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Lent 2: Bargaining with God

8 March 2009
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Mark 8:31-38
What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God? Micah 6:8

You cannot bargain with God. So says the Revd Dr. Alan Garrow in a commentary on today's readings.1 He is a vicar theologian, and once wrote a learned treatise on the religious significance of the teletubbies, so he should know. But on this occasion I am not sure he is right. The bible is full of bargains made between God and his people. In today's first reading, God makes a bargain, or a covenant, with Abraham. And there were also the covenants with Noah,Genesis 8:9 Jacob, Genesis 28:12-15 Moses,Exodus 19:24 LotLot 2:9-19 and the Children of Israel.

In today's lesson, as in most of these examples, it is God who initiates the covenant. But, by the next chapter of Genesis, it is Abraham who starts off the round of bargaining, trying to get God to change his mind about destroying Sodom because of its wickedness:

Then Abraham came near and said, 'Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 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?'

You all know what happened next: God agreed not to annihilate Sodom if 50 righteous people could be found, then 45, then 30, then 20, and finally ten righteous people. But when his angels could find only four righteous people living there, God went ahead and destroyed the city.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Genesis 18:20-23 like AIDS and the tsunami in our time, offend against our innate sense of natural justice, since codified in law but first articulated here by Abraham. With all our being, we echo with him:

'shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?'Genesis 18:25

During the Holocaust, a group of Auschwitz prisoners decided to put God in the dock. You may have seen 'God on Trial', the recent television play about this - here is the dramatist on his experiences:

I'm pretty sure now that it's an apocryphal tale, one of those stories that persists because it strikes a chord. Both the World Trade Centre attacks and the Boxing Day tsunami had seemed to put God back on the world stage and raise again old questions about justice and suffering. Nearly any other screenwriter... would have been only too happy to Dawkins up some diatribe about the badness of God. But as a Catholic, I'm actually quite fond of Him and felt uncomfortable acting for the prosecution.

Two academic rabbis changed my mind. They introduced me to a long Jewish tradition of wrangling with God, going right back to Abraham bargaining with him over the destruction of Sodom. The trial of God would not have been some blasphemous aberration, but something in the tradition of the psalms, the Book of Job and even Christ's terrible cry from the cross: " Why have you forsaken me?"

Although the subject of the guilt of God is universal, when it came to writing I confined myself to imagining this particular trial: I focused on the Covenant, God's special deal with the Jewish people. I thought I was doing this to keep faith with the story - but maybe I was also doing it to distance it from my own spiritual life. The magic of stories, though, is that the more specific you are, the more universal they seem to get. The Covenant turned out to be a really good way of talking about anyone who expects anything from God.

Instead of the usual snappy dialogue, I wrote speeches that ran for pages. To get them right, I had to read the scriptures: the Torah, the Talmud, everything. I assumed that doing so would enrich my own spiritual life. It almost killed it stone dead. I thought I was familiar with these texts, but reading them straight through was a different experience. Here was a God who was savage and capricious, who chose favourites, then dropped them, who set his people ridiculous tests...As a writer, I was thrilled by this... But the good Catholic side of me was being beaten black and blue. I thought my faith was invulnerable. I read Darwin all the time and find it feeds my faith. Richard Dawkins makes me want to pray, the same as Homer Simpson makes me want to exercise - for fear that I, too, will end up like him, a whining pub bore with the prose style of an internet conspiracy theorist. The first real challenge to my faith came from reading the scriptures. I didn't tell you the end of the story. After they find God guilty, one of the rabbis says: "So what do we do now?" Another replies: "Let us pray." Is this a wry story about Jewish stoicism? Is it about a failure of moral courage? Or what? For me, it's about faith.
Frank Cottrell Boyce 2

Public covenants that we, as Christians, have made with God include our ceremonies of baptism, confirmation and marriage. But every time we pray we also acknowledge a symbiotic relationship with Him, whereby each side plays a part. Bargaining with God, however, is never going to be a negotiation between equals - remember the adage Man proposes, but God disposes.

I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God;
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I needed;
I am, among all men, most richly blessed

Anon, attributed to an American Confederate soldier

Thinking it must be possible to renegotiate the contract in altered circumstances, John Milton asked: 'Doth God exact day labour, light denied?' In a shift of time and mood, one can imagine God answering:

I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine,
There's gotta be a little rain sometimes.
When you take, you gotta give, so live and let live, or let go...
I could promise you things like big diamond rings,
But you don't find roses growin' on stalks of clover.
So you'd better think it over.
I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden.
As Paul Claudel said: Jesus did not come to explain suffering, but to fill it with his presence.

'Christ offers no neutrality. It's not easy to follow Jesus Christ - he doesn't offer a bed of roses. When you come to him, he won't exempt you from the problems of life, he doesn't find you a job if you're unemployed, but he does promise his peace and his love, his strength and his joy, and he promises you eternal life.'
Billy Graham
, 'Mission England', 1984

But to return to the story of Abraham and Sarah where we began:

Amazing grace - this is the marvellous theme of this chapter. Genesis 17:1-27 Abram became Abraham. 5 Sarai became Sarah. 15-16 What they were belonged to their sinful past. What they became was the work of God's grace... Abram and Sarai appeared to be hopeless cases. They had failed the Lord, but He did not fail them. He made them new people. They became the father and mother of nations. To those who do not deserve His love, God still renews His 'covenant', His promise of love. 2 He still says, 'I have loved you with an everlasting love'. Jeremiah 31:3 In the Cross of Christ, we have the greatest 'sign of the covenant' .11; Romans 5:8
Charles Cameron

The dear Jesus did not say 'Take my cross upon you'; what he said to each of us was, "Take up your cross". Do not try to imitate the austerities of the ancient fathers or even my own austerities. You should take on yourself only a portion of them, as much as you can reasonably practise with your infirm body, aiming to kill sin within yourself without shortening your life in the body...God has many kinds of crosses with which he chastens his friends ...When this cross comes to you, accept it with patience.
St Henry Suso

1'The Ministry of the Word', ed Naomi Starkey, 2000
2abridged from interview in ‘The Guardian’ 19 August 2008; falls within permitted degree of quotation without further permission allowed by Mr Boyce's literary agent
3 Grateful thanks to Dr Charles Cameron for allowing us to quote him as here.

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