Today’s first reading from the book of Genesis is, in my opinion, one of the most annoying passages in the Old Testament. God shared with Abraham that he was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because the sins of the two cities were so great. Abraham then began to question God’s sense of justice. “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” Great question, but then the annoying part of the story begins. Abraham puts question after question to God. “Suppose there were 50 innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the 50 innocent people within it?” God gave him a good and direct answer. “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for the sake of the fifty.”
This answer wasn’t good enough for Abraham, though, so he continued with the questioning. What about 45? God answered, no. What about 40? God again said, no. What about 30? No, Abraham! What about 20? No, Abraham!! What about 10?
Enough already, Abraham!!! You should be thankful God hasn’t smitten you for being so intolerably annoying! But God is more patient than I am. God answered calmly, “For the sake of those 10, I will not destroy it.” At that point Abraham was satisfied and the story concluded.
There are two ways to interpret this passage. First. Abraham was testing God’s justice. Would God punish good people along with bad people? The answer was a loud, no! Abraham found that God was truly a just God. He wouldn’t destroy the cities even if there were only 10 good people living in them. God’s last answer stopped Abraham’s questioning. But if we were to expand Abraham’s basic question, is God just, we confront a problem. So, God’s not going to rid the world of sinners and people who do terrible things. But what about the good people trapped in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Are they to suffer at the hands of these evil people?
We could, in our day, put the question this way. What about the victims of the holocaust!? What about the good people in North Korea? What about the Muslims in Chinese concentration camps? What about the people in Turkish and Russian prisons? Or even, what about the innocent children in our own detention camps in Texas? This question leads us to a second interpretation of the passage. This comes through our focusing on not the evil ones but on the 50, 40, 30, 20, 10 good people.
The passage is telling us that good people are the most powerful presence in the world even though their number may seem insignificant. Jesus gave us an insight into this. He taught that his disciples should be salt for the earth and light for the world. He told them to pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The righteous 10 or 50 or 1,000 are the foundation upon whom God can, and eventually will, build a world of justice that reflects the divine will. They’re essential to God’s process of evolution – their steadfast commitment to goodness and justice and love will assure that the time will come when God will be “all in all.”
Might they suffer at the hands of evil people? Yes, they might. But because they cling to what’s right and just, they, through their sacrificial love, feed the energy that moves the evolution God has set in motion. They’re the roots of the Tree of Life in the world. Under God’s loving care, those roots will grow and blossom in the fullness of time. May each of us claim our place among the 10, the 20, the 30…
The account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha is well known. Let’s think about some of the elements contained in the story.
Mary and Martha are close friends and disciples of Jesus. They’ve opened their home to him and a number of his other disciples and so have taken on the sacred obligation of hospitality. In the first reading for this Sunday we see what Middle Eastern hospitality involves.
Three strangers appear at the entrance to Abraham’s tent. He runs up to them inviting them to rest under the shade of the Terebinth tree. He has their feet washed, commands Sarah to make bread, and has his servants prepare a choice steer for their dinner. There’s no limit to Middle Eastern hospitality.
As Jesus is teaching his disciples it would be presumed that his hosts, Mary and Martha, would be running about making sure that the guests’ feet are washed, that they’re given something to drink and begin preparing food for them. Martha is fully committed to these tasks of hospitality. Mary, on the other hand, is brazenly breaking two strong social norms. She’s ignoring the obligation of hospitality and, she’s sitting with the men! Martha’s protest is quite understandable.
When Jesus tells Martha that Mary has “chosen the better part,” he’s inaugurating a radical new way, the Christian way. Saint Paul make it very clear. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) As disciples we’re asked to take up the radical, counter-cultural way of life Jesus modeled. We can’t allow anything to separate us from one another. Sometimes we even have to break the social norms. Sometimes we have to “welcome sinners and eat with them.”
Jesus, when asked by a “scholar of the Law,” what he must do to inherit eternal life, threw the question back into the scholar’s court. “What is written in the Law. How do you read it?” The answer was right on the tip of his tongue. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, (Deuteronomy 6:5) “and your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) But knowing the answer and putting it into practice are two very different things. So, the scholar, “to justify himself,” asked Jesus a second question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus gave him a very down-to-earth example. He told him a story.
The story takes place along a 20 mile stretch of road that runs from Jerusalem, about 2,300 feet above sea level, to Jericho, about 1,300 feet below sea level. It’s a rough road with lots of twists and turns, and plenty of places for robbers to hide. A very imprudent man decided to walk the trek alone. Sure enough, he was attacked. Not only was he robbed but badly beaten and left for dead.
Jesus then inserted two people into the story. The first was a priest. At the time, many priests and wealthy citizens lived in Jericho. It was a pleasant oasis and was far less crowded then the Holy City with its continual stream of pilgrims. Yet it wasn’t so far from Jerusalem to discourage the periodic trip to serve at the temple. On his way to perform his ritual duty, the priest looked over at the man, but presuming that he was dead, didn’t dare go over to check on him lest he make himself unclean by touching a dead body. He would remain ritually impure for seven days and so be unable to fulfill his duty at the temple.
The second person to walk down the road was a Levite, a man assigned to a lesser role in the temple cult. He looked over at the man and, like the priest, made the decision to move on to Jerusalem without getting involved in this messiness. With these two examples Jesus was turning a subtle light on an important moral question. Is caring for someone in need less important than fulfilling a religious ritual?
The story continues with the appearance of a Samaritan businessman. The Samaritans were despised because they had broken from the Jewish communion when they erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, the area between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. This man had no hesitation. He immediately went over to him. Discovering that he was still alive he proceeded to clean his wounds with wine, seal them with some oil, and bandage them. He put the man on his own animal and brought him to a local inn that he would regularly frequent. After caring for the man overnight, he paid the innkeeper up front to cover the length of the victim’s stay, promising when he returned again, to pay for any added expenses if the man needed to stay longer.
The priest, the Levite and the Samaritan had no idea who this man was. He had gotten himself into trouble by traveling along a dangerous road by himself. He had been left to die along the side of the road. All three men saw him. All three recognized his distress. Jesus then hit the “scholar of the Law’ with an easily answered question. “Which of the three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
On the way home from Mass today take note of the people you see who are in distress. Are any of them your neighbor?
Last week the scriptures asked us to ponder God’s personal call to us. It reminded us that it demands a total commitment on our part. This week the Gospel focuses on the teaching Jesus gave to his apostles to prepare them for their first missionary journey. His words to them are meant for us, too.
He began with a serious caution. “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” Our call to announce, in word and deed, that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” brings with it many challenges. The Kingdom of God will often be in contradiction with the world we live in. We have to be prepared for that. When a “different” kind of power emerges, it’s often perceived as a threat. When we put ourselves into God’s hands we break our allegiance to the world. We become countercultural. We become free and independent agents who are no longer under the control of the values and power structures of the world.
Jesus continued his instruction by telling the apostles not to carry a money bag. In other words, don’t expect wealth and riches if you commit yourself to the Kingdom. Wealth and riches are a benchmark of success in the world, no so in the Kingdom. St. Paul, the greatest missionary of the early Church, said when speaking of his ministry, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Our power, God’s power, is love – selfless love – love that doesn’t demand anything in return. What we give, we give freely. We expect nothing in return.
Jesus also told the apostles to accept food and lodging from people. He wanted them to trust not only in God, but also in the goodness of others. They were to repay whatever hospitality they received with a blessing of peace. The reign of peace in one’s heart is the sign of the presence of the Kingdom of God within us.
Our Gospel passage ends with the return of the 72 disciples from their first missionary excursion. They came back rejoicing because even demons were subject to them through the name of Jesus. In spite of the success they enjoyed, Jesus cautioned them, and us, not to let success go to our heads because success can feed our hunger for worldly power. When we labor in the vineyard of the Lord, we must always keep in mind that our success is from God and not from us.
Jesus’ final words to us are so very important. “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”