Among the Bible’s masterpieces—in and among such masterpieces as the 23rd Psalm, Mary’s Magnificat and the Beatitudes—there lurk a great many utterly inscrutable stories. And among these inscrutable stories, today’s story might take the cake.
This story begins as a simple notification that turns into a negotiation. But, oh my word, what a negotiation it is! And, the negotiating partners? No less than Father Abraham and God.
The story opens with God’s ears cocked. God is listening to us, to humans. Like a new parent who is forever listening with at least one ear for the baby’s sounds—its breathing and gurgling, its cries and laughter ... or, God forbid, the sound of too much silence—so does God listen to and for us. God has at least one ear forever cocked earthward, human-ward.
The same God who will later hear the groaning of the Israelites suffering in bondage, is listening in this story. What God hears—that which has aroused God’s curiosity and concern—is the sound of a great hue and cry, an outcry arising from the earth, from humans ... an outcry against two entire cities ... cities that are full of sin.
Where sin is present, pain is present. Because these two cities are full of sin, they are also and poignantly, full of pain. And God cannot (will not) abide too much human pain.
God hears the people of the earth complaining about two cities whose sins are ... unoriginal. They cry out in anguish over excessive consumption by the rich, coupled with indifference to the needy. They cry out over the kind of pride that cometh before the fall: human pride ... the kind of I-am-the-master-of-my-universe pride or the I-am-a-self-made-man pride, or the I-am-more-evolved-than-others pride. And third, they cry out against the exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful.
These cities are guilty of and infested with a trinity of unoriginal sins.
So, the conversation begins when God informs Abraham that there is a great hue and cry arising from the earth. Indeed, the hue and cry against these two cities is so great—the pain caused by the sins so deep—that God cannot but act. When human sin grows so toxic and virulent, so invasive and pervasive so as to cause a metropolis of misery, a city’s worth of suffering, God cannot but intervene.
The convention, the assumption shared throughout the Ancient Near East was this: good people will prosper and evil people will be punished. It was a closed and shared theological system of retribution. The equation was simple and predictable: bad behavior begets punishment.
What’s more, there was a shared assumption that when evil grows so vile and pervasive, when it has infected almost everything and everyone, the only remedy is total annihilation (remember the Flood story). Total annihilation means that along with the wicked, a least a few righteous will become unfortunate casualties (collateral damage, if you will) of an otherwise reasonable sentence of destruction.
Those are the shared assumptions: evil people will be punished and overwhelming evil will require total annihilation—the good perishing with the bad—for the sake of a fresh start.
It is into this context, with these assumptions that God informs Abraham of what is about to happen. The sin of these two cities is so great, the pain caused by human sin so deep and pervasive that God has no choice but total annihilation ... both cities must perish for the sake of a fresh start.
What is a simple matter of notification—God notifying Abraham as a matter of courtesy—turns into a most remarkable, a positively unprecedented negotiation.
In the fearsome presence of the Divine ... in the face of the Ancient of Days, the Mysterium Tremendum, the Author of the Universe, little Father Abraham (wizened, human, mortal Abraham, Abraham with heart thumping) dares plant his two feet, stand up to God and challenge the quid pro quo of divine retribution. Into this closed system of divine retribution Abraham slides a wedge, a question, a new possibility.
Abraham asks God—this God whose ears are cocked human-ward—to listen to the possibility of a new theological thought. (Walter Brueggemann)
Is it possible, O Ancient of Days, that those who are innocent and righteous could have the capacity to save the wicked from destruction?
Is it possible, O Mysterium Tremendum, that grace might extend even unto to the guilty?
Is it possible, Author of the Universe, to imagine a new mathematics: an equation in which one, just one righteous person, is enough to save a city-full of the wicked (to replace the old mathematics in which a majority of the wicked would cause the annihilation of even the righteous).
Is it possible, Dear God, that not only am I accountable to you … but that you, God, are also accountable to me?
With these extraordinary questions, Abraham slides in a wedge. He makes room for God to think a new possibility ... a brand new theological thought. (Breuggemann)
At Old South Church and in the United Church of Christ, we are glad for our still-speaking God ... a God who has not abandoned us to the mists of sacred history... a God who is still speaking, still communicating ... new words for each new day.
But in this story, this ancient and astounding story ... our inscrutable God is not speaking, but listening. God’s ears are cocked human-ward and God is listening ... not only to the great among us ... not only to the likes of Abraham, to our patriarchs and matriarchs, to prophets and apostles, but also to our shared pain. God listens to and for our outcries when we give voice to our shared pain ... when we cry out that something is wrong, people are hurting, something must be done.
That’s one take on this astounding and confounding story. Who let this story into the Bible, anyway? There is another take, another possibility. It goes like this.
You know how a really good leader can introduce a new idea in such a cunning and subtle way that you are led to believe that the brilliant new idea was really yours? The other take on this story is that it was actually God’s idea to change the mathematics ... or, even to inform Abraham that the accepted mathematics of retribution were, in fact, ungodly. But by the time the meeting was over, Abraham was certain it was he who introduced the idea God!
In either case, you’ve got to love a religion in which puny humans and the Mysterium Tremendum the Ancient of Days confer together about good and evil, life and death, retribution and grace time and eternity.
Thanks be to our Father Abraham ... and thanks be to God.