Sometimes you have to remind God to be God. At least, that’s what some bible stories appear to be saying. As we’ll see in a minute, these stories are reminding us to act like the children of God.
For instance, God confides to Abraham that Sodom is about to be toast (Genesis 18:16-33). God intends to scorch the place. Their unrighteousness stinks to high heaven.
As the prophet Ezekiel explained, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
Abraham responds with an argument. “So, God, what if you find fifty righteous people? How about cutting them break!”
“Sure,” God says. “I can live with that.”
“Great,” says Abraham. “How about forty-five?”
“You got it,” God says.
Abraham whittles God down to ten. Straight along God agrees. In other words, Abraham is reminding God to be merciful as if God were acting out of character.
That Abraham stops at ten leaves us to wonder if he might have successfully pushed for five. Maybe he could have gone all the way to zero. How far could Abraham get God to go?
And here is the point. God doesn’t need a lesson in mercy. We do. Abraham stopped short. Not God. We stop short. Not God.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark give us a similar story. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus. (That’s how Matthew identifies her. Mark calls her a Syrophoenician.) A dreadful illness—a demon the text says—has taken hold of her daughter. The woman asks Jesus to heal the little girl.
Initially, Jesus ignores her. She persists. When the disciples urge him to do something about this nagging woman, he tells them that it’s not his problem. The woman persists.
Eventually, Jesus responds directly to the woman. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26)
This is especially shocking in Matthew. Mark places the little girl at a distance. Matthew leaves open the possibility that the child is peeking out from behind her mother’s skirt. In other words, the guy who said to bring the little children to him just gave a sick kid the cold shoulder.
The woman then says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27) Now that’s grit! She trusts in both her daughter’s worth and God’s graciousness. An crabby rabbi won’t stop her from wringing compassion from God.
Could Jesus really be this indifferent to the needs of someone right in front of him? This story is so jarring precisely because it’s not the Jesus we’ve come to know. But this story has an even more discomfiting twist for the followers of Jesus.
You and I are parts of the Body of Christ. As Teresa of Avila put it, aside from us, Jesus has no hands or feet. We are the visible Jesus for this wounded planet. And what do suffering mothers and sick children and minorities and the handicapped and the marginalized and the hungry experience of Jesus when they look at us?
Do our words and actions tell the poor that they are lazy? Does that seem like Jesus?
Do our words and actions say that financially struggling families are not our problem? Does that seem like Jesus?
Do our words and actions tell those without adequate health care that their suffering is their own problem? Does that sound like Jesus?
Do our words and actions tell minorities who name racism for what it is that they are morally equivalent to the white supremacists who view them as inferior? Does that sound like Jesus?
These stories don’t teach us that we have to remind God to be God. We need reminders to act like the children God. To show Jesus to this world by how we walk the earth. As Micah famously put it, “to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (6:8)