The Balance of Forgiveness
May 10, 2015
Genesis 18:20-33;John 15:9-17
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.
God is speaking to Abraham and some men. They are travelling to see whether the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are sinful so these cities might be judged. The men with Abraham walk further on, but Abraham remains behind standing before God. I wonder what that might have looked like? Standing before God, speaking with God right there, right at hand. And Abraham does more so than that – Abraham bargains with God.
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?
Abraham questions having the righteous punished with the wicked, saying far be it from you, far be it from God to do such a thing. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? Abraham then gets into further haggling with God, narrowing the gap. Finally God proclaims that he will not destroy the city if there are a mere ten righteous folks present in the city. A mere ten.
This story is complicated and not just because of all the bargaining. Why is it happening at all? Let us take for granted that Sodom and Gomorrah are filled with sinful people. Let us even take for granted that whatever sins were committed were terrible enough to incur such terrible wrath, punishable by death. Let’s assume all those huge and debatable assumptions. We are still left with questions, several strange questions.
Why are they going to visit these cities at all? These men are walking along accompanied by God. God – G-O-D. They are on a journey to find out the worthiness of these two cities. Wouldn’t God already know? Wouldn’t God know what has been done, what sins were committed by these men and women. Why does there need to be an expedition? Do not the eyes of God see everywhere, even into the most sinful of hearts?
Why is God engaged in a bargaining session with Abraham? Shall not the judge of all do what is just – these are Abraham’s words. Was God’s mercy dependent upon this exchange? Was God dissuaded from doing something unjust by Abraham? Can God ever be unjust?
And finally, why was this tabulation of righteous people necessary? If one righteous person was in the city, why would God destroy everyone? In later passages of the Bible, we know that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. God spared a few people living there, Lot and his family. So, considering their deliverance from destruction, there was never a question of the righteous men and women of Sodom and Gomorrah needing to be destroyed. What was Abraham bargaining for and, most importantly, what are we supposed to learn while God is walking along that road?
The Book of Genesis presents the oldest stories in the Bible. How the world began, how human beings came into existence. How the people of God were chosen. That last explanation is important – Abraham was to be the father of many nations. How do we know that? Because of these stories, of course. But we also know that because of his name. Abraham means “father of many nations.” His name was originally “Abram” which simply means “high father.” God gave him a new name to explain who he was to become.
Abraham’s wife’s name was originally Sarai. It means “my princess” or “my lady.” God changes her name to Sarah, meaning just “princess” or “lady.” “My princess” seems like it is a term of endearment rather than a proper name. God seems to give her a title instead.
We do not see the names from the Hebrew Scriptures translated into English. The names are recognizable as names, so saying Abraham and Sarah makes sense in English. But what does not make sense is what was intended by using those names, the underlying story. If the story was about the Father of Many Nations speaking to the Lord God, it would at least strike me differently.
These missing descriptions suggest that we have to think carefully about the roles people play in these stories. Their names did not in time come to mean something; the names given had always meant something. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lived in the city of Sodom and would be saved along with his family. Lot’s name means “hidden” or “veiled.” There is indeed much hidden within these stories, so much veiled from us reading them so many years later.
When we read scripture, it might be taken at face value. Abraham bargained with God to save righteous folks in Sodom and Gomorrah. We can believe that and just move on, but we can be left with doubts, nagging questions when a surface understanding stops making sense.
Think of the terrible tragedy in the Kingdom of Nepal. Thousands of people have died, many more were injured. Was this earthquake preordained? Was it divine judgment against Nepal? If we take a surface approach to the Bible, using stories like Sodom and Gomorrah as a guide, the disasters of the world are all managed and dictated by God. And that seems to be a terrible place to leave it. So we should not leave it there. When Abraham was bargaining with God for the righteous people about to be destroyed, remember that we were left with some questions. God would have known who was righteous, so why travel to those cities? God could and did save people who were not sinful, so why should any righteous person have to die for the sins of others?
If we understand God as knowing all, the journey was pointless. If we understand God as all powerful, collective punishment was unnecessary. And, if we understand God as all loving, all forgiving, and all caring, why should anyone suffer, whether in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or the mountains of the Himalayas?
The stories from Genesis suggest that God is not all knowing, not all powerful, and not all loving. Are these stories wrong or are our ideas about God wrong? There is another option, of course. Perhaps we are not reading the stories the right way.
Abraham is presented with the destruction of two cities. His own nephew, Lot, lives in one of them. Abraham sees the planned destruction as unjust, actually bargaining with God and questioning the wisdom of the source of all wisdom. Presented another way, this story might not be about God at all – it might be about what kind of man Abraham is. Is he righteous, is he just? Will he stick his neck out for others even in the presence of God? The Book of Genesis tries to explain how certain things came into being. It may also serve to explain why Abraham was worthy of becoming the Father of Many Nations.
Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Abraham was risking the wrath of God by openly objecting to God’s planned punishments. This love was for his nephew but also for some unknown person, some righteous soul living somewhere amidst sin. Abraham told God point blank that it would be unfair to punish the righteous along with the wicked. And God made it a point to agree with Abraham. Perhaps God was always quietly willing to spare the righteous but wanted to see what Abraham had to say about the matter. Notice that no one else spoke up for these righteous men and women. Only Abraham was willing to stand and to face God.
It is rather amazing actually, to consider standing up before God, challenging God. To say, God you are wrong. What you are doing is unjust, unfair, and un-Godly. Un-Godly in the sense of how we envision God: God the source of all that is good and right, holy and just. God falling short of the ideals that we have about God.
Now as I mentioned before, a surface reading may be too shallow of an analysis. But I do not want to leave the impression that I am chalking everything up to God’s mysterious plan, one that we get to ride out like a cosmic roller-coaster. I will offer my opinion, and it is just my opinion, that God does not rain down destruction upon the world. God does not shake the ground with quakes or fill the skies with tornadoes. And God does not send plagues upon the lands or insert cancer into our cells. That opinion is probably inconsistent with some aspects of traditional Biblical teaching, which I will openly confess. Yet I am reminded of Abraham’s question to God: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?
What would make the earthquake in Nepal just? What would make the Ebola virus just? What would make cancer just? Would any of that ever be just?
I have said before from this pulpit, nature and disease do not have it out for us. Disasters happen because of the nature of this world. Viruses spread because that is in their nature. We get cancer because of any number of reasons, some specific and some random, some clearly predictable and some wildly unfair.
Explaining everything as a part of God’s plan divorces us from responsibility but it also stands in the way of us doing anything about the problems we face, whether disease or disasters. We would not leave someone under a collapsed building because it was part of a plan, would we? So we are already deviating from a sense of punishment by saving those who face disaster just as we do with those who struggle with disease. This is a philosophical step away from an unseen divine plan, but it is a fairly generic step relating to a rather high-minded matter. What does it truly mean for any of us?
Today is of course Mother’s Day. It is not an occasion of any religious significance, so I generally pass over the day with a prayer and well wishes to all. This year is a bit different, at least for me. Last year, my mother passed away. She was diagnosed with cancer and died about six months later. While there is no way of absolutely knowing what causes any particular incident of cancer, my mother was a long time smoker. The forms of cancer she had are generally seen in smokers. So there was likely a link between the actions of her life and the occasion of her death.
And, I must confess to you that I was angry with her when she died. I felt that it was her fault. She smoked all those years, knowing for much of that time that smoking was bad for her, potentially deadly. In her case, actually deadly. So I was angry. I was furious, really. She would not listen to what was good for her, what was obviously best for her. I cannot say whether smoking is sinful, or not smoking is righteous, but I do have a sense that it is an all-around bad idea.
But did she deserve to die? Did my mother deserve to get cancer? Was it just?
I have another friend, a colleague. He also has lung cancer. And he never smoked. He is still in treatment, struggling along cheerfully, patiently, lovingly. Struggling with something he is not supposed to have. He still got lung cancer without doing all the wrong things. Did my friend deserve to get cancer? Was that just? Was it even less just?
For that matter, was it just for me to be angry with my mother? It was her life, her choices, even if they were not the healthiest ones. I am not my mother’s keeper as it were. She had no duty to listen to my sermons. Neither do you all, but thanks for coming just the same.
These sorts of recriminations can rattle around in your head. Worries about what she did and what more I could have done. Why did she do what she did? Why wouldn’t she listen to me? Why do such things happen at all? To my mother? To my friend? And, lurking there somewhere in the back of my head, the deepest, darkest question: will this someday happen to me? What are the diseases that run in the family, the quiet sins within our flesh awaiting later punishment? Those are at least the types of recriminations rattling around in my head.
And it is a mistake to think this way. To think that health and disease, life and death, are a matter of God’s sense of justice. She gets cancer, right on schedule. He has a heart attack right on time. The mistake is to attribute these events to God’s plan. The mistake is to consider these events to be any way linked to justice. Someone does not justly grow ill or justly become injured. People make choices, some less healthy or more risky than others. Even if it is not a surprise that a smoker gets cancer, there is nothing just about it.
We need to think more deeply about the stories, like Abraham and Lot. God did not need to travel about to find out who was sinful and who was righteous. God was trying to understand what kind of a person Abraham was, whether he was vengeful or forgiving, whether he would stand courageously for the righteous or sit back quietly when he had nothing himself to lose. We need to think about justice and being just, not because this is a problem with God, but because it is a problem of our understanding.
I was mad with my mother after she died. I blamed her for dying, seeing her cancer as a choice, a slow moving bad decision. And that may be what happened. But it was not just for her to get cancer or for anyone to get cancer. Justice is not the same as punishment, even if that is sometimes what we desire, what we expect to see. I never wanted to be right and being right was one of the worst things I could imagine. Rightness is not righteousness.
Jesus gave his disciples a commandment, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” As I have loved you, not as you would like to love. Not as sparingly or cautiously or self-righteously as is comfortable. Jesus loved without judgment, forgiving again and again, healing and helping and lifting up those who had fallen so low. This was not the love of “I told you so.” This was not the love of small doses. This was the love of tender mercies and arms open with forgiveness.
With time, the Bible shifts away from the language of justice and punishment toward love and forgiveness. There is something of that shift going on with Abraham before God, bargaining for men and women he had never met. The shift culminates with Jesus offering his forgiveness to those arresting and abusing him, offering forgiveness from the cross itself. This is not an easy example to follow and there is little question that we will at times fall short of the example of Jesus.
But when we begin to imagine what we think would be just in a situation, we need to take our thinking deeper. We need to stand back from the sharp edges of calculating judgment and instead move forward with the less certain but ever hopeful way of compassion and forgiveness.
When I offered the eulogy for my mother, I ended it by saying that I forgave her. I forgave her for dying, which may seem a little absurd. But I was angry with her for dying, even if it was a foolish feeling. She did not choose to die, even though she made some unhealthy choices. And God did not choose for her to die, any more than God choose to bestow cancer upon her.
Jesus presented us with the radical notion that God enters our lives through love. When we open ourselves to love God, when we open ourselves to love in this world. It is not a bargaining session, like Abraham with God. It is a surrender to openness, a willingness to forgive, a realization that justice falls far short if love is left behind. To love like Jesus and to live like Jesus – that is what he commanded and that is the impossible seeming standard we are called toward.
Impossible seeming, so we must be ready to forgive. We must be ready to forgive because we will all trip and fall again and again. It may not seem at all just, but that is love for you.