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JULY 25, 2010: SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Genesis 18:20-32
Colossians 2:12-14
Luke 11:1-13

Today’s first reading would make more sense if it started with verse 19 instead of verse 20.

But, no matter where it starts, as early as grade school I had learned about this memorable encounter between Abraham and Yahweh; a meeting in which a human being finagles God into lowering an agreed upon price from fifty to ten. We kids probably liked and remembered it because it presented an instance in which an immutable, all-powerful being was cajoled into changing his or her mind.

Of course, at that point of our religious formation we knew nothing of biblical myths. Nor did we understand how the sacred Jewish author was trying to project back into Abraham - his or her race and faith ancestor - the personality traits in which 10th century BCE Israelites took great pride. The writer began this process in the first part of the narrative by stressing the patriarch’s passion for showing hospitality. Now the subject revolves around confidence in their ability to negotiate prices. Just as a good salesman can sell refrigerators to Eskimos, so a good Jew can best even Yahweh when they haggle over prices. (Three years ago when I first employed “haggle” in my commentary on this passage, some Gentiles objected, implying the term bordered on anti-Semitism. I quickly checked with a rabbi friend who assured me, “They don’t know what they’re talking about. We Jews take pride in our ability to haggle.”)

Yet, as I mentioned above, when one reads the whole passage - including verse 19 - the narrative conveys a different perspective on the encounter. Abraham isn’t motivated by just an inherent ability to negotiate prices; his brash behavior is grounded in his relationship with Yahweh. God initially lets Abraham in on his/her plans for Sodom only because God relates to him in a unique way, different from how God relates to others. Yahweh has singled out this man and his family to do “what is right and just.”

In a parallel way, in today’s gospel pericope Jesus teaches his followers a special prayer. They’re to employ it not because this particular set of words guarantees those who use it will get more “stuff” than those who know nothing about it, but because it expresses the unique mindset of someone who has a special relationship with God and Jesus.

The early Christian community never thought the Lord’s Prayer was a set, unchangeable “magic” prayer: one which forces God to grant our requests even when God isn’t inclined to do so. We know this because the gospels give us this prayer in two different forms (here and in a longer form, with some different words, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount). And later in today’s passage, when Jesus talks about people getting what they prayerfully request, he doesn’t insist his followers use special words or phrases. Instead, he constantly brings up friends and parents and children. Relationships are more important in prayer than words.

Our Colossians author offers us the theological background against which to hear the other two readings. We Christians are who we are not because we possess some special genetic or racial traits, or because we’re privy to prayers no one else has, but simply because we’re “buried with (Jesus) in baptism . . . and raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Our Christian sacred authors shared a unique belief. They were convinced that those who imitated Jesus’ death not only rose with him, but, in the process, they also became one with him. When they prayed, they were praying in the name and person of the risen Jesus. Because of that, they not only prayed in a different way, they also prayed for different things - the things for which Jesus prays.