Abraham keeps asking, and keeps nudging God. What if we did the same?
as retold by Deborah
God said, “I’m getting a huge number of complaints about Sodom and Gomorrah — their sins must be terrible! I’ve got to go and see if the reports are true; if not, I’ll be able to tell.”
So the men headed for Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.
Then Abraham drew closer and said, “Would you really wipe out the good along with the bad? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city; will you destroy the whole place, rather than forgive it for the sake of the fifty decent souls?
“Surely you would never do such a thing! Murder the good people with the evil ones? Treat the righteous the same as the wicked? That can’t be! Shouldn’t the Judge of all the earth judge fairly?”
God said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham said, "I’m taking it upon myself to speak to God — I, who am nothing but dust and ashes. But what if there are five less than fifty righteous souls? Will you destroy the whole city over just five fewer souls?” God said, “I won’t destroy it if I find forty-five there.”
And again Abraham spoke up, “Suppose there are forty to be found there?” God replied, “For the sake of forty I won’t destroy the town.”
Then he said, “Don’t be angry with me ... but what if there are thirty there?” God answered, “I won’t do it, if I find thirty there.”
Abraham said, “Let me face the consequences for speaking like this to You. Suppose twenty are found there?” God answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.”
Then Abraham said, “Please don’t be angry with me if I speak just one more time! Suppose ten are found there?” God replied, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy the city.”
This conversation is one of my favorite stories in the Torah/Old Testament: I love listening in as Abraham steadily wheedles a series of concessions from God. At the end I can imagine God saying, “All right, already!! I’ll leave the place alone for the sake of just ten good people. Now will you stop bothering me???”
Abe just won’t give up; he keeps talking to God, arguing with God — pushing for a more generous decision with each new request. And his persistence pays off.
Like the story of the camel who sticks his nose in the tent little by little, by the end of the conversation Abraham has moved God. The Holy One no longer pronounces a blanket condemnation of the city, but instead agrees to be merciful for the sake of only ten good souls.
It’s no coincidence that in the lectionary the associated Gospel lesson is Jesus’ teaching about the success of sincere, committed prayer:
“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.”
~ Luke 11:9-10
I’m reminded, too, of the parable of the persistent widow who goes before the judge, day after day after day, insisting on a fair hearing. In the end she — like Abraham — gets what she asks for (Lk 18:1-5).
These passages encourage us to pray with the intention of changing the way things are.
What they’re saying, in so many words, is “Pray for a miracle.” Pray as if human effort isn’t all there is. Pray as if God can make a difference in the world. Pray as if there are possibilities beyond what we can imagine.
It’s a view of prayer that we progressive Christians tend to talk around. It isn’t that we don’t pray, or that we don’t talk to God about important issues, because we surely do. Just last week a group gathered on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, praying for healing and restoration of the waters and the earth.
But the people I have spoken with felt it was primarily a prophetic statement: a call to humankind about the need to be good stewards — rather than a cry for help from Above. The consensus was that the “fixing” of the situation would have to come from human hands and human minds.
And that attitude reminds me of the popular definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over — and expecting a different outcome. Human “logic” and “reason” and unbridled technology have gotten us into this mess: to rely on more of the same as our only solution is crazy. It seems pretty clear to me that what we need now is Divine Intervention.
Sometimes I worry that we lack sufficient faith to pray with true courage. We are so often tentative in our prayers, timid in our requests; hesitant to ask for what we really want.
It is as if we want to protect God from failure: we don’t want to ask too much, lest the Eternal One not be “able” to bring about the — yes, I’ll say it — the miraculous deeds that we long for. Anticipating that our pleas will be ignored, we talk a lot about “trusting in the Beloved’s goodness,” and affirming that “God makes all things work together for good” ... eventually.
Our conservative brethren, on the other hand, get right up into God’s face: “laying claim” to miracles; insisting that the Lord can make iron float, donkeys talk, the blind see and the lame walk — not metaphorically, but really and truly.
Now that’s faith!
However, just as some of us don’t call on God’s help as much as we ought, others fall into the opposite trap: giving our concerns over to the Holy One in prayer — and then sitting back, waiting for God to “fix” everything for us.
These are two sides of the same sin: Sloth. One is the failure to earnestly pray and faithfully believe “where we have not yet seen,” — the other is the failure to do one’s share in the building of Christ’s kingdom; shirking our responsibility to “take up your cross” each day (Mt 10:38, 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23).
Folding your hands in prayer is great — but you need to roll up your sleeves and put those hands to work, too.
We have been given the gift of free will. The Holy One looks to us to set the stage: what do we desire, how will we act, what will we choose? It is possible for us to carry on without any help or guidance from Heaven: we can ignore God, despise our neighbor, and care only for ourself — but there will be consequences. We can go it alone, or we can work alongside God.
It seemed as if the cities on the plain were doomed to destruction: the heedless, self-absorbed behaviors of the populace had nearly brought an end to their civilization. Yet Abraham called upon God persistently and courageously for a reprieve — and his prayers were answered. The other side of the equation (the sadly missing side, in that case) was the people’s participation in the work of salvation.
What if the people had called upon the Lord as earnestly as Abraham did? What if they had admitted their complicity in the harm that had been done; the hostility and hatred that ruled their land, the distrust, suspicion, anger, and readiness to resort to violence? What if they knelt before God confessing what they had done and what they had left undone? What if they had prayed for forgiveness and a new beginning with as much boldness as Abraham did?
We know that the Beloved can intervene in our world, and has done so — in marvelous, miraculous ways, far beyond human imagining. Perhaps the Author of our Free Will is just waiting to be asked.
We have seen with our own eyes (1 Jn 1:1) that persistent prayer can change the outcome of what appears to be a “done deal.” As part of a prayer team, I have seen restorations, resolutions and redemptions that — according to human logic and reason — shouldn’t have happened. But they did. Miracles do happen.
Let us dare to pray like Abraham: persistently, courageously, faithfully. For, with God, all things are possible (Mt 19:26, Mk 10:27, 14:36, Lk 1:37, also Mk 9:23).
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Pray boldly, persistently, and with determination for all that troubles you. Do not be afraid: God is just waiting to be asked.