This for a variety of reasons is one of my favorite Old Testament texts:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:22-33)
I do like the text because it does show the power of one human as an intercessor before God. It also portrays God as being open to human input, thus, creating a synergy between God and humans. There is an Orthodox prayer which in one translation says: “Despise not the work Your hands have done, remember, Lord, Your mercy is eternal.” Reminding God to remember that His mercy is eternal seems to me much in the spirit of Abraham’s own reminders to God in the above dialogue. Abraham is cornering God by reminding God of His justice and mercy and that it is neither merciful nor just to send broad punishment upon a people when they sin since not all or sin to the same degree. Abraham wants God to be merciful even if it is only a tiny minority of people who deserve mercy. God agrees with him.
That Scripture lesson also points out that God’s punishment is not so surgically precise as to be able to destroy the wicked without also hurting the righteous. There is tremendous collateral damage when God visits a judgment upon a people. Abraham’s appeal to God is “please don’t destroy the entire city because of the wicked in Sodom because then the righteous will be destroyed with them.” The opposite corollary is also true: God spares the wicked for the sake of the righteous. Just having some righteous present can be goodness and mercy for the wicked. And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” God vows to spare even all the wicked if he can find 50 righteous people there – or for that matter, as the Scripture lesson unfolds, if He can find even ten righteous.
The imprecision of God’s wrath is on display in the story of the Great Flood in which every single person on earth, except the eight people in the ark are drowned – children, infants, invalids, the mentally challenged, all were condemned to death, swept away in the flood. We can also ask – before the Exodus, were all Egyptians evil and all Jews holy? Not according to Exodus 2:13-14. Moses tries to stop one Jew from wronging another and that one turns against Moses (see also Acts 7:24-28). So, there were Jewish sinners and disbelievers, yet they are all saved by God in the Exodus. God’s judgment/plagues fall on all Egyptians and all the Jews are rescued, regardless of their beliefs or personal sinfulness. All the first-born male children of the Egyptians die, yet the children and infants surely did not sin against the Jews. That biblical story is more about an improbable and miraculous rescue of some slaves than it is about each person being treated fairly. Just another reason why I find the biblical account of Abraham as intercessor so powerful. Every society, every social group is made up of individuals who are sometimes good and sometimes bad, or who do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. God has to deal with this intermixture of people all the time.
In one of the parables which the Lord Jesus tells, the master does not want his servants going out into the fields and pulling up all of the noxious weeds because in so doing they would also destroy a certain portion of the good crop. “’No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn‘” (Matthew 13:29-30). Everything will be perfectly sorted out only in the eschaton. Until then we all have to live in a world in which both good and evil co-exist. There comes a time when the good and evil can be precisely separated, but meanwhile, the two factions must be allowed to grow together.
And if we think the story of Sodom reveals the worst possible kind of sin and sinners, we might also remember Christ’s words in Matthew 11:24 – “But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” Sodom is judged and punished for its sins, but that punishment had no eternal implications. They were judged within history, but there are some whose faults are worse than those of the Sodomites and will be more harshly judged on Judgment Day than those wicked people of Sodom. All the more reason why we need to pray, “Lord, have mercy!”