|Published by Zoe Bell on Thu, 1 Aug 2019 12:04|
Trinity 7C – Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2: 6-19; Luke 11:1-13
Two of today’s readings are explicitly about prayer, and the question I want to ask is what is it about prayer that these passages help us to see? The tentative answer I want to give to that question is that these passages should not be seen principally as passages about prayer per se, but rather about the nature of the God to whom we pray. These passages require us to consider who God is, what we think God is like and how the way we pray, for better or worse, conforms to our basic comprehension of God.
I want to suggest to you that there are two very widespread, but deeply superstitious views of God, that govern many people’s prayer lives.[i] The first is to view God as negotiator. In the film Amadeus, there is a famous scene where, as a boy, Mozart’s great rival Antonio Salieri kneels before a crucifix and strikes a bargain with God: “Lord make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music – and be celebrated myself. Make me famous throughout the world, dear God! Make me immortal! In return I vow to you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life. And I will help my fellow man all I can.” In return for divine favours, Salieri is prepared to sacrifice his autonomy, his comfort and love itself. However, Salieri ends up a bitter old man, angry at himself, angry at the world and, above all, angry at God, a famous composer, yes, but utterly outshone by the genius of Mozart.
The other distortion is diametrically opposed to the model of God the negotiator. This is God as Santa Claus. This is the God who demands nothing of us but keeps on giving. Unlike God the negotiator, there are no conditions constraining God’s inexhaustible generosity, no limits to his profligacy as a giver. Our autonomy remains unfettered and our desires indulged. On this view, as one American theologian has put it, “God doesn’t make deals. God gives.”
The problem with these two models of God, and the prayers they shape, is that they are fundamentally misleading accounts of what God is like and how God calls us to relate to him. Now you might understandably wish to riposte by pointing out that in our Old Testament reading, Abraham assumes that God is a negotiator. He is seeking divine favour for all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. This story is as vivid an account of Middle Eastern style haggling as exists in all of scripture.
However, there are a number of fundamental points against this idea that God is a negotiator. For a start, in the story, Abraham offers nothing in return. And this stands to reason. He has already responded to the call of God, leaving the security of home in Eastern Turkey, to strike out towards the new land of Canaan that God would show him. God has already credited this act of faith to Abraham as righteousness (Gen 15:6). God has already promised Abraham a glorious destiny as a father of multitudes. Abraham has already given God all that he is and all that he has in response to God’s prior call and promise.
Prayer is about our relationship with God, as opposed to getting things from God. Indeed, God, by definition, needs nothing we might otherwise have to give him. God can walk away from any proposition. And as any negotiator knows, it is impossible to strike a good deal under these conditions.
It is precisely because Abraham has nothing to weigh into the bargain that the only avenue open to him is to appeal to the very nature of God:
Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
God by nature is a God of justice and righteousness and the basic premise of Abraham’s appeal is that God must behave consistently with his nature, which is why Abraham prays as he does. Abraham is saying to God, “If you God are like this, as you have revealed yourself to be, and as I have taken you to be, then you cannot behave as you intend to in respect of Sodom and Gomorrah sweeping away the righteous and wicked alike, because that would be utterly inconsistent with the way you have represented yourself to the people of God throughout your dealings with them.
God is not a negotiator but a God of justice and righteousness.
Similarly, God also cannot properly be understood as a divine version of Santa Claus. Because God does make demands of us. There is the law – the Ten Commandments. There is also the prophetic call to justice and righteousness s, to show bias to the poor, the orphan and the widowed, to embrace the stranger in our midst.
But these demands are not the demands of contract; they are not part of a bargain. They are rather – and this is a most important point – part of the covenant relationship which God first establishes with Abraham, then with Moses and with the whole people of Israel. The covenant between God and Abraham and Moses is made in the expectation that Abraham and his descendants will keep the covenant by doing works of justice and righteousness. A covenant is not a contract. A covenant is structured around relationship, around God’s unconditional call and our thankful response. A bargain, by contrast, involves a reward for services rendered, which is a very different thing.
So, if God is not a negotiator or Santa Claus how should we think of God and our relationship with him in prayer?
In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ teaches his disciples to address God as a loving father, like a child towards loving parents. In fact, the Gospel of Luke teaches us that God responds to us in prayer with a goodness that is incomparably greater than even that of loving parents. The Father loves mercifully, beyond the limits of human reason or fairness and beyond our ability to meet God’s love with our own, although to do so to the best of our ability is life itself and our highest calling. Some have called The Parable of the Prodigal Son ‘the Gospel within the Gospel’ because it distils Jesus’ view of what God is fundamentally like, the Compassionate Father, who, even though we are a long way off, rushes out to greet us, puts a ring on our finger and garbs us in a clean robe and celebrates our return with the slaughter of the fatted calf.
If God is like a Father, which the Gospels testify he is, then we are always pushing at an open door when we pray. Which parent when his child asks for a fish gives her a stone or a scorpion. If parents are eager to give good gifts to their children, then how much more will God give the gift of his Holy Spirit to those who ask him? This is why, like the midnight visitor, we can be shameless in our importuning of God in prayer. It is based on the boldness that comes from familiarity with the Father; it is a shamelessness based on trust.
So, as we move more deeply into this extended period of ‘ordinary time’, when the readings challenge us to think more deeply about the requirements of the Christian life, let us consider how we pray to God and what view of God the nature of our prayer implies. Do we deal with God as if God were driving a hard bargain? Or is he just a big ‘sugar daddy’ in the sky making no uncomfortable demands? Or is he a loving Father whom we feel we can approach in confidence and trust for the gift of the Holy Spirit that enables us to restore creation, do justice, practice righteousness, and love our neighbour, reflecting God’s life in our life, the joy the wisdom, the impossible newness, the life lived in its fulness?
[i] I owe the characterisations of God as, respectively negotiator and Santa Claus to the Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf from his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005