The readings for this Sunday reveal much about the nature of repentance. The first reading is taken from the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis. To examine the larger context: Abraham’s nephew Lot moves to the city of Sodom. Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah, were known for their degeneracy and debauchery, so much so that God intended His wrath to come down upon the cities. Yet, prior to doing so, God warned Abraham that His wrath would fall upon the cities, and Abraham, knowing his nephew lived there, feared the safety of his nephew. He asked God, “Will you kill the good and the bad alike? Suppose you find fifty good men within the city – will you destroy it, and not spare it for their sake?” (Genesis 18:23-24) God then replied, “If I find fifty godly men there, I will spare the entire city for their sake.” (Genesis 18:26) Abraham continues with a similar line of questioning for the next several verses, and God responds similarly, each time using a smaller and smaller number of hypothetical people. By the time you get to verse 32, Abraham asks whether God would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there were as few as 10 godly people living there, and God answers yes.
In the following chapter, we see what happens: because Lot and his family are the only righteous people in the city, God sends two angels to Sodom to save Lot. Yet, because the rest of the city was unrepentant, they suffered God’s wrath as He destroyed the city.
What is the meaning of this story? One level of meaning that I see is that Sodom and Gomorrah represent humanity in its fallen state. Yet, the state of fallen man contrasts, in the starkest possible way, with the state to which man is called, for which he was created – namely, the glories of heaven. The notion that God would be willing to save Sodom and Gomorrah no matter how small the number of godly people there were within them represents how the state of glory presupposes repentance for our sins. This repentance includes, necessarily, sorrow for having offended God by our sinfulness, a hatred of our sin, and a desire to strive for holiness. This is the first step – and the most indispensable part – of our salvation. Yet, the holiness that we attain in this life is nothing when compared to the glories of perfect holiness, which is the result of perfect union with God, the Source of All Goodness. Yet, in some sense it doesn’t matter: Padre Pio, the great 20th century Catholic mystic, wrote, “One doesn’t have to be worthy, they only have to be willing.” That is to say, it doesn’t matter how sinful we are, how unworthy we are of the things of God; God can make use of the desire for holiness, no matter how small, to transform us into saints.
Thus, the fact that God was willing to show mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah if there were any godly people living there – no matter how small – represents the fact that the desire for holiness, no matter how small, can be used by God to bring about the conversion, perfection and ultimately glorification of the sinner. Yet, the fact that God saved Lot and his family while destroying the rest of Sodom and Gomorrah represents another major point: those in Sodom and Gomorrah who God destroyed were unrepentant. This showcases the difference between the saved and the damned: the saved are those who recognized their sinfulness and turned from it, whereas the damned are those who were callous to their sinfulness, and thus were either oblivious to it, or do not care about it. There is thus a nuanced, though altogether important, distinction between those who are aware of their sinfulness and struggle against it, but don’t see immediate results, and those who don’t see any growth in holiness because they do not strive towards it. Human moral striving is completely and utterly dependent on the grace of God; nonetheless, Divine grace does not preclude, but in fact includes, human moral striving. Grace is what enables us to willingly strive towards God. Nonetheless, humans, as volitional beings, must accept and cooperate with God’s grace.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah also points towards another important truth: namely, what happens as we strive towards salvation. God saved Lot, yet His wrath came down upon the rest of the city. God saved a righteous man while destroying sinners. What this represents is when a person strives towards holiness, God infuses into the soul the desire and ability to partake in such striving; as a person accepts and cooperates with such gifts, God preserves and enhances it, just as He preserved and protected Lot; further, the more a person strives towards holiness, the more God gives them the strength to resist and overcome sin, thereby destroying sin just as He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
What is relayed symbolically in the first reading, is said explicitly in the second reading, taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In chapter 2, verses 13 and 14, St. Paul writes, “You were dead, because you were sinners…He [Christ] has brought you to life with Him, He has forgiven us of every one of our sins. He has wiped out the record of our debt to the Law, which stood against us; He has destroyed it by nailing it to the Crosst.” Mankind, due to sin, was alienated from God; yet, through Christ, mankind and God were reconciled. Jesus reconciled mankind to God by dying on the Cross, conquering the forces of sin and death and making satisfaction for human transgressions. When we, by grace through faith, are united to Christ’s saving act, our sin is cancelled out, we die to our old sinful selves, and are given new life in Christ. This act of being granted new life in Christ is not merely “starting over with a blank slate”; it is God justifying and sanctifying human nature, purifying it of sin; it is God infusing into the soul the capacity to strive towards holiness, overcoming the effects of previous sins, and being granted to knowledge and virtue necessary to avoid future sin. It involves the destruction of sin within us, and the infusion, enhancing and preserving of holiness, just as God’s activities in Genesis 19 include the preserving of the righteous citizens and Sodom and Gomorrah and the destruction of the sinners.
This requires grace on God’s side. Yet, on our side, it requires perseverance. It requires not only an acceptance of, but a constant loyalty to, a constant seeking of, the things of God. And this is the meaning of the Gospel reading for this week: In the parable from Jesus read this week, as presented in the Gospel according to St. Luke, chapter eleven, a man has a visitor late at night, and he, lacking a sufficient amount of food to feed his guest, knocks on his neighbor’s door asking for a loaf of bread to feed his visitor. The neighbor is initially hesitant to do so, as it is late at night, and he is tired. Yet, Jesus concludes, “I tell you, if the man does not get up and give it to him for friendship’s sake, persistence will make him get up and give his friend all he wants.” (v. 8) The message that Jesus is attempting to get across is that persistence in the spiritual life pays off. It is not that God is obliged to give us what we want. God is the Sovereign Lord of All, which means that God has authority over everything else that exists, but nothing has authority over God. It is also not that God, as an omnipotent being, gets anything from answering our prayers. Rather, the point that Our Lord is trying to make the opposite of persistence is hopelessness. If we do not have the confidence to ask for God’s assistance, if we don’t have a constant, radical openness to His gifts, and a desire to accept and cooperate with these gifts, then the foundation of the virtue of hope is gone.
It is through such spiritual persistence that we cooperate with God as He takes our desire for holiness and helps it to grow into the glories of heaven, the glories of union with God. It doesn’t matter how small our desire for holiness; if we have confidence in God and persistence, it is possible for us to attain salvation. And Christ promises that we will receive an answer to our prayers, the perfection of our striving: “So I say: Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (v. 9) Jesus can make such a promise precisely because it is He who nailed our sins to the Cross; it is He who merited grace for us; it is He who gave us the promise of the Holy Spirit, by Whom we are united to, and become partakers of, Jesus’ saving mission.
- To read the readings for this week, see: https://www.catholic.org/bible/daily_reading/?select_date=2019-07-28