Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Genesis 19 and the Mechanics of Sin

The nineteenth chapter of Genesis tells the familiar story of Sodom’s depravity and destruction. While this chapter is often brought up today for a host of political goals (and often twisted into novel and bizarre interpretations to justify those goals) my own recent read of it in the Daily Office has been concerned with its application in daily life with regard to the mechanics of sin—the way in which sin leaves us prisoners of passions that destroy both our freedom and our communion with God, and the necessity of fleeing this mechanism in response to God’s call.

The chapter begins with the arrival of Lot’s mysterious visitors  (the “angels/men/Lord”). They meet Lot in the gateway of Sodom, its public square. Lot seems to occupy a place of some prestige or at least significance in this corrupt society.

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ 3But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

The visitors seem to tempt fate by saying they will stay out in the exposed condition of the public square overnight. Lot knows this is unwise in Sodom, a place where an unnamed but implied brutality and carnality reign supreme. Lot, habituated to the evil, finally manages to get them to lodge with him.

And this is very interesting, because it points out something many of us do without realizing it. We accommodate sin, becoming inured to it, making a kind of pact with it. We may know it is sin, but we also know its scale is too large for us to take it on individually. While this may be realistic in a worldly way, it is also an invitation to do a deal with the sin around us, inviting it into our own lives, homes, and communities. Was Lot in this position? Did he struggle with sin coming into the doors of his home and heart? The unfolding story seems to suggest it.

 4But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’

The mechanics of sin make use of both the overt and the covert. Here, the overt side is in the ascendancy. The men of the city waste no time in seeking satisfaction of their lusts of various kinds. They form a picture of what brutality, when unchecked, becomes: abject depravity, knowing no limit. Even the usual rules around the sanctity of one’s home mean nothing to this pre-internet intrusion of sin into the heart and hearth.

 6Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ 9But they replied, ‘Stand back!’

Lot’s response to this menacing encounter is, painfully, a picture of how the culture of sin has permeated his very being. In place of his guests, he offers his daughters for the satisfaction of the townsmen’s lusts. This is sadly a prefiguration of everything from the Levite’s concubine in Judges to Pilate’s “Ecce homo” before the crowd: once we have decided to accommodate sin within us, its inexorable logic objectifies everyone and everything. Yet, even this is not enough for the men of Sodom.

And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. 10But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door.

One of the chief characteristics of sin is division: dividing the heart from the mind, the soul from the body, the neighbor from self, the self from God. Here, the townsmen justify their violence and depravity by pointing out Lot as a resident alien. Such is the pattern sin uses time and again: take a difference and turn it into a division that justifies a lesser ethical system than that of mutual love and respect—then requite the “wrong” of difference by destroying or abusing the Other in our midst.  Whether by physical violence, mental obliteration and judgment, or lawsuit, it is much the same. If we say this is not operant in our day, our society, or our part of the Church, we lie and condemn ourselves.

11And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

When the townsmen are struck with blindness (their outward condition now mirroring their inner condition in an action of divine justice), it does not slake their addiction to sin one bit. They still grope madly for the door, trying to gain entrance, forming a horridly perfect picture of what the addictive character of sin does to the human being.

12 Then the men said to Lot, ‘Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. 13For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.’ 14So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, ‘Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city.’ But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

In the midst of this terrorizing moment, Lot’s tacit deal with sin is stretched to the breaking point, and it is at this precise moment that God calls to him. This is, in a sense, the proverbial “hitting bottom” Lot requires in order to see what he has become, what is at stake. Ultimately, we are not forced to choose Life; it is up to us. But, our God is a tremendous opportunist, seeking to exploit every possibility for our redemption. God’s judgment must not be seen merely as retribution: it is a telling of truth in a world of lies, and that truth always brings with it choices for us as participants in God’s Image. Lot’s desire to share the possibility of salvation reaches to those near him still able to hear the message. The text makes clear that everyone here is touched by the dulling effects of sin: even in the midst of so egregious a situation, his sons-in-law don’t take him seriously. How has our individual and corporate accommodation of sin rendered us deaf to the obvious facts in our families, communities, the Church and the world? Who is as blind as the person who will not see?

15 When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.’ 16But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. 17When they had brought them outside, they said, ‘Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.’ 18And Lot said to them, ‘Oh, no, my lords; 19your servant has found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. 20Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!’ 21He said to him, ‘Very well, I grant you this favor too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. 22Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.’ Therefore the city was called Zoar. 23The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.

Even with God’s intervention, Lot seems paralyzed by his association with Sodom and habituation to its expected standards. The angelic visitors must physically convey him and his immediate family outside the city. There, the choice is put before them: either move forward in God’s will, or be consumed by the sins of this place and God’s judgment of those sins. The choice of the word “consumed” is operative: sin, as a category of being, is really a choice for non-existence, for a non-life, for dissolution of self by severing communion with God, the author of Being. It is the finality of this choice that sin tries to hide as we gradually subside into state of torpor and indifference. When we surrender our capacity to respond, to choose, to will—then sin’s blinding reign has overtaken us. This is central to God’s judgment both in this story and in the Book of Revelation.

Lot’s response to this choice is evidence of the atrophied person he has become; he senses he has become unequal to the task, perhaps resigned to his own destruction. Confessing his absolute frailty, he pleads for yet more mercy. In the darkness of the catastrophe, Lot calls out to God for protection, for shielding and for hope; amazingly, God’s messenger shows the degree to which the Divine has become bound by a will to save. “I can do nothing until you arrive there” is a kind of precursor to Christ’s work of salvation. God in Christ put Himself at our disposal until the moment of final judgment and vindication. In the midst of the night of human sin and ambivalence, God’s desire for both truth and mercy are flashed in a sudden streak of illuminating spiritual lightening.

24 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; 25and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
27 Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; 28and he looked down towards Sodom and Gomorrah and towards all the land of the Plain, and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace.

Sin and God are incompatible. The judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah is not vindictive but truthful. That truth is fearful to everything not aligned with it. It stands as an ensign to us of a fact that cannot be altered, an “inconvenient truth” puncturing our delusion.

The story of Lot’s wife looking back and being turned to a pillar of salt is a final testament that sin’s logic of making double-deals is empty. There is, on the deepest level of human being, only love or hate, life or death. In the midst of the greys, there is a black and white reality as well. When we acknowledge this, we are freed to live creatively and lovingly amongst the ambiguities, guided by the deeply-held and openly-revealed purposes of God.

Christ said that His people were to be salt in the world, providing savor and a preserving difference. Perhaps the pillar of salt is a kind of proleptic, anticipatory gesture about this. Sin’s logic is to wed us so firmly to its deceit that we become one with it. We are rendered a kind of nullity, having no actual existence, providing no reality in a world of delusion or life in a world dominated by death. We become, as Christ said, salt that has lost its savor, its point and purpose. Having turned back from our true nature as children of God and surrendering to sin’s spell, we see “options,” “choices,” and a landscape of personal liberation when in reality it was always what Abraham saw at the conclusion of the story: a barren waste, smoking like a furnace, bereft of life and hope.

At every Eucharist, Christ’s people are recalled to the truth and participate in the reality of the Kingdom of God—one which includes judgment as well as promise and mercy. We must learn to welcome this, not averting our eyes in liturgy or our daily life. To do so is to join Lot in making deals with sin, or to turn back with Lot’s wife—something Christ says we may not do once we have put our hand to the plow. Where we have done so, or continue to do so, this ancient story is told to remind us of who—and whose—we are.

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