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On the Readings for Sunday, July 28, 2013
"The Descent towards Sodom" by Marc Chagall (c. 1931).

Readings:
• Gn 18:20-32
• Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
• Col 2:12-14
• Lk 11:1-13

According to atheist Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book The God Delusion, the God of the Old Testament is “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

That remark indicates far more familiarity with the dictionary than with the Bible. I wonder, how much fiction has Dawkins read? More seriously, how carefully has he actually read the Bible?

Sadly, Dawkins merely appeals to the tired notion that the “God of the Old Testament” is a cruel tyrant with little love for His creation. I suspect that even many Christians have the vague sense that such is the case. And today’s reading from the Old Testament is the sort of passage that can, rather easily, be misinterpreted to provide evidence for that view.

In fact, some commentators have understood the conversation between the Lord and Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah as a case of the cool-headed patriarch talking the hot-headed deity out of rash, murderous judgment—or, as Dawkins might put it, “an act of vindictive genocide.” But as difficult as the text is, it actually presents something quite different: a calm and deliberate conversation between the “Judge of all the world”, responding to the outcry of those anguished by the deviance practiced in those infamous cities, and the bold servant of God, whose questions seem as much theological as personal in nature.

Far from being petty and unjust, God was responding with patience and love to two different but related sets of questions. The first, as noted, came from those inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah crying out for justice, apparently due to a combination of sexual immorality and social inequality (Gen 19:4-11; Ez 16:46-51). God did not intend to simply destroy the cities and all of their inhabitants. Rather, as in the days of Noah, He desired to put an end to lawlessness, yet with the knowledge that a few just men could be found among the wicked. And so Genesis 19 depicts two angels sent to rescue Lot and his family from the coming destruction—and that after saving them from the advances of a lustful mob.

The second set of questions, from Abraham, was concerned with whether or not the Judge of all things would indeed be just. That remarkable conversation reveals an intimacy between man and God that is unique among ancient religious literature. “After that, once God had confided his plan [Gen 18:17-21]” the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “Abraham's heart is attuned to his Lord's compassion for men and he dares to intercede for them with bold confidence” (CCC 2571). Through both divine revelation and his natural intelligence, Abraham learned what it meant to be just and compassionate. Satisfied that God would act justly, Abraham did not stay to witness the salvation of his relatives, but returned home (Gen 19:33).

The intimacy between the Creator and the recipient of the Abrahamic covenant (cf., Gen 12, 15-17; CCC 72) foreshadowed the unique revelation about the Father given by the Son, who not only prayed to the Father but also taught His disciples how to pray to the Father. Luke’s account of the “Our Father,” in today’s Gospel, is shorter than that in given by Matthew, which is the version commonly known and said. It first acknowledges God as Father, as well as the holiness of His name, along with the desire to see His kingdom realized in fullness. It then asks for three basic needs, without which man will perish, both physically and spiritually: nourishment (“our daily bread”), forgiveness, and salvation—“do not subject us to the final test.”

Their heavenly Father, Jesus told the disciples, gives good gifts to those who ask and seek with the humble, trusting heart of a child. It is a humility and trust based in prayer and conversation with God, who is not an unpleasant fictional character, but a caring and merciful Father.

(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the July 29, 2007, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

 
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Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.
 
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