In over forty years of pastoral ministry, it has been my experience that many people, usually around their late-twenties to early-thirties (earlier for the ambitious or precocious!), engage (or desire to engage) in conversation with their older generations of family and extended family. Mostly, to hear the stories and memories that may serve as historical lenses to see one’s self more clearly. Sometimes, to raise critical questions about nurture; sometimes, concerning an unmet need for unconditional (or less conditional) love. This tête-à-tête often foretells a change in relationship.
Nearly forty years ago, I poured out my questions and confusions with my parents. Without going into detail, there were raised voices, deep sighs, and tearful silences. Finally, my father asked, “What do you want? We can’t go back and do it over!” I said, “I need to know that you hear me.” Quietly, he replied, “I hear you.” That moment signaled our transformation toward a relationship – no longer between parents and child, but among adults – of greater mutual understanding.
From Sodom and Gomorrah, God hears an outcry, comes down to investigate, and talks with Abraham. Abraham, an advocate for the defense, challenges God.
Is Abraham disturbed God’s indictment of the people’s collective guilt and, thus, the all-inclusive judgment? That all will be destroyed for the sins of the few?
Or is Abraham, with familial loyalty, determined to save his nephew Lot and his family who live in Sodom?
Or is Abraham, like a grown-up child, taking God to task? Questioning the why and how of the long, arduous and dangerous road that he and Sarah were compelled to walk from God’s first call to them to leave their homeland to the fulfillment of the Divine promise that they, even in their aged years, would be forebears of a great nation?
We are left to guess.
Whatever the compelling reason, Abraham doesn’t (and, given his ancient worldview, couldn’t) ask God to consider the idea of righteous individualism; that each one stands or falls on one’s own good or evil. Rather Abraham appeals to God precisely in accord with the established law of judgment. Arguing, in effect: “Lord, if you do as you plan, it…you will be as unjust as the injustice of Sodom and Gomorrah. And, if, collectively, the sins of a few condemn all, cannot the righteousness of a few save all?” God answers, essentially, “Yes, but with limits.”
Ultimately, Abraham loses his case. Ten righteous are not found. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.
Nevertheless, even in losing, something is gained.
In Genesis, up to this point, God’s authority is absolute. Discerning, deciding, and dictating; silent submission the only righteous response. Here, Abraham demonstrates a deeper understanding of faith. Less passive in obedience to Divine command. More mutual, more dialogical, as a faithful, though not quite equal partner. Marking a change in the relationship between humanity and divinity.
A change we behold in the relationship of Jesus and God. God so near, so intimate as to be called “Abba.” Through Jesus, a change in relationship so near, so intimate that the disciples want it too, asking, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
They weren’t looking for the latest contemplative technique. Even less, the etiquette of ritual observance. They hungered to know, love, and trust God the way Jesus, and Abraham before him, knew, loved, and trusted God. A knowing, loving, and trusting so near, so intimate, so mutual that God was as responsible (response-able, able to respond) to humanity as humanity to God.
A change for which I long in all of my earthly relationships. A change I sought through that conversation with my parents many years ago. For the nearness and intimacy of my prayer life, expressive of my desire to be close, to be connected with God, is directly, immediately related to the depth of my human relationships. I am only as good at being with God as I am at being with you and myself. Dare I declare that this is true for all of us.
Thus, when the disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” they weren’t asking Jesus to tell them how to do something spiritual, but rather how to be someone truly human.
© 2022 PRA
Illustration: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), John Martin (1789-1854)