By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Genesis 18:20-32; Response: Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8; Second Reading: Colossians 2:12-14; Gospel: Luke 11:1-13
In last Sunday’s first reading, we encountered the Lord and two aides on a tour of the earth. He had a gift for Abraham and Sarah — his promise of a son by Spring of the next year. The Lord’s identity had not yet been directly revealed. After an argument with 90-year-old Sarah, we read, “From there, the (three) men set out and came within sight of Sodom.” Abraham went with them to show them the way. It seems the Lord had come down from heaven with more on the agenda than announcing the birth of a child. For this he could have sent an angel, as he would do much later in New Testament times. Or just a shout from the sky. No, there was more to this tour of the earth. The Lord begins debating within himself. “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do? After all, he will become a great nation, and I will have to rely on him and his descendants to maintain my worship correctly.” Besides these practical reasons, Abraham is one of those rare people called “Friend of God” in the Old Testament, a distinction he held alone until Moses came along about 600 years later. [See Isaiah 41:8; 2 Chronicles 20:7; (James 2:23) for Abraham; Exodus 33:11 for Moses.]
As our first reading opens, we find out who this leader of the traveling trio is. “In those days, the Lord said….” The author of Genesis reveals a conversation in which the Lord engaged while still in heaven. “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great. Their sin is so grave. I have to go down and do a reality check to see if their actions fully correspond with the reports I have been getting. I intend to find out.” Note how humanly the author of this story presents the Lord. The author had a sense of humor — the mark of a good teacher. Abraham has become aware of the Lord’s intentions, worries about it and asks, “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?”
We already know from Genesis 13:10-12 that Abraham’s nephew Lot and family lived in the suburbs of Sodom. Abraham was concerned for his extended family. Abraham conceives a plan. “Would you spare the city if we can find 50 good people in it?” A Semitic bargaining session follows, similar to what we expect to hear in a flea market. Abraham’s bargaining skills get the Lord down to the lowest price possible. He agrees to spare the city for the price of 10 good people. And there, this fascinating reading ends. The rest of the story is in Genesis 19.
Psalm 138 is a hymn of thanksgiving to God because the Psalmist’s prayer has been heard. One might see this theme as an extension of Abraham’s successful plea to the Lord for compassion on a doomed city. The psalmist promises to praise the Lord and worship in the Lord’s temple. Even though the Lord is so powerful, “yet he sees the humble.” The psalmist’s trust is so deep that he simply presumes the Lord will continue and “complete what he has done for me.” As a caution, however, just to save the Lord’s reputation for mercy, “Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
The second reading describes how everything endured by Christ in his passion and resurrection happened also to us. In the Hymn to Christ, the second reading two Sundays ago, we heard this: “He is the head of the body, the Church.” What happens to the head of the body, happens to the whole body. Baptism was our burial with him. This presupposes the custom of baptism by submersion, as was done in those days. Coming up out of the baptismal water was our resurrection to new life. This happened to us despite our unworthiness. The author envisions a debt in legal written form owed to God. That debt was settled by one complete payment through Jesus’ death on the cross. “He removed it from us, nailing it to the cross.”
The gospel reading begins with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. The version adopted by the Church, the version we all learned, is in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain. Luke’s introduction is as follows. The disciples observed Jesus praying. When he finished praying one of them asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John (the Baptizer) taught his disciples.” We do not know what John taught his people. We do know that some of Jesus’ disciples had been disciples of John. So they know whereof they speak. Jesus said, “When you pray, say etc.” A notable difference between Luke and Matthew is the beginning. Matthew’s version begins, “Our Father: Luke’s version, “Father.” Luke omits “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At the end he omits, “but deliver us from evil.” “Amen” was never part of the Lord’s Prayer in either version. It is a customary Christian addition to many of our prayers, to affirm and approve of what was just said in the prayer itself. Biblical literalists who struggle with such differences, as we have in the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, can perhaps console themselves by imagining that Jesus used the shorter version (Luke’s) only when he was in a hurry.
Jesus follows the Lord’s Prayer with a parable of a man whose friend comes to his door at midnight with a request for three loaves of bread. He had just gotten a visitor who was hungry after a long journey. The man did not want to be bothered because he and his family had bedded down for the night. Jesus notes that if he does not give his neighbor the bread out of friendship, he will give it to him if he keeps on begging and knocking at the door. To the parable Jesus adds an encouragement to persevere in our prayers: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” He affirms that this will work for everyone. Why? “If you, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” We can ask, “Does this work for food, clothing, shelter, etc.” Or is it that “God helps those who help themselves?” If our experience has been negative in this matter, does the New Testament Letter of James 1:6-8 have the answer?
Or does St. Ignatius of Loyola have the answer: “Pray as if all depended on God, then work as if all depended on yourself?”