Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genesis 18:20-32 | Colossians 2:12-14 | Luke 11:1-13
Oh God, protector of those who hope in you, without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy, bestow in abundance your mercy upon us and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold even now to those that ever endure. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
Sometimes it’s really confusing to figure out who God really is. So many voices, so many opinions, so many different ways that people present him to the world around them. I often wonder about the patience of God when people get up and say things about him that are so far from the truth, and they’re not struck dumb, or God let’s them do it. And you wonder, “Why? Why don’t you just control all those who preach and teach, all heads of all religion, to make sure they’re always right on target? Or why did you make the scriptures so confusing at times when we have a God in the Old Testament that seems so, at times, impatient and angry at human beings, and at other times, he’s sort of like milk toast, and you can talk him out of anything?” Well, I think the reason is because all of those things that I just mentioned are ways in which we can ponder and wonder about the many facets of our God, but there is only one real source of knowing him.
In my growing up as a Catholic and now Catholic priest, I relied so heavily on the church. I knew the church was the one who would tell me who God is, and yet with all my experience behind me now, entering my eightieth year, I know that everything the church teaches and everything the church directs us to do is not always the will of God. Does that make me doubt the value of the church? Absolutely not. The value of the church is beyond anyone’s understanding, because it’s a gathering place of people who long to be fed every day by this life force that is personal — personal. I don't know what I’d do without sacraments, without the liturgy, without gathering with people every Sunday and listening to the word and pondering it and singing and eating and drinking. It’s the heart of it, but the theology, that’s tricky, most especially moral theology. That’s even trickier, because so often we’re told things that people believe because more — it’s more about their background and their own personal history than it is about the religion or who God really is.
So look at this first reading. It’s fascinating. Here’s God. He’s just called upon Abraham to become a partner with him, in a sense, an invitation for us to imagine that ultimately everyone is being asked to enter into that kind of partnership with God to work and save themselves and the world. It’s clear that God — I love this human part of him. He’s concerned about Sodom. He doesn’t really know what’s going on, so he has to go down and check it out. I love that. Like, “I don’t trust the reports. I need to make a personal visit.” So human, and so this God goes down and finds that this place is pretty corrupt, to say the least, and so here’s Abraham, who has just, in a sense, encountered God. They haven’t worked together that long, and all of a sudden — we have Abraham, who is a little more compassionate than God, because he starts talking about, “Okay, if you go down and just send down fire and destruction on the city, you’re going to kill everybody. What about the people there that might not be bad?” And as if God didn’t think about that, he’s reminded. “Well, what about the good people? You want to kill innocent people along with the bad?” “Well, yeah, kind of I do.” “But if you found so many, would you save the whole city for just 50 or 45 or 30 or 20 or 10?” Each time God says, “Well, probably not. No, I’ll let it go for that.” What is that? What do we learn from a story like that or Moses talking God out of destroying the Israelites that he’s kind of been frustrated with on this long journey, and when they turn back to their ways, when they’re left without a leader, and they fall back to their ways? God is furious, and maybe it’s because the moment is when he’s about to give them their greatest gift. The greatest thing he’s ever given to human beings are the Ten Commandments, the manual for what it means to be human. We’re made for those things, a relationship with God, a healthy relationship with each other. That’s who we are. That’s our essence, and he told us that for the first time then. It maybe just underscores this part of God that is so like us, so passionate about this relationship. It’s like he’s a typical human being in a loving relationship that he sometimes just loses his patience and wants to just dump it all, but he keeps coming back and coming back and being more and more amazing in terms of his patience, his understanding, his compassion.
So we have, in the second reading, Paul, who’s nailing it to — no pun intended on the last part of the reading, but he makes it so clear. The fullness of who God is, the reason why he came into the world to begin to reveal himself to us is because he wanted us to see him as he really is, and why it took so long, I don't know. Why we had to see him grow, almost as if he was learning how to deal with human beings — he wasn’t. He just revealed himself as if he were a God learning, and what he was learning is compassion and forgiveness. And so there’s a word in this reading that I think is so interesting. It says that this Jesus came into the world to die on the cross, to do something for all human beings who had ever lived and would ever live in the future, and he said, “I will obliterate,” what a word, “Obliterate your sins,” not punish you for them but obliterate them. I looked that up in the Oxford English Dictionary. To erase, to eradicate, to remove as if they never happened. It’s almost stronger than the word forgiveness. “I’ll obliterate your sins. I don’t even remember them.” If that’s the fullness of his relationship with us, when it comes to sin, it has not yet taken root. It hasn’t taken root in me yet. I still feel shame and guilt over my fault and my sins. I still hear people begging me to pray that they will be forgiven. I had someone call me the other day who was close to death and said, “I don't know if I’m going to make it. I don't know. I think maybe I did more bad things than good things in my entire life.” What? No, your sins are obliterated. He took them away completely. How do we understand that, and what would it be like if that really was the truth, that every sin you or I ever commit is automatically obliterated? By what, the sacrament and confession? Yes, because that’s where we go to be assured and affirmed that that’s really who God is, but then I know many priests who deny absolution to people, which is something I’ve never done in my entire life. I’m not saying I’m better than them, but that’s what we were taught. You can deny someone freedom from their sin if they don’t sound like they’re going to change.
Well, what happens, when you’re in a relationship with God, when you have been a sinner, and what is your feeling about this God? Is he judging you and condemning you until you make some kind of major shift and change in the world, even though you’re doing things that you really don’t want to do but you don’t know how to stop? They’re like an addiction, and we know enough about addiction now to know that that’s not really something somebody can freely decide not to do. Boom, “I’m not going to do it anymore.” Grace can change you, but our will can’t. So how do we understand it? Well, the gospel is interesting, because it talks so beautifully about this notion that this God of ours is a God of mercy, and so the thing about Jesus that’s so unique is his closeness with God, his intimacy with God. It was what they just — it drove everybody in the temple nuts, because you can’t have a relationship with God of intimacy, because you’re a sinner, and you’re polluted, and you’re disgusting to God until you come to the temple and be purified.
So what is this story saying? Well, it’s very clear that what it’s trying to say is just Jesus is the one who connected so beautifully with God, and he was fully human. Of course we have to say that he never sinned, and that’s true, but what is sin? Is sin human weaknesses? Did he get angry? Did he scream? Did he yell? Did he get mad? Isn’t that a sin? People come to me, “Bless me Father, I sinned. I got so mad at my children. I screamed and yelled at them.” Well, then Jesus must have sinned. No. Sin is a complete turning away from God, a refusal of his love and his forgiveness. It’s a hardening of a heart that is longing for God, and our will can do that. But in this story, it seems that, when they’re asking Jesus, “What do you do when you talk to God? What do you say? What’s your relationship like with him,” he said, “Well, I believe in him. I know he’s my father. I also know that somehow I want so much for his work to take root in every human being and take root in me, and I want to enter into this things he calls the kingdom, which is a place free of shame and fear and anger and jealousy and envy. It’s a place of truth and reality. I just want that to happen. That’s why I came into the world, and I know what he’s doing. He’s feeding me every day. He gives me everything I need, and ever fault I have, every human mistake I make, he forgives me. And I try to forgive everybody around me, and I know he’s not going to tempt me to do evil things.” But when he says, “Do not subject us to the final test,” he means, “Don’t test us beyond our ability to survive the test.” It’s as if God is the tester, but God isn’t the tester as much as evil is the tester. Evil is the one that talks you into doing bad things. So it’s like, “Protect me from that source that is bigger than I am but not bigger than you are God but that steps in.” If you don’t believe in evil, then you just have a really negative view of people who struggle, because if it’s all up to them, I guarantee you they’d be a hell of a lot better than they really are. They would.
Then he goes on and says something about persistence. You’ve got to be persistent in believing in God, believing in the kingdom and wanting to be a part of making it happen and know you’re being fed and nourished. Be persistent. Ask for that. Seek that. Knock to find that. It’s such an interesting thing that he says there. He’s saying, “If human beings can be badgered enough and they’ll give in, well, so will God.” It’s just like saying — God doesn’t need to be badgered, but he does need to know that you are open and willing to receive him and everything he teaches and everything he longs for you to see. So if you’re really asking for that, think about it. Do you really want to see the truth? And if you really want to see it, are you able to seek it, looking reflectively on everything you’re doing and seek and find something that is like, “Yeah, I can see the truth there”? And then finally, the best, knock, knock and open. Something opens. What opens? The heart of God. You go inside, and there you live, forgiven, loved, supported, nurtured. He’s not a God of punishment. He’s a God of forgiveness and love and affirmation. If you don’t believe that at the core of your being, you can’t ever enter the kingdom.
Father, awaken our hearts to the beauty of your mercy, your love for us when we fail. We desire that we never feel separated from you because of our human weakness, which you created so that we would trust in you and love you. Performance is important, but it is not the basis of how you treat us. Bless us with an understanding of forgiveness, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.