On perseverance

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Just what are we to make of this account of Abraham arguing with God for or against the destruction of Sodom? (Genesis 18:20-32). Are we really meant to see it as an account of the forefather of Judaism haggling with God like a tourist in a souk and gradually bringing down the price of a carpet or is something more involved? I suspect the latter, for by this stage in Genesis Abraham has gone some distance in his relationship with the Almighty. Could it be that this is a rather humorous way in which the writers of the early Mosaic texts explored the extent of the mercy of God? They began with the idea of ‘collateral damage’, something Catholic theology has taken up in the Principle of Double Effect; the notion by which, say in war, or medicine an unintended consequence might result from an action such as where the bombing of an enemy might result in the killing of civilians; or life saving procedures on a mother bring about the unintended destruction of a baby. Clearly in all this ‘Abraham’, or the writers, are testing their ideas about God and his relationship to his creation and come to certain conclusions about Him. (If you read further in Genesis you will discover that this is not their only conclusion about the actions of God regarding humanity, or indeed his entire creation.) However, for the moment they come to some conclusions; here, that whilst we can tolerate any amount of non intended effects of our actions, this seems entirely inappropriate for the creator. Abraham gets God to admit that even with the wicked city of Sodom he could not destroy it because he might thereby also take away the lives of ten innocent men. God, they recognise, is not like us and cannot tolerate such piece-meal thinking; his approach to his creation is quite different and all embracing; here he seems to care for sinner and just man alike.

Those of you familiar with this story however will know that this is not the end of the story of Abraham and Sodom, which leaves us realising that our relationship with God is not a fixed thing, but a developing story. This is what is explored in the similarly humorous passage of our gospel. (Luke 11:1-13). Here we read of the importuning of a favour by one householder of his neighbour. One can well imagine the upset caused to the man and his household when, safely behind locked doors and tucked up in bed, he is awakened in the small hours by a neighbour’s demands for bread with which to feed a visitor. Doesn’t this man have any sense of the hour, of the need to respect the hours kept by a household, and how comes it that the importuner has no bread in his own home and therefore immediately turns to his neighbour to provide for him? Is this indeed an allegory, an indication of what God is like, ever to be called on, ever able to provide for us – provided of course that we get in touch and ask him? The point surely is that we must never cease to ask God in the shape of our neighbour – someone clearly the improvident householder knew he could rely upon. “I tell you, if the man does not get up and give it him for friendship’s sake, persistence will be enough.”

God, the story makes clear, does want and wait to be asked. Our problem is that all too often we just make simple demands of God in prayer and are easily discouraged if he doesn’t turn up trumps. The continuation of our reading surely suggests this with its strange series of aphorisms clearly well known to Jesus and often used in Judaism as a virtually identical set appear in Matthew 7, suggesting a body of sayings from which Jesus worked. They are all about fatherly love and real concern towards children and exemplify above all God’s eternal concern for his children. The point is simply that if we don’t get what we expect first time round, we give up. St Augustine realised this when in his Confessions he wrote so poignantly: Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved you! For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my ugliness fell upon those lovely things that you have made. You were with me and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness; and you sent forth your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness.

Our second reading, (Colossians 2:12-14), explores by way of metaphor what the state of the baptised Christian is meant to be. You have been buried with Christ, when you were baptised and by baptism you have been raised up with him….from the dead. By becoming Christians these former pagans took on an entirely different reality from that so familiar to them from their pagan past. Living as they did in a world replete with pagan gods whom them met at every street corner in statues and temples; and living as they did in a world believed to be full of malign spirits or demons, they had entered into the life of the one, sole Christian God and been taken up into his life, eternal life. Paul quite deliberately used that most final and awe inspiring language of death and burial to convey the extent of the shift in being and meaning they had undertaken in their espousal of Christianity. From now on they are new human beings, beings changed out of all recognition by this momentous decision for Christ and they, and we, have embarked on a great journey of discovery, the greatest we shall ever make, a journey into God and we must persist in this exploration. However difficult the task seems, we have his unfailing promise that he is there to be found. Christ, as Colossians says, has overridden the Law and cancelled all the ‘debts’ that hinder our progress to Him. We have only to persist, to persevere.

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