I’m a big fan of humor. Big fan. Sure I love a good drama, but I’ll go out of my way for a mediocre comedy. When it comes to Shakespeare, give me Much Ado About Nothing over Henry V any day. (Which in no way implies that Much Ado is mediocre…just making the point that my preferences run to the funny.)
Which is why I was struck by a comment Pope Francis made in his homily on July 1.
He was preaching about the need for tenacity in prayer; the need to bring our petitions to God over and over; the need to negotiate with God. He cited the example of Abraham asking God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When we speak of courage we always think of apostolic courage – going out to preach the Gospel, these sort of things…But there’s also (the kind of) courage (demonstrated) before the Lord. That sense of paralysis before the Lord: going courageous before the Lord to request things. It makes you laugh a bit; this is funny because Abraham speaks with the Lord in a special way, with this courage, and one doesn’t know: is this a man who prays or is this a‘phoenician deal’ because he’s bartering the price, down, down…And he’s tenacious: from fifty he’s succeeded in lowering the price down to ten. He knew that it wasn’t possible. Only that it was right…. But with that courage, with that tenacity, he went ahead.
There. Do you see it? Right in the middle of the paragraph Pope Francis acknowledges the humor of the situation.
It makes you laugh a bit.
As a lector, I love being able to proclaim the reading from Genesis 18:16-33. Abraham’s character is so vivid and outright funny. God tells him that Sodom is toast. Most of us would probably nod and say, “Well, they deserve it.”
Abraham doesn’t. He starts to negotiate with God. He starts the bargaining by asking if God really intends to sweep away the righteous with the wicked. Then he asks
Suppose there were fifty righteous people in the city; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it?
God agrees to Abraham’s terms and Abraham — good negotiator that he is — presses further. With a hilariously formal humility —
See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am only dust and ashes!
— he drives the bargain to 45 and then 40 and then 30 and then 20 and finally 10. The whole story has a sort of haggling-in-the-marketplace vibe that makes me chuckle every time.
Yet, as Pope Francis points out, negotiating with God is a perfectly acceptable form of prayer.
Sometimes, the Pope said, one goes to the Lord “to ask something for someone;” one asks for a favor and then goes away. “But that,” he warned, “is not prayer,” because if “you want the Lord to bestow a grace, you have to go with courage and do what Abraham did, with that sort of tenacity.” The Pope recalled that Jesus himself tells us that we must pray as the widow with the judge, like the man who goes in the middle of the night to knock on his friend’s door. With tenacity.
In fact, he observed, Jesus himself praised the woman who tenaciously begged for the healing of her daughter. Tenacity, said the Pope, even though it’s tiring, is really “tiresome.” But this, he added, “is the attitude of prayer.” Saint Teresa, he recalled, “speaks of prayer as negotiating with the Lord” and this “is possible only when there’s familiarity with the Lord.” It is tiring, it’s true, he repeated, but “this is prayer, this is receiving a grace from God.” The Pope stressed here the same sort of reasoning that Abraham uses in his prayer: “take up the arguments, the motivations of Jesus’ own heart.”
Like all good humor, the story of Abraham’s negotiation is funny because it is true. And it tells us something about ourselves and our world.