I want to do something that I love to do, which is put two scriptures in conversation with each other. The lectionary suggests these two for this week:
20 Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”
22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[a]23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”
This passage is a man literally haggling with God, trying to save a town that is mostly garbage. If you want to know how garbage it is, just read chapter 19. Abraham is put in a weird position here, though. God wants to exert holy judgment on a city filled with sin. But Abraham knows people. He also knows that you can’t punish a whole population for the sins of a portion of it. Even if there’s only 50, or 45, or 30, or 20, or 10 decent people in there, you can’t nuke them.
Abraham’s argument ultimately goes unheeded. When the town attacks his nephew Lot along with the two angels God sent to investigate, all bets are off. The fire comes, and Lot escapes. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are ash and cinders, in God’s righteous fury.
Was God right to nuke Sodom and Gomorrah? Abraham probably didn’t think so. Abraham understood that within humanity, there is no solid binary. One can find the evil in the hearts of people, but one can also find the good. Sometimes, the evil outweighs the good. Sometimes, the hatred and violence overflows, and justice must be poured out in order to make things right. God did what God saw fit. Abraham wrote the minority report, in a sense: if you can find 10 good people, is the town damned?
Abraham could have gone further. 8 people? 5?
Is it worth it to utterly destroy a city if there is only one good person in it?
The sin of Sodom was it’s inhospitality. It wished to do violence upon Lot’s guests, and then Lot’s family. Lot was an outsider, and the town did not act in a neighborly fashion. As a result, God punished the people of Sodom, and spared Lot’s family.
God found the one good person and spared him, I guess.
But was it worth it? Could the town have been saved? Could the people have been reformed with time, patience and care from better leadership? Possibly.
So let’s put it in conversation with the Gospel text:
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Lots of things are going on in this passage, but what I see here is Jesus teaching an ethic of neighborliness, kindness, and hospitality. Treat your neighbors like family, and God will treat you like family. Don’t return a question with hostility. Instead, make the choice to be kind, even if it’s an inconvenience. Be the kind of person people can rely on, and the kind of neighbor that would help a person in a pinch.
Contrast the kind of behavior Jesus is teaching as a corrective to the kind of behavior found in the people of Sodom. Abraham seeks mercy for the whole because of the goodness of the few. There is good within people, though it might be hard to find. Jesus’s teachings seek to make that a little easier to see.
So why don’t we cultivate goodness, neighborliness, and kindness? We shouldn’t fear God’s wrath in order to do good. Rather, do goodness for goodness’s own sake! Virtue stands on it’s own, and one should not need personal benefit as a reason to be kind to others. Humanity is better when we care for each other, not just ourselves and maybe our family.
Kindness is a virus. Love is contagious. Be the example of kindness in your world, and you might have longer reaching effects than you think. You might even save a city from itself.