him,
having forgiven us all our transgressions;
 obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims,
which was opposed to us,
he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.

This week is the third in a four-week series on Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  This passage appears to be baptismal instruction, through which Paul assures the Colossians that they have been forgiven all their sins.  Paul describes the effects of the triumph of the power of God in the lives of believers as manifested in the resurrection of Christ.

Brothers and sisters: You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him

Paul relates Christ’s burial in the grave of the earth with the Christian’s burial in the waters of baptism.  (Recall that the term baptism comes from a Greek word for “plunge” or “immerse.”)

The death of Christ was historical; the death of the Christian is death by identification.

through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

It is clear that it isn’t the ritual of baptism itself that saves, but rather the faith in Christ present in the Christian who submits to the ritual.  Joined to Christ in faith, through baptism they enter the grave, the realm of the dead, only to rise with Christ to a new life.

“And on that night of His passion and death He showed them the Sacrament of Baptism, just as the Apostle has stated: ‘You have been buried with Him in Baptism unto death, and you have risen up with Him in the power of God (Romans 6:4-5; Colossians 2:12).’ Know then, my beloved, that the Baptism of John was of no value for the forgiveness of sins, but for repentance.” [Aphraates the Persian Sage (between A.D. 336-345), Treatises 12,10]

And even when you were dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him,

Paul moves from the concept of actual physical death to that of spiritual death.  This is the condition of those who, because of sin, are separated from God, the source of life.

having forgiven us all our transgressions;

It’s important to note that it was precisely while they were sinners that they were saved.  In the past, the Gentile Colossians were dead not only because of sin but also because they had not undergone the ritual of circumcision, the ceremony the Jews maintained initiated the men into the company of the saved.  Paul, himself one of the circumcised, shifts from speaking exclusively about his Gentile audience (“brought you”) to speaking inclusively about all who were guilty of sin (“forgiven us”).  In this way, without rejecting the rite itself, Paul acknowledges circumcision’s inability to forgive sin.  Only interior faith in Christ manifested in the external expression of baptism can accomplish that.

obliterating the bond against us,

The word translated as “bond” is found only here in the New Testament and is used to indicate a handwritten bond of debt.  The image is of a debt that was originally set to writing but has now been expunged.

In other words, the debt owed because of the transgressions of the past is canceled.

with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst,

The baptized Christians have gone down into death with Christ and have been raised with him to new life.  The new life into which they have been raised brings with it a new standard of living, a new ethical code.  Since they have died and are living a new life, the legal claims of the past are no longer binding, claims that appear to have been more of a burden than a guide.

nailing it to the cross.

Just as indictments of death were nailed to the cross of the criminal, so this notice of cancellation of debt is also nailed.  Just as the cross was the instrument for carrying out the death sentence, so it is now the source of life.

“See to it that we do not again become debtors to the old contract. Christ came once; he found the certificate of our ancestral indebtedness which Adam wrote and signed. Adam contracted the debt; by our subsequent sins we increased the amount owed. In this contract are written a curse, and sin, and death and the condemnation of the Law. Christ took all these away and pardoned them. Saint Paul cries out and says: ‘The decree of our sins which was against us, he has taken it completely away, nailing it to the cross.’ He did not say ‘erasing the decree,’ nor did he say ‘blotting it out,’ but ‘nailing it to the cross,’ so that no trace of it might remain. This is why he did not erase it but tore it to pieces.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 388-389), Baptismal Catecheses 3,21]

Gospel – Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished,
one of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” 
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend
to whom he goes at midnight and says,
‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,
for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey
and I have nothing to offer him,’
and he says in reply from within,
‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked
and my children and I are already in bed. 
I cannot get up to give you anything.’
I tell you,
if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves
because of their friendship,
he will get up to give him whatever he needs
because of his persistence.

“And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you. 
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 
What father among you would hand his son a snake
when he asks for a fish? 
Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? 
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will the Father in heaven
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

This discourse on prayer can be divided into three separate but related segments: the Lord’s Prayer, an example of persistence prayer, and the assurance of being heard.

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”

Throughout his gospel, Luke portrays Jesus as a praying Messiah. In fact, Jesus is seen praying in Luke more than all three other Gospels combined, beginning with his baptism in Luke 3:21.

It was Jesus at his own prayer that prompted his disciples to ask for direction in their prayer, just as the disciples of other religious leaders (in this case, John the Baptist) had been taught to pray by them.  Religious groups were marked by their own prayer customs and forms.  The Pharisees, the Essenes, the disciples of John all had their own prayers which distinguished them from other groups; the disciples, too, wanted an “identification prayer” to bind them together and express their chief beliefs.

He said to them, “When you pray, say: 

It is unclear whether this should be seen as an actual prayer to recite or as a pattern to follow in praying.  Most commentators believe it is the latter or both.

In its simplicity, the prayer that follows contrasts sharply with the very fulsome formulations used in Jewish and Greco-Roman prayers of the day, not to mention some of today’s equivalents.

Father,

Abba, a diminutive of endearment that was used by adults as well as children for their own fathers; an expression of intimate, personal relationship.  Using this invocation at prayer, Jesus suggests a relationship with God that is intimate and child-like.  The disciples also enjoy this paternal relationship because of Jesus, for it was Jesus who called God “Father” and here invites his disciples to do the same.

We must keep in mind just how radical a privilege it was for Jews to address God as “Father.”  The Creator of the universe, Lord of heaven and earth, is our Abba, the equivalent of the modern Daddy?

hallowed be your name,

Since a person’s name comprises the character of that person, to pray that God’s name be made holy is to pray that God be given appropriate honor — by everyone, and ourselves in particular.

By this first petition, Jesus is teaching us that we must desire God’s glory more than any interests of our own.  And while we are to cultivate an intimate relationship with God, we are to simultaneously be aware of God’s glory and majesty.

your kingdom come.

Praying for the coming of the reign of God is a prayer for eschatological fulfillment.  A kingdom is a place where the king’s will prevails; therefore, while Luke’s version does not include the line “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” from Matthew’s version, the meaning is the same.

This petition means, “Lord, let nothing except the presence of your kingdom rule and determine all my actions.”  This is difficult: Jesus literally sweat blood over it.

Interestingly, these first two pleas are found in the same order and with almost the same wording as the Qaddish prayer that ends the Jewish synagogue service.  Although the synagogue prayer came later than this passage from Luke, it suggests that the prayer of Jesus has much in common with traditional Jewish prayer.

Give us each day our daily bread

Jesus then teaches the disciples to pray for their daily necessities, not as individuals but as members of a community (note the plural pronouns).  In the Jewish culture of the day, food and meals were not just a means for staying alive; every table fellowship was (and is) a demonstration of brotherhood.

The verb form used here denotes continuous giving. There is a question about the meaning of the rare word that modifies “bread” (epioúsion).  Most commentators agree that “daily” best captures its intent. These features point to constant dependence on God rather than some form of material or eschatological satisfaction.

and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, 

Just as essential as bread is forgiveness.  Our need for forgiveness obliges us to forgive others: the magnitude of God’s forgiveness makes it ridiculous for us not to forgive one another our petty offenses.  If we don’t forgive one another we’re demonstrating, in effect, that we’ve not really accepted the great forgiveness of God’s love offered to us.

Note that this is the only reference in the “Our Father” of action on the Christian’s part.

So rigorously does God exact from us forgetfulness of injuries and mutual affection and love, that he rejects and despises gifts and sacrifices of those who are not reconciled to one another (Matthew 5:23-24).

and do not subject us to the final test.”

The closing petition is that one is not subjected to the final test, which appears to be the temptation to abandon God: apostasy.  Jesus will twice more advise the disciples to pray that they not undergo the test, both times during his agony in the garden (Luke 22:40b, 22:46).

These petitions all point to the continuing need for God in the present struggles of life.

“In summaries of so few words, how many utterances of the prophets, the Gospels, the apostles— how many discourses, examples, parables of the Lord, are touched on! How many duties are simultaneously discharged! The honour of God in the ‘Father;’ the testimony of faith in the ‘Name;’ the offering of obedience in the ‘Will;’ the commemoration of hope in the ‘Kingdom;’ the petition for life in the ‘Bread;’ the full acknowledgment of debts in the prayer for their ‘Forgiveness;’ the anxious dread of temptation in the request for ‘Protection.’ What wonder? God alone could teach how he wished Himself prayed to. The religious rite of prayer therefore, ordained by Himself, and animated, even at the moment when it was issuing out of the Divine mouth, by His own Spirit, ascends, by its own prerogative, into heaven, commending to the Father what the Son has taught.” [Tertullian, On Prayer, Chapter 9]

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ 

Only Luke gives this parable which teaches that one of the essential features of prayer is trusting persistence.

While the midnight setting might seem odd for such a request, in the Holy Land, travelers often moved by night to avoid the daytime heat of the sun.

The duty of hospitality in this culture was serious and sacred; doors were wide open during the day, to welcome one another.  No one would knock on a shut door unless the need was really urgent.

and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ 

Typically peasants slept together as a family on a mat in the raised part of a single-roomed house.  To remove the large bar and open the closed door at night was noisy and would wake everyone.

The friend is not upset because he was awakened, nor was he unwilling to share his bread with his friend.  He was upset because he didn’t want to disturb his family.

I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” 

He finally gives in because his insistent friend would not.  What was not achieved because of friendship was accomplished because of persistence.  Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will tell a similar parable about an unscrupulous judge and a persevering widow (Luke 18:1-15) to teach exactly the same lesson: perseverance in prayer.

And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Jesus assures the disciples that their prayers will be answered.  Like the sleeping man, God is willing to give, but one must ask.  He is willing to open the door, but one must knock. He is willing to answer prayers, but one must pray.

What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

As we read the previous line, we may understandably think of times when we prayed hard for something and it was not granted, or recall that Jesus prayed that he not have to drink the cup of his passion, but he was crucified just the same (Luke 22:42).  Jesus answers that concern here, asking the disciples to believe that their prayers will always be answered for their good, even if it is not what the beloved child wants.  It was through this belief that Jesus himself prayed “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42b).  And accordingly, instead of rescue he received resurrection, which was an infinitely greater good.  God knows how to give good gifts to his children.

Jesus describes this through the use of a Jewish form of argument: “from the lesser to the greater.”  If a human father gives good things rather than harmful things to his children, how much more will the Father in heaven give good things to those who ask for them, the greatest good being the Holy Spirit?

As we pray for the Holy Spirit, a prayer that will certainly be answered with a “yes,” we will grow in our ability to trust in God’s love and God’s provident care in our lives.

Connections and Themes

The readings for this Sunday reflect on the prayer of the disciple.  They suggest some of the predispositions for praying; they give insight to the content of Christian prayer; they offer an idea of what can happen to us when we pray.  Jesus himself gives us the Our Father, a prayer that contains within itself all of the characteristics of prayer that we will consider.

Predispositions for prayer.  As children, we learned there are different kinds of prayer: praise, contrition, thanksgiving, and petition.  All these different prayers recognize two fundamental realities: we are a dependent, needy people; our needs can only be adequately met by our sovereign God.  In the gospel, Jesus instructs us to ask for what we need, to seek what we desire, to knock on the door behind which we hope to find our fulfillment.  He assures us we will receive what we request, we will find what we seek, and the door will be opened to us.  In other words, God is more than willing to give us what we need.  However, for this to happen we must turn to God and humbly acknowledge our need.

Characteristics of prayer.  Our prayer is always directed toward God, as we see in the Our Father.  Even if we pray to Mary or one of the saints, we are still praying to God because these others only act as intermediaries for us before God.  Therefore the first characteristic of prayer is that it is directed toward God.  Regardless of whether it is an explicit prayer of praise or contrition or thanksgiving or petition, as prayer it acknowledges the majesty of God and is, therefore, a prayer of praise.  In the Our Father, we praise God’s name.

While prayer often includes mention of the petitioner’s own needs, the two narratives this Sunday describe prayer offered for someone else.  Abraham asks for mercy for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the man in the gospel asks for bread for his friend.  Generosity of heart is a second characteristic of prayer.

The most obvious characteristic depicted in the readings for this Sunday is persistence.  Neither Abraham nor the man in the gospel was deterred by any obstacle.  They show it is not so much that we persist in prayer in order to change God’s mind as it is that we persist in order to discover what God’s mind might be.  How would Abraham have known the number of righteous required to save a city if he had not gradually reduced the number?  How would the man have known he was willing to risk his friendship with another in order to fulfill his obligation of hospitality?  Persistence in prayer reveals to us the lengths to which we are willing to go for another.

The effectiveness of prayer.  The salutariness of prayer is often found in the change it effects in us, not in God.  While it is true our prayer may not change the situations for which we pray, it is also true that frequently we change in the praying.  By persevering in genuine prayer we may come to acknowledge that all things are in God’s hands and that we can rest content to leave them there, trusting the situation will be cared for as God sees fit.  It seems trite to say God hears all prayer and sometimes the answer is ‘no’; it is better to say God respects the freedom of people and will seldom intervene to change the way events unfold.  Still, prayer can change the one who prays and also the one for whom the prayer is offered, if human need is recognized and divine solicitude is acknowledged.

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