For those of you who have traveled abroad, particularly to the Middle East and perhaps even to the Holy Land, the account of Abraham bargaining with God will not appear to be strange. Haggling is an art form, particularly in a Middle Eastern market. Abraham’s intercessory bargaining reveals the value of only one just man’s prayers along with the value God places on the life of just one righteous man. The Jews, you see, have always known that the prayer of just one righteous man holds a lot of value with God and that the life of such a man is “worth his weight in gold” as the market place phrase goes. Abraham knows exactly how to bargain with God so that God will spare the people of Sodom for the sake of just one man living there.
Furthermore, the story reveals that Abraham is on good terms with God. One not on good terms with God would ever dare to approach God in this manner. Abraham, however, could. He was not estranged from God. He was on good terms and so could bargain and haggle with God in the finest of Middle Eastern business practices. He haggles with the best of them.
Abraham’s situation is different from ours. The problem in our day is that we are indifferent. The problem faced by priests, ministers, and rabbis in our culture is not the problem of unbelief. Nor is it necessarily the problem of sin. No. Our problem is the problem of indifference. It’s not that people are atheists or agnostics. It’s not that people have actively rejected God and defied God by sinning. No. It’s that people simply don’t care. They’re indifferent. For them, God does not matter.
If you want to insult someone, the greatest possible insult you can render is to return a gift given to you unused. If you really want to reject someone, send their gift to you back to them. It tells them: “I don’t need you. I don’t need your friendship or your love — I don’t need anything you could possibly give me.” In other words: “You are for me a non-person!”
Not to pray is to show your indifference toward God. Not to pray is to send His gift back to Him. Jesus taught us how to pray in the simplest of terms. There’s nothing mysterious or mumbo-jumbo about it. The prayer Jesus taught us is utterly simple in its expression of what we need from God and what our response to Him should be. It tells us we need to honor Him, that we need our daily bread, that we need forgiveness, that we need the strength to give forgiveness to others, and that we need God’s protection in times of temptation and trial. Not to use it, not to pray it, is to say to God: “You don’t have anything I need or want.”
Prayer acknowledges that you have a relationship with God. Consequently, the quality of your prayer is correlative to the value you place on your relationship with God. Abraham took God seriously — so seriously that Abraham haggled and bargained with God over the value of what was to be delivered. There was something very serious at stake here, so Abraham got serious with God.
Do we take God seriously? Do we need God? I think we should. I think we need a higher power in order to extract ourselves from sinking further into the quicksand as we thrash about, sinking further and further down. I think we need our daily bread — the Bread of Life along with all those daily gifts that nourish and strengthen us. I think we need that which causes us to grow as persons. And I daresay each and every soul reading this will admit they need forgiveness.
If prayer is to change anything at all, it is to change us — to change our minds, to change our attitudes, to change the way we live. Genuine prayer puts us at God’s disposal. It allows us to see what God dreamed we could be when He created us in the first place. Ask yourself what is more real, the self you see, or the self God sees? The self God sees is what we can be, not what we have been, or done, or accomplished. Prayer, in other words, takes hold of God’s presence and gives us power over ourselves, not over God. Prayer gives us the chance to see ourselves in God’s eyes and therefore to live with self-respect, to leave in peace, and to live with the power not only to change ourselves but also the power to heal, love, and free others so they can see themselves in the same Light of God. Prayer liberates us.
In his letter to the Romans St. Paul put it beautifully when he wrote:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God and creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Romans 8)
Do we need the strength, the fortitude, and the guts to forgive someone in our lives who has deeply wounded and hurt us? You bet we do. Do we need to have the willingness to forgive others? Yes! For each one of us there is someone in our lives who has hurt us so much that only an act of God can give us the will and the power to forgive them.
Are we held in the steel grip of habit and addiction, a particular temptation that conquers us and snatches away our soul every time it afflicts us? Are we threatened by something terrible that will hurt us — by an evil that seriously threatens our well-being? Everyone here knows that is so in some aspect of their life. We all know that we have been tried and found wanting. We all know that when we face that trial again we will succumb unless the power of God comes to us and helps us out of the quicksand that sucks us down ever more deeply and ever more powerfully to the point that we will suffocate in it.
The Mass we celebrate is in itself a prayer. Not to pray it is to show God our indifference. To turn Sunday Mass into something that is only optional is to tell God that for us He is only optional.
And as for the value of only one Righteous Man, Jesus, — well that’s precisely why we are here, together offering His life for ourselves and others to the God of Abraham.