The third chapter of the new book that the Pope is writing, week by week, on prayer. Here is Abraham’s prayer for the two sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
This prayer is a prophecy of the one Just Man able to take away the sins of all…
Dear brothers and sisters,
In the two last catecheses we reflected on prayer as a universal phenomenon, which — although in different forms — is present in the cultures of all times. Today, instead, I would like to begin a biblical review on this subject, which will lead us more deeply into the covenant dialogue between God and man that animates the history of salvation, up to its culmination in the definitive Word that is Jesus Christ. This journey will bring us to pause on some important texts and paradigmatic figures of the Old and the New Testaments.
Abraham, the great Patriarch, father of all believers (cf. Romans 4:11-12, 16-17), will offer us the first example of prayer, in the episode of his intercession for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And I would also like to invite you to take advantage of the journey we will make in the forthcoming catecheses to learn to know the Bible more, which I hope you have in your homes and, during the week, pause to read and meditate in prayer, to know the wonderful history of the relationship between God and man, between God who communicates with us and man who responds, who prays.
The first text on which we wish to reflect is found in Chapter 18 of the Book of Genesis; it recounts that the iniquity of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah had reached a peak, so much so as to render necessary an intervention of God to carry out an act of justice and to halt the evil by destroying those cities. It is here that Abraham comes in, with his prayer of intercession. God decided to reveal to him what was about to happen and brings him to know the gravity of the evil and its terrible consequences, because Abraham is his chosen one, chosen to become a great people and to make the divine blessing reach the whole world. His is a mission of salvation, which must respond to the sin that has invaded man’s reality; through him, the Lord wishes to bring humanity back to faith, to obedience, to justice. And now, this friend of God opens to the reality and the need of the world, he prays for those who are about to be punished, and prays that they be saved.
Abraham sets out the problem immediately in all its gravity, and says to the Lord: “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are 50 righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the 50 righteous who are in it? Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (vv. 23-25).
With these words, with great courage, Abraham puts before God the need to avoid a summary justice: if the city is culpable, it is right to condemn its offense and inflict punishment, but — affirms the great Patriarch — it would be unjust to punish in an indiscriminate way all the inhabitants. If there are innocents in the city, they cannot be treated like the guilty. God, who is a just judge, cannot act like that, says Abraham, rightly, to God.
However, if we read the text more attentively, we realize that Abraham’s request is even more serious and more profound, because he does not limit himself to ask for the salvation of the innocent. Abraham asks for forgiveness for the whole city and he does so appealing to God’s justice. In fact, he says to the Lord: “Wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the 50 righteous who are in it?” (v. 24b)
By so doing, he puts into play a new idea of justice: not the one that limits itself to punish the guilty, as men do, but a different, divine justice, which seeks the good and creates it through forgiveness that transforms the sinner, that converts and saves him. Hence, with his prayer, Abraham does not invoke a merely retributive justice, but an intervention of salvation that, taking into account the innocent, also liberates the wicked from their guilt, forgiving them.
Abraham’s thought, which seems almost paradoxical, can be synthesized thus: obviously the innocent cannot be treated as the guilty, this would be unjust; instead, it is necessary to treat the guilty as the innocent, putting into act a “superior” justice, offering them a possibility of salvation, because if the evildoers accept God’s forgiveness and confess their fault, letting themselves be saved, they will no longer continue to do evil, they will also become righteous, without any further need to be punished.
It is this request of justice that Abraham expresses in his intercession, a request that is based on the certainty that the Lord is merciful. Abraham does not ask of God something that is contrary to his essence; he knocks on the door of God’s heart, knowing his real will.
Sodom was certainly a large city; 50 righteous seems but little, but are not God’s justice and his forgiveness perhaps the manifestation of the force of goodness, even if it seems smaller and weaker than evil? The destruction of Sodom should have halted the evil present in the city, but Abraham knows that God has other ways and other means to check the spread of evil. It is forgiveness that interrupts the spiral of sin and Abraham, in his dialogue with God, appeals precisely for this.
And when the Lord agrees to forgive the city if 50 righteous can be found, his prayer of intercession begins to descend to the abysses of divine mercy. Abraham — as we recall — makes the number of the innocent necessary for salvation diminish progressively: if there are not 50, perhaps 45 would suffice, and then ever lower to 10, continuing with his supplication, which is made almost bold in its insistence: “Suppose 40 are found there … 30 … 20 … 10” (cf. vv. 18.104.22.168). And the smaller the number becomes, the greater is the manifestation of God’s mercy, who listens with patience, accepts and repeats to every supplication: “I will spare… I will not destroy… I will not do it” (cf. vv. 22.214.171.124.31.32).
Thus, by the intercession of Abraham, Sodom can be saved if in it are found just 10 innocent. This is the power of prayer.
Because manifested and expressed through intercession, prayer to God for the salvation of others is the desire of salvation that God always harbors for sinful man. Evil, in fact, cannot be accepted, it must be singled out and destroyed through punishment: the destruction of Sodom had precisely this function. But the Lord does not desire the death of the wicked, but that he be converted and live (cf. Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11); his desire is always to forgive, to save, to give life, to transform evil into good.
Well, it is precisely this divine desire that, in prayer, becomes man’s desire and is expressed through the words of intercession.
With his supplication, Abraham is lending his own voice, but also his own heart, to the divine will: God’s desire is mercy, love and will of salvation, and this desire of God found in Abraham and in his prayer the possibility of manifesting itself in a concrete way within the history of men, to be present where there is need of grace.
With the voice of his prayer, Abraham is giving voice to God’s desire, which is not to destroy, but to save Sodom, to give life to the converted sinner.
This is what the Lord wishes, and his dialogue with Abraham is a prolonged and unmistakable manifestation of his merciful love. The need to find righteous men within the city becomes ever less exacting and in the end 10 will suffice to save the totality of the population. For what reason Abraham stops at 10 is not said in the text. Perhaps it is a number that indicates a minimum community nucleus (also today, 10 persons are the necessary quorum for Jewish public prayer). Nevertheless, it is a small number, a small particle of good from which to save a great evil.
However, not even 10 righteous are found in Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities were destroyed. A destruction attested paradoxically as necessary precisely by Abraham’s prayer of intercession.
Precisely because that prayer revealed God’s salvific will: the Lord was ready to forgive, he wished to do so, but the cities were closed in a total and paralyzing evil, without even a few innocent from which to begin to transform the evil into good.
Because it is precisely this way of salvation that Abraham also requested: to be saved does not mean simply to flee from punishment, but to be liberated from the evil that dwells in us. It is not the punishment that must be eliminated, but sin, that rejection of God and of love that already bears punishment in itself.
The prophet Jeremiah would say to the rebellious people: “Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God” (Jeremiah 2:19).
It is from this sadness and bitterness that the Lord wishes to save man, liberating him from sin.
But, of service therefore is a transformation from within, some occasion of good, a beginning from which to transform evil into good, hatred into love, revenge into forgiveness. Because of this the righteous must be inside the city, and Abraham continually repeats: “perhaps there, they will be found …”
“There”: it is inside the sick reality that the germ of good must be which can heal and give back life.
It is a word addressed also to us: that the germ of good be found in our cities; that we do everything so that there will be not just 10 righteous, to really make our cities live and survive and to save ourselves from this interior bitterness which is the absence of God. And in the sick reality of Sodom and Gomorrah that germ of goodness was not found.
However, the mercy of God in the history of his people widens further. If to save Sodom 10 righteous were sufficient, the prophet Jeremiah will say, in the name of the Almighty, that just one righteous will suffice to save Jerusalem. “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth; that I may pardon her” (5:1).
The number has gone down again, God’s goodness shows itself even greater. And yet this is still not enough, the superabundant mercy of God does not find the answer of goodness that it seeks, and Jerusalem falls under the siege of the enemy.
It will be necessary for God himself to become that righteous one. And this is the mystery of the Incarnation: to guarantee a righteous one, he himself becomes man. There will always be a righteous one because He is: it is necessary, however, that God himself become that righteous one. The infinite and amazing divine love will be fully manifested when the Son of God becomes man, the definitive Righteous One, the perfect Innocent One, who will bring salvation to the whole world by dying on the cross, forgiving and interceding for those who “know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Then the prayer of every man will find its answer, then every intercession of ours will be fully heard.
Dear brothers and sisters, the supplication of Abraham, our father in the faith, teaches us to open our hearts ever more to the superabundant mercy of God, so that in our daily prayer we will be able to desire the salvation of humanity and to ask for it with perseverance and trust in the Lord who is great in love.
—Rome, May 18, 2011 [Translation by Zenit]