I’m a member of a religious order The Congregation of Holy Cross.Founded in France, we have been in the United States for about 175years. As a result, perhaps, of our long exposure to American culture, ourrelationships with one another are remarkably informal. For instance, allof us, from the provincial superior to the most recently ordained priestare on a first name basis. Regardless of the roles we play at work, whenwe are together, we are simply brothers. As a result, we are inclined totake one another for granted. So when one of us faces down an angrymob, confronts a dictator, wins a Congressional Gold Medal or the Asianequivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, there is, for the rest of us, a momentof surprise at what old Tom or Gerry or Ted or Dick has accomplished.
Outside the context of religious life, relationships most often workthe other way round. We meet some august personage and feel awed bythem. Then perhaps over time we get to know them better until one daywe come to see them as a friend. Then, when we see them acting in theirprofessional capacity, we are reminded of how extraordinary they reallyare.
It is this second pattern that we see played out in our scripturereadings this week, in regard to humanity’s relationship with God. In ourFirst Reading from Genesis, Abraham negotiates with God over the fate ofSodom and Gomorrah. The incident occurs quite early on in Abraham’srelationship with God. Using groveling language appropriate to asupplicant appearing before an Asian potentate, Abraham asks God tospare the two cities if fifty innocent people can be found there. WhenGod agrees to this proposal, Abraham presses the point further, gettingGod to agree to spare the cities if first forty-five, then forty, then thirty,then twenty and finally only ten innocents can be found there. Now,Abraham has little reason to care about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.He is a nomadic pastoralist with little interest in cities and theirinhabitants. Perhaps Abraham’s real motivation in his audaciousnegotiation is to find out more about this God with whom he has cast hislot. What, he must be wondering, is this God really like. After all, theterrible anger God is expressing toward Sodom and Gomorrah might oneday be directed toward Abraham himself. The good news that Abrahamtakes away from the encounter is that God’s righteous anger is mitigatedby God’s justice and compassion.
The relationship that God initiates with Abraham carries on formany centuries through the Hebrew prophets and kings. In the course oftime the relationship grows more intimate as the chosen people gain anever-clearer understanding of what God is really like. Our Christianconviction is that this process reaches its consummation in Jesus Christ,who is the perfect self-revelation of God.
So, when in our Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples how to pray to Godfor what they want, the technique he teaches is vastly different from thatemployed so long ago by their ancestor Abraham. Whereas Abrahamcries out with fear and trembling “See how I am presuming to speak to myLord, though I am but dust and ashes!” Jesus urges a less formalapproach. The disciples are to pray to God like a man importuning areluctant neighbor for three loaves of bread, or like a son asking his fatherfor a fish or an egg. For Jesus, prayer is less like begging a favor from adangerous tyrant, and more like the plea of a child who knows from longexperience just how to get what she wants from a doting parent. This isthe extraordinary intimacy to which God invites us in Christ. Themagnitude of God’s generosity in offering us this privileged relationship isbrought home to us when we reflect on who God is. The God who is soinclined to embrace each of us like an indulgent parent, is the infinite Lovewho creates and sustains the universe. No wonder Abraham groveled.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”