‘Please, Grandma!’ begs Chloe. She wants an ice cream, and Grandma thinks it’s too close to tea time. The stage is set for some fierce bargaining. Chloe promises to eat all her tea if she can have an ice cream now, this minute. Grandma suggests that she can have the ice cream when she has eaten all her tea. Chloe is definite that ice creams are for before tea not after, and anything else is not fair. Who will win?
Well, grandmas are not mums, and have a tendency to be a bit flexible with the rules. So my guess is that Chloe will get her ice cream. Human beings have to be able to get what they need to survive, and children are very quick to learn the necessary skills. Already when they are born they know to yell when they are hungry, or need their nappy changing. Even before they can talk, they can communicate their desire for a particular toy or biscuit. Growing up brings increased skill in asking for things from those around them. Eventually, communicating need turns into a sophisticated way of relating, in which bargaining and promises play their part.
In all our most significant relationships with others, we find ways of communicating our needs and desires, whether we need a job, a sympathetic ear, or simply love. So, naturally, our relationship with God also involves asking for what we want. After all, this is the relationship with the one who gave us our very existence, and the one who has the power to move mountains. It’s appropriate that we express to God our deepest desires and our most urgent need. And it’s appropriate too that we ask God to act in the world when we see something we don’t like. Martin Luther talked about praying to God as if everything depended upon God, and then working as if everything depended upon us. Mary Queen of Scots said that she feared John Knox’s prayers more than an army of ten thousand men.
Whatever your spin on prayer, whether it just perplexes you, or whether you’ve found a pattern you can make some sense of, bargaining with God often comes into it, to a greater or lesser extent for many people. And this bargaining isn’t just limited to Chloe and her grandmother’s ice cream. In one of our Bible readings today, we find this precise bargaining with God in the story of Abraham.
Abraham was the man chosen by God to be the ancestor of a nation through whom God will most clearly be revealed to the world. He and his family are living as nomads, and learning as they travel what their calling means. Abraham and his nephew Lot have gone their separate ways, Lot having chosen to live a more settled existence on the fertile plain of the River Jordan. The cities where Lot has made his home are notorious for their wickedness, and God is minded to destroy them. And given that a special relationship is developing between God and Abraham, God decides to share his intentions. And so a dialogue ensues; or perhaps, like Chloe, Abraham has an acute sense of what is fair. Or to put it more theologically, ‘should not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’
Abraham can see the issue with Sodom and Gomorrah, but he’s worried about the good people there who may get caught up in the fate of the wicked. So he proposes a radical solution: God will spare the cities if there are 50 good people in them. God agrees. But Abraham is not satisfied with even 49 undeserved deaths, and he beats God down, finally to ten. If there are ten good people, God agrees, the cities will be safe. Both parties are happy with the deal, and go their separate ways.
So, Abraham seems to be all about bargaining with God, but we read this story alongside our gospel reading, in which Jesus teaches his disciples to ask God for what they need. They are to ask for food, for forgiveness, for protection from testing, and for the coming of God’s kingdom. God will hear them, Jesus promises, and supply their needs. We say these words so often that we forget how powerful they are. And we perhaps forget, too, that we pray them not just for ourselves. Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? Then everyone should be fed, and protected, and forgiven, so that they can live freely.
If you can stomach what Luke has Jesus tell us about what prayer is all about, I wonder if it makes bargaining with God seem like a rather childish thing to do? Luke has Jesus telling us in quite simple, but striking ways, what lies at the heart of a relationship with God, which is expressed through prayer. Too often we think of the kind of prayer that says things like: I won’t shout at the kids ever again if you’ll make her better – a prayer which is all too understandable, but not necessarily the best example ever to follow. Abraham’s bargaining, though, is different. It’s not a promise to be good if he gets what he wants. Actually it’s an argument based on the nature of God. Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? Then the current situation will not do, and change is needed. Perhaps that kind of bargaining with God, is actually a deeply rooted and healthy relationship with our Maker?
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has a tragic conclusion. God removes the good people from the cities, and the cities are destroyed behind them. Abraham has not, after all, got what he asked for. God has chosen another way to achieve the end they both wanted. Most of the time, I think many of us find that our prayers do not have the result that we want, and that we think is right, and it’s tempting to give up. But we are in a relationship with the God who made us and loves us, and has power to change the world. And so we need go on asking, and bargaining, and expecting an answer, however hard or pointless it seems, because God stands before us, as he stood before Abraham, and waits for us to tell him what we need today.
I’m going to end with some words from that great author Anon.:
I asked God for strength that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked God for health that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, -but everything I had hoped for,
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.