Genesis 18:1-8, 16-33
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. …
Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 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.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.
Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 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? 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?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 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.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 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.” 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.” 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.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
In Islam, Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” – people of the holy scriptures, the sacred texts, that were the forerunner to, and that laid the groundwork for, their own sacred texts. It might be even more accurate to call us “People of the Story,” since so many of our sacred texts are actually stories. The power of story is immense. These stories are usually powerful in themselves, and carry important messages in their own, individual rite. But we also need to see that the individual stories are strung together to convey some larger, even more important, message.
That’s certainly the case with the portion of Genesis that today’s scripture readings are part of. Today, we heard two connected stories about Abraham, just two parts of the overall story of his life that point to a larger message being conveyed. In today’s first reading, we hear about three travelers who stop to visit with Abraham. It isn’t really explained in the story exactly how Abraham knows this, but somehow he just knows that he’s being visited by God – maybe it’s God accompanied by two angels, or maybe all three of the travelers are collectively God – maybe an Old Testament precursor to understanding God as Trinity. We don’t really know which is the case, but suffice it to say that somehow, when these travelers arrive Abraham understands he’s in the presence of the divine.
And when they arrive, Abraham extends them great hospitality – he invites them to sit and relax, he brings them water to clean up with, and he asks if they’re hungry – “Oh, let me get you a little snack” he says – and then, he goes to Sarah and tells her to get some flour and bake up something special for the visitors – and apparently, plenty of it; he tells her to get three measures of flour, which is about a five gallon bucket full of flour; more than they could possibly eat.
This degree of how far overboard Abraham goes – almost to cartoonish levels – is intentional, and important. It’s meant to drive home how important it is, and to what lengths we should go, to show hospitality to, and to offer help and support to, others who are in need. Part of the message of this story is to teach us that we need to think in terms of this kind of extravagance when considering people’s needs, and to have this level of care and compassion for others. We need to think beyond just helping to fulfill a person’s basic, minimal needs, and to make sure that, as much as it’s within our ability to do so, to care for them and to help meet their needs abundantly.
But the story continues. After Abraham and the three travelers have eaten this feast, they’re sitting in the shade of a tree, letting the meal settle in. Maybe God’s sucking on a toothpick and offers a polite little belch of contentment as they’re relaxing and enjoying the beautiful day. But as they’re getting ready to get back on the road, there’s something on God’s mind, something disturbing the contentedness of the moment. And finally, God comes clean and tells Abraham the purpose of their travels. They’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah, and they’re going to destroy the cities because of their evil and their unrighteousness. That’s all that we’re told here; God doesn’t offer any more detail about what that unrighteousness is – but we get clarification from the prophet Ezekiel, in the 16th chapter of his Book, when he explains that the “sin of Sodom” was that they were arrogant, full of self-pride; they were overfed, taking up more than their fair share of things, and they were unconcerned with the needs and suffering of others. They didn’t help the poor and needy. In other words, their attitude was the exact opposite of the extravagant consideration that Abraham had just extended to the travelers, and that point was meant to be seen by readers of this story.
And as you heard, when God tells Abraham what’s about to happen, Abraham is perplexed. Upset. Surely, he’s been to these two nearby cities many times. His brother Lot and his family live there, and he surely knew others who lived there, too. And he knows that they aren’t all bad – there are some good people there, too, at least in Abraham’s estimation, and so he has the audacity to enter into a bargaining session with God. Surely, you wouldn’t destroy the whole city if it meant killing, say, fifty innocent people as “collateral damage” in the process, would you? And God says No, I wouldn’t kill fifty innocent people. And Abraham presses his case: “You wouldn’t permit the unjust killing of forty-five people in your larger pursuit of justice, would you? And God say No, not forty-five, either. Well then, Abraham says, how about forty innocent lives? Would you consider that an unfortunate but unavoidable trade-off to achieve your bigger plans? And again, God say no, not forty. And it went on and on, all the way down to ten, when God says that even if the rest of the two cities deserved destruction, still, God wouldn’t go through with the plan if even as few as ten righteous, innocent people would be killed in the process.
Among other things, this story is an expansion on the issue of where God’s mind is with regard to extending consideration, and hospitality, to people.
In our lives, so much of our existence deals with trade-offs. Grey areas. Compromises, choosing the lesser of two evils. Living on this side of the gates of Eden means we’ll always end up having to deal in those kinds of compromises. We end up drawing lines of acceptable death somewhere all the time. When a bridge is built, it’s assumed that, say, two construction workers will get killed during the work. But the bridge still gets built; the legal and insurance costs related to that are just factored into the cost of construction. It’s the same with skyscrapers, and on and on all the way down to the most mundane of our consumer items. Sometimes, we’re conscious of the trade-off, and other times we aren’t, but whether we are or not, we’re still drawing those lines in our choices.
Of course, right now, as a society we’re caught up in two different questions of compromise – two different kinds of the calculus of death”: first, considering what number of people who will die as a result of reopening our economy and resuming large gatherings in the midst of the ongoing pandemic would be an acceptable trade-off for the sake of the economy and getting back to normal – normal, at least, if you aren’t one of the dead ones. And second, in a situation maybe more directly like the Abraham/God bargaining session, how many deaths of innocent people are an acceptable trade-off in the pursuit of justice, in this case, the pursuit of having a safe community by way of policing – and again, “safe” assuming you aren’t one of the innocent ones who gets killed.
So where do we draw the line?
Wherever we draw it, I suspect that God would want us to draw it in a different place. I think it’s pretty clear that when it comes to where we “People of the Book,” we “People of the Story” have currently drawn those lines, the God who we profess faith in – the God who calls us to exhibit the same extravagant compassion and hospitality as Abraham; the God who would destroy entire cities for not extending that kind of compassion and hospitality to people; the God who nonetheless would call off those plans for destruction if it would result in the death of as few as ten innocent people – that God would be disappointed, even appalled, where our current society has drawn its lines.
It’s so hard to know what to think, she thought to herself as she sat in her kitchen. All those protestors yelling and chanting and blocking the streets, and certainly there had been some violence and vandalism, and that was terrible. But still, the protestors had a point, and it just turns your stomach to see the videos of those people being killed by police officers. Police officers! What in the world is going on in this world? Police officers are supposed to protect and serve, and why all of these terrible killings? Lord knows the police have a difficult and dangerous job. Like that nice young man whose family had moved into the neighborhood this past year. Dan was his name; he’s a police officer. He and his family had actually started going to the same church as she did, and she’d had a chance to get to know him as she spoke with him there a number of times. He was a nice man, a friendly man – a good man. And he was definitely having a hard time right now, working long hours as all the protests went on, every day, all day, and every night.
Just then, her oven timer beeped. She went over to the oven and pulled out the cookies she’d been baking. After they’d cooled a bit, she carefully stacked them in a plastic container, and on a piece of tape on the lid she neatly wrote the name of Dan, the police officer. Inside, she’d written a note that said “You have a difficult and dangerous job. I hope that as you carry out your important work, you’ll do it with care and compassion for the people you are trying to protect. May you have a blessed and safe day.” That should be a nice gesture, she thought. I hope he’ll appreciate it, and it will give him a little boost, and let him know he’s appreciated.
As she thought about having gotten to know Dan at church, she also thought about Simone, a young African-American woman who went to the same church. Simone had grown up in the church, actually; she was baptized there as an infant and had been there ever since, through all the years. The woman had known and loved Simone almost since the day she was born. Now, Simone was a young woman in her twenties, and now she was one of the protestors, out in the street every day demanding justice for the innocent people who have been killed by police – victims of individuals, to be sure, but even more importantly, victims of an entire policing system that was inherently plagued by systemic racism. In fact, Simone’s own 14-year old cousin was an innocent victim of one of those killings.
It’s just so hard to know what to think, she thought. Yes, there are many good police officers out there – people like Dan – but there are many who aren’t too, way too many who aren’t, and the policing system is obviously terribly flawed. She didn’t have all the answers to how to fix things, , but still, she knew that the current situation had to change – this just isn’t right. Too many innocent people are being killed.
Just then, the oven timer beeped again, and she pulled more cookies out of the oven. These went into a container, too – this one with Simone’s name on it. And inside, she’d written a note: “You’ve suffered terribly, and for way too long. This situation is wrong and has to change. I hope that you can achieve that. May you have a blessed and safe day.”
And so may we all.