The Quality of Mercy
February 29, 2004
And Abraham drew near, and said, ""Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?""
And the Lord said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes."
And Abraham answered and said, "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes. Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five?"
And he said, "If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it."
And he spoke unto him yet again, and said, "Peradventure there shall be forty found there."
And he said, "I will not do it for forty's sake."
And he said unto him, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Peradventure there shall thirty be found there."
And he said, "I will not do it if I find thirty there."
And he said, "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord. Peradventure there shall be twenty found there."
And he said, "I will not destroy it for twenty's sake."
And he said, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. Peradventure ten shall be found there."
And he said, "I will not destroy it for ten's sake." And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham; and Abraham returned unto his place.
Read also: Matthew 18:21-35
The story of Abraham's intercession for Sodom is particularly pertinent at a time when age-old attitudes toward individual and social evil are being called into question. Within each one of us there is a debate going on. There is revulsion at many of the events that make the headlines--a policeman admitting millions of dollars of arson, the rape and murder of a six-year-old girl, the devastation of a country halfway round the world. Then there is sorrow at the sight of children starting to show the very traits that will perpetuate such evils, and a yearning to help rather than simply to condemn. Then there is joy in the wonder and beauty of instances of love and understanding that do occur in the midst of all this, awakening a strong desire to participate in this love not just for our friends, but for all humankind.
Justice and mercy, punishment and forgiveness, truth and love seem to be at odds with each other; and in our own nation we see an alarming polarization. All too often, though, opposing factions are more alike in underlying attitude than either would be willing to admit. Those who claim to be merciful toward one side take delight in the casualty figures on the other side. Those who would see one position in the best possible light feel obliged to see opposing positions in the worst possible light.
So the debate between love and mercy on the one hand, and truth and judgment on the other, goes deeper than our positions on outward issues. If any of us were either wholly loving or wholly just, we would find it very hard to side totally with one external element against another. We would see serious faults in that which was better, and valuable virtues in that which was worse. We would surely take decisive stands on current issues, but our opinions would cut across a good many popular lines of debate.
Abraham's intercession, then, is not to be read as some patriarchal liberal manifesto. It reflects rather the difficulty of learning neither to condemn nor to condone; or more affirmatively, learning to distinguish between acceptance and approval. In Gospel terms, it involves loving one's enemies and praying for those who despise and persecute.
In order to appreciate the pertinence of the story, we must take it at face value. We must accept the judgment that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was very grievous. This is not some kind of cardboard sin; this is corrupt and brutal behavior. This is as ugly and repellent as anything in the headlines. Abraham makes no defense of the cities themselves. But he does refuse to believe that the general state, corrupt as it is, necessarily applies to everyone there. There might be as many as fifty or as few as ten, but are they negligible because they are few?
As this is interpreted in Arcana Coelestia, it describes a kind debate within the incarnate Lord, with his dismay over the evil state of mankind challenged by his intense love for "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." We know how we want this debate to turn out--at least for our own sakes. We know that we need forgiveness; that we could not stand a thorough and merciless judgment by the Lord's perfect standards.
"Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). "And the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants which owed him an hundred pence; and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me that thou owest'" (Matthew 18:28).
In this inner debate, the Lord was dealing with issues characteristic of our own humanity. For us, the scale of these issues is far smaller. We are not dealing with the salvation of the whole human race, and we are not dealing with the naked essence of evil. But in our own particular ways, we have the same decision to make. This emerges clearly from Arcana Coelestia #2227: "Being involved in love for the Lord is the same as being in the Lord. And the person who is in the Lord cannot help being involved in his love--toward the human race, and therefore toward the neighbor."
In order to participate in this debate, let each one of us now call to mind a person whose behavior strikes us as consistently wrong--perhaps a person on the other side of the fence on issues involving the church. Then let us ask the questions Abraham asked, and accept the Lord's answers.
Suppose we could look more deeply into people, and see not only what they are doing, but what they believe they are doing, and why. If we found that, contrary to appearances, they knew what they were doing, and were doing it for good reasons (this is the correspondence of the fifty righteous), how would we respond? For sometimes we do discover that other people have read the situation more accurately than we, and that their strange way of handling it is better than ours.
For the forty-five righteous, let us suppose that we find some good ideas and some good motives--not so perfect and compelling as in the first case, but still not all that bad. Then how do we respond? Do we condemn, criticize, and obstruct?
For the forty righteous, let us suppose we discover that these others are involved in profound struggles with themselves. They are at one of life's low ebbs, profoundly discouraged with themselves, and trying not to give up completely. Then how do we feel about arguing with them or trying to rally forces against them?
As to the thirty righteous, we may imagine that we find something more akin to confusion than deep conflict: they are trying to sort things out, perhaps not too successfully, and for all their confusion, are making some slight progress.
Suppose, for the twenty, we find no particular conflict at all, but rather ill-defined good intentions. They are not reading the situation well at all, and do not really know what is going on, but do care about the people involved. What judgment do we pass?
Finally--this is the ten righteous--suppose we find nothing more than some slight evidences that the Lord is caring for them, that there are some remnants of affection and understanding from earlier days. They may have fond memories of happier times; a soft spot in their hearts for children; some quite unexpected vulnerability. What then?
We know how the Lord answered Abraham. If there were fifty, or forty-five, or forty, or thirty, or twenty, or ten righteous people in the cities, he would not destroy them. We cannot live in some tidy world of marvelous heroes and dastardly villains. However gross the outward appearance, we cannot afford blanket condemnations. If we are to do more good than harm in this world, we must persist in searching out every trace of goodness we can find.
But we must not forget that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. There was a warning, and there was the separation of the righteous from the unrighteous; but the destruction did come. Once we do discover the worth of our "enemies," we must work against the specific things that tend to destroy their worth. If we cast the beam out of our own eye, and then do not help our brothers and sisters with the mote in theirs, we are worse off than before. Forgiveness does not mean retiring to life's sidelines and letting things take their course.
This debate has surfaced in our times, and we are participants in it. Where does the Lord stand? Do we stand with him?
Dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, help us, while not ignoring the evil in others, to make our best and most sincere efforts to search out every scrap of goodness in them. When we are inclined to accuse and condemn, give us a heart of mercy and compassion to find and affirm what is good. Yet give us also the strength to see and identify what is not good, and to follow our conscience in opposing it. Help us to practice both justice and mercy. Amen.
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole