A reflection on the scripture readings for July 24, 2022, the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
The Old Testament is not light on stories of divine punishment and destruction. One of the necessary tasks to have a mature, integrated Biblical faith is learning to reconcile tales of a vengeful God with those that speak of God as the merciful all-loving Father. But even among biblical narratives that shock our modern sensibilities, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah stands out. Typically, we can find some element of redemption; some hope to hang our hats on. Not here. Mercy is not granted. Punishment is swift and complete.
Certainly, the events that precede the cities’ destruction are gruesome and grossly immoral. The citizens of Sodom attempt to gang rape the three visitors of Abraham, visitors we have already learned in this story, are messengers from God (or God himself). While this is a disturbing scene, to be sure, it is not by a long shot the only account of mob violence or rape in the Bible. The very next chapter of Genesis includes another rape, this time incestuous, with no cities subsequently being destroyed. The sexual nature of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah cannot be completely whitewashed, as its inclusion in the writings of numerous Church Fathers and Jude indicates. Still, the commentary on this passage within scripture itself suggests that this should not be our primary takeaway from the story.
“Now look at the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were proud, sated with food, complacent in prosperity. They did not give any help to the poor and needy.”
The story recounted in Genesis includes nothing about help or food being denied to the poor and needy, so we must look elsewhere to know what Ezekiel is talking about here. A Jewish source outside the Bible (Midrash Pirkei Eliezer) tells us that Ezekiel is referencing an incident where a young girl, the daughter of Lot, gave a bucket of grain to another girl who was starving. Feeding someone who couldn’t feed herself was against the law in Sodom, and the citizens attempted to put the generous young woman to death. When you combine this with our already mentioned story from Genesis about the people of Sodom assaulting the guests of Abraham and, what’s more, claiming that they had the right to assault them simply because they were strangers, you get the picture of a profoundly corrupt society. According to this midrash, it is through the cries of Lot’s daughter against the implementation of a cruel law punishing an act of justice towards the poor that God is stirred into action.
When viewed this way, the context in which we find the story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction suddenly makes more sense. It immediately follows Abraham’s welcoming of his heavenly visitors, thus contrasting the proud and complacent behavior of the Sodomites with the generosity of Abraham. The story is also paired in our lectionary with Luke 11, where we learn that God is generous to his children who ask him for assistance. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is primarily a story about justice. When we contrast the behavior of Abraham and the instruction of Jesus in the gospel with the behavior that led to the annihilation of two cities, we see clearly that this is not a story about a few bad apples who soured the bunch or a solitary act of sexual assault; it is about a culture whose very understanding of justice was fundamentally wrong.
Caring for those in need and welcoming strangers is not a supplement to righteous behavior; it is fundamental. When this understanding is not present, as it was not in Sodom, individual acts of righteousness are insufficient to correct the problem. The very system of justice was flawed in Sodom, and so it required not just small acts of mercy but a total overhaul.
The final piece of the puzzle comes with Jesus’ commissioning of the Twelve in Matthew’s Gospel,
“Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
Jesus likens those who refuse to receive his disciples as guests and listen to their preaching to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who, rather than receiving Abraham’s guests, violently assault them. In the example provided by Jesus, the refusal to participate in this most basic act of justice, welcoming the guest, will prevent a town from hearing the word of God and ultimately lead to its destruction.
Lot’s daughter did a righteous thing by feeding a starving woman. Abraham’s hospitality eventually led to the foundational promise of the Old Testament, but Sodom and Gomorrah were still destroyed. As Christians, we are called to discrete acts of charity in our day-to-day lives. The temptation we must avoid is to stay there—to assume that discrete just actions will paper over deeper issues in our societies. The problem is that individuals do not just form cultures, but cultures shape individuals. When a society operates under a fundamentally flawed view of justice, there may still be heroic acts in isolation, but the community will inevitably produce unjust laws and sinful behavior in its members. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah teaches us that we are called not simply to acts of charity or even legislative action but to change hearts. We are called to build a world where the mercy and compassion that God models are at the center of all we do. Doing so will enable a just society to flourish and open entire cultures to receiving the word of God.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.