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…