Michael Barnes S.J.
Genesis 18.20-32, Why do the good suffer and the wicked continue to prosper? The problem of evil haunts all religious people of all ages. The Old Testament is no exception: much of it is given over to a justification of the strange ways of God with men.
At the centre of the Old Testament is a relationship — between God and his People. God dealt primarily with the people as a whole; the whole community was responsible for the actions of individuals and thus the whole community was punished. If one man committed a crime the people were held to account. It was a simple idea, naive perhaps, as theology, but containing more than a grain of truth, for very few actions — if any — are purely private: they do somehow affect others.
In this reading, however, it is not the notion of the bad apple
infecting the good that is stressed, but rather the opposite. Yahweh is about to condemn the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil ways. But Abraham plucks up courage and prays: will God destroy the city if he can find just fifty good men?. Yahweh relents and agrees to spare the evil for the sake of the good. Again Abraham prays and manages to elicit a promise from Yahweh that he will not destroy the cities for the sake of only ten just men. The presence of good can bring salvation to the wicked.
But the story also illustrates the power of prayer: Abraham does not try to twist God's arm and force him to do something he does not want to do. Abraham has no hold over God. What he can do is to remind God of his promise of mercy to the just. It is this selfless sincerity, the model of real faith, whichprompts God to relent.
Mystery cults at Colosae
Colossians 2. 12-24. Last week's second reading rather stressed the communion which the Christian has in the sufferings of Christ. This week it is the other side of the coin: 'in Baptism you have been raised up with him through your belief in the power of God who raised him from the dead'.
Once again an explanation may be found in the problems he seems to have been facing at
Colossae. Iollow ers ol the mystery cults wanted immediate contact with the surrounding hosts of powers. dominions, principalities and all the rest. Paul tries to point out that the only mystery is that of Christ and his death and resurrection. It is through our baptism into this mystery that we experience the salvation of God, being turned from sinners into his friends.
Paul knows that this salvation has not yet fully been accomplished hence last week's reading about making up the sufferings of Christ. But the process has already started: the Colossians can and do experience the effects of the Resurrection in their own lives.
Christ has been raised: we are being raised too.
Cantankerous man next door
Luke 11. 1-13. Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer is rather shorter than Matthew's, omitting some of the petitions and shortening others. But substantially it is the same prayer which originated with the request of the disciples — 'Lord. teach us to pray, just us John taught his disciples.'
What is quite different is the context: in Matthew Jesus is attacking the hyprocrisy of the Pharisees who stand at street corners to perform their pious acts and the long windedness of the Gentiles who babble empty phrases. Luke, however, follows
up with a parable and a series of sayings which emphasis the effectiveness of prayer. The parable is peculiar to Luke: if a man wants something from a neighbour badly enough he will go on asking until his persistence wins the day.
The parable is not an allegory: we are not meant to think of God as the sleepy and rather cantankerous 'man next door'. Just as in the sayings which follow — how no father will give his son a stone if he asks for bread or a snake if he asks for a fish — the message is about the attitude of the one who prays.
As Jesus says in explanation, 'if you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him,' As we noted in the first reading, what God, looks for is a sincere and honest heart.