The first Sunday of Great Lent is always observed as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” in our Churches. It marks both the return of the icons to the Churches following the end of the Iconoclast Controversy, but also as a summation of all the Holy Teachings of the faith which Orthodoxy holds and for which many have died. Most of our parishes will have a procession around the Church with adults and children carrying icons. In local parishes the service concludes with a simple proclamation, a small portion of the Synodicon of Orthodoxy (the summary of the faith) proclaimed at the last council.
On a different day, a small assembly occurred in the Holy Land. Three angels gathered at the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Sometime later these same angels would “travel in procession” to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the account in Genesis, when the angels stopped and partook of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, they encountered the prayers of this righteous man. He began to beg mercy for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Beginning with the number fifty, the Lord agreed with him that if only fifty righteous souls could be found in those wicked cities then all of the inhabitants would be spared.
Eventually, Abraham managed to successfully be promised that if only ten could be found the cities would be spared.
Many focus on these stories noting that not even ten righteous souls could be found in these two great cities. But they miss several important points that are buried in the story. For one – the presence of only a few righteous souls is enough to preserve all those around them. Second, God was not troubled that Abraham begged mercy for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I draw a few conclusions, or at least questions for our modern world. How many righteous souls must there be for the unrighteous world to be spared? I do not know the answer but I do believe that our wicked world is spared because of God’s mercy and the prayers of the saints among us. And for those who are troubled about the prayers of saints I need only point to Abraham. That great saint literally sought to save the unrighteous through His prayers to the merciful God. That’s the Biblical account.
Though we will celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” this Sunday and affirm the faith of the Orthodox through the ages, and condemn the errors of heretics – nonetheless, we must remain mindful that it is the task of a saint to pray for the whole world, including the souls of the unrighteous. We must cultivate a heart of mercy, not a heart that looks for justification for triumph over others. I have often thought that the service of the Triumph of Orthodoxy should be offered with tears.
A further question: by whose prayers are you being spared? I know that my unrighteous soul is sustained by the prayers of others. I simply do not know their names (though I have my suspicions). Should any of us be so arrogant as to assume that God’s mercy is not being extended to us through the prayers of others?
As we should with our guardian angels, thanksgiving should be offered for these righteous holy saints.
O Fathers of the Holy Seven Ecumenical Councils, on this day of Triumph, pray for us sinners, and for the whole world!
O’ Lord save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance! Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians, over their adversaries; and by virtue of Thy Cross preserve Thy habitation!
Well said as always Father – this hymn, also is often mistook for triumphalism but the tears and lives that inspired it? … It shames my pitiful efforts.
Even our triumphant moments within the Holy Church are sorrowful joy.
The Great Doxology
Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good-will among men. We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks unto Thee for the splendor of Thy glory. O Lord, King, heavenly God, Father Almighty; O Lord, only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit.
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us, Thou who taketh away the sins of the world, accept our prayers. O Thou who sitteth on the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us. For Thou only art holy, Thou only art the Lord Jesus Christ, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Every day we will bless Thee and will praise Thy name for ever and ever. Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, God of our Fathers, praised and glorified is Thy name for ever. Amen.
Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have put our trust in Thee. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes (three times). O Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation. I said, Lord have mercy upon me, heal my soul, for I have sinned against Thee. O Lord, I flee unto Thee, teach me to do Thy will; for Thou art my God. For with Thee is the fountain of life, and in Thy light we shall see light. Extend Thy mercy unto them that know Thee.
Thank you Father, please forgive me the sinner
Dear Father, bless!
Many, many thanks for this post! This issue is the very one that compelled me into Orthodoxy. Many years ago as an evangelical, I read a book on prayer by John White, who wrote a chapter on this very passage. It made a big impression on me. As I was coming to Orthodoxy, I realized that it was largely because I was in pursuit of God’s heart for the lost–to understand the breadth and depth of His mercy–not only on behalf of others, but because (as you pointed out in a post months ago) the line between chaff and grain, between righteous and unrighteous, passes right through the middle of my own heart! Thus Abraham’s sense of urgency and concern has resonated deeply with me not only because I was becoming increasingly distraught by the notion that others would be lost, but also because I was becoming increasingly aware of the treachery and duplicity that still reigns so often in my own heart. May God be merciful to us, sinners. May we as Orthodox continue to pray with Christ and in the Holy spirit for those who have no one to pray for them.
Thank you for this post Father Stephen.
I know also that I am spared by many people’s prayers; years ago my protestant roommate (I was still protestant then myself) without telling me prayed me out of some very mixed up philosophies … I believe that unknowingly she prayed me into the Church. Thank God for the prayers of others said on our behalf!
Please forgive me for being unmerciful! I am just a great sinner and if i am spared by the pryers of others, that would be my parents who prayed for me since i was born till today and especially when i left the narrow path and took the wide and easy one and with God’s mercy and love for mankind, i returned to the narrow path to carry my cross,that was tree years ago on the 5th Sunday of Lent – St Mary of Egypt, was interesting how had happened.I was on holiday to my country for skiing and my mum asked before i go back to England to go to the Church and make a confession she gave me a mobile number to a priest to call (their confessor) if he was not present in the Church, and we(me and my husband) went to the Church he was not there so i called him,he picked up and i asked if possible to come to the church for confession, meantime my tears start i could not hold them back, he said that he is ill with pneumonia, but he would see me if i go to his address,so i (we)did. He met me outside his flat, could not invite me in and did apologise for it, did not matter for me i was happy to meet him. We went to near by park sat on a bench, my husband sat on a bench away from us, my tears never stopped since i called him so he with such an incredible love in his voice and very wise words start talking to me to calm me down and when i did i confessed my deadly sins through tears, i never ever felt anything like it, since this day i changed,but deep in my heart i know, is thanks to the prayers of my Father D as if he took my sins away. He was an example of humility and LOVE, love that save me from the perdition of this wicked world. Since then i just try to follow his advice and with God’s mercy and help i became again a member of the Orthodox family, confession and Holy Communion is a staple diet in my life now. Please pray for me sinner.
Brilliant post; thank you.
It had never clicked with me before that God didn’t blink at Abraham’s asking mercy for the unrighteous. Before, I had used ‘well, they probably need prayer the most’ – but this is so much more…graceful, perhaps.
Thank you, Father Stephen, for all your posts and for all your prayers and your work for the Church and the Lord Jesus Christ. Please continue to pray for me and forgive me, a sinner.
Thank you for this post, this is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament, and it encourages me in prayer. And in humility.
I have two related questions:
1) I had been challenged once to that that Abraham’s prayers [and Moses’ prayers for Israel which were often similar] actually somehow changed God’s mind or at least God’s actions. Yet, now I’m challenged to think that this can’t be, because God doesn’t change. Where does this leave us? Especially on intercessory prayer? Is it just His nature that doesn’t change? But this doesn’t seem to go with some of your earlier posts on the problems with the “wrathful God” argument. That implying that God’s attitude toward us changes from wrath to mercy is a problem, because it implies that God changes–when He is NOT human and
2) This brings to my mind also the problem of God’s justice/wrath. Isn’t [as I have always been taught as a Protestant] there an element here of God’s wrath/judgment toward the overly corrupting sinfulness of Sodom and Gomorrah? I think ultimately we come away with a sense of His great mercy…that He was willing to turn away destruction for the sake of 10 righteous, and even though they could not be found, still did not “destroy the righteous with the wicked” but saved Lot and his family…but even though the ultimate focus is on His grace and mercy, can we neglect His justice/wrath?
Again, forgive me, Father. I do not ask to stir up controversy or argument, and I hope I haven’t strayed too far off the point. I agree that arguing/debating for the sake of argument is not the place of this blog, nor is it really helpful. I ask because I am truly trying to understand [not in just an intellectual sense] Orthodoxy, but it is still a little foreign to my ways of thinking. I’m trying to correct my picture of God to make it more orthodox.
Thank you Father, and forgive me, a sinner.
PS–This post reminds me of a story I heard once that I think is from the Jewish Talmud…to paraphrase, the angels[?] in Heaven were rejoicing after the plagues and destruction had fallen over Egypt, because God had saved Israel. But they were chastised for rejoicing over the death of those who were also loved creatures of God. I think in the Jewish Passover Seder they put 10 drops of wine on a napkin to represent tears over the plagues of Egypt…that there is no rejoicing over destruction, but instead, grieving. That, as you said, the Triumph should be offered with tears.
Good questions. There is a mystery in prayer that is really only made clear in the setting of participation in the life of God. Moses, Abraham, me, you, none of us “change God’s mind” when we pray – but we enter into His life. In truth, Abraham could not have wanted to save the unrighteous more than God, but in his prayer, Abraham became more like God – his heart became more merciful.
As for the wrath/destruction in the story, it too has to be understood in a way other than God blasting two cities out of existence because of the wrong they had done. In the Great Canon of St. Andrew the saint tells us that we are worse than Sodom and Gomorrah – but obviously we are spared.
I like the story from the Talmud – it points the heart in the right direction. If our reading of Scripture creates in us an image of an angry God who wants to destroy His creation – then we’ve gotten it wrong somewhere. The Fathers tend to handle these sorts of passages in a typological or other figurative manner.
Many Christians have a real problem with how many of the Fathers treat the issues of wrath, etc. Even some Orthodox have taken me to task. But I think there is plenty of Patristic evidence for how these matters are handled in the reading of Scripture.
Modern literalism is deeply enmeshed in a modern view of history – which is itself different from the kind of “literalism” that you find in St. John Chrysostom and other pre-modern commentators. It’s difficult – which is one of the reasons I’ve done several articles on this of late. Reading the Scriptures in an Orthodox manner takes time and prayer and watchfulness.
Thanks for the questions and the thoughts.
Thank you so much, Father. This is very helpful.
Is there any reading from the Church Fathers on this subject that you could recommend?
And, you know. I’ve heard before in Protestantism the idea that when we pray, we are able to be transformed into having a heart after God’s own, but I think it makes so much more sense with an understanding of theosis [as little as I do understand it.] It is certainly a beautiful mystery.
Pray for me,
There’s not anything within the fathers to point to specifically on this topic – primarily because it’s a modern problem. Since it was not a problem for them (they read differently than we do) they said very little about it.
There is beginning to be some thoughtful work in the area – Fr. John Behr at St. Vlad’s is doing good work in this vein. I spent a while at Duke in graduate school where the topic of interpretation of literature was pretty dominant, and so I’ve spent some time doing work on the same idea. I remember the first time I read Fr. John Behr. I was excited to read another Orthodox writer who saw some of what I saw (and he saw a whole lot more). But it encouraged me to continue – which I do in my limited way and time.
His book “The Mystery of Christ” is a very good read and a good place to start in this area.
Cheryl, here’s a quote on God’s wrath by St. Ephrem the Syrian. I don’t know if it will really address your concerns, but it seemed worth sharing it here. He’s writing about Jonah and the Ninevites’ repentance. Basically, the Ninevites were faced with the same threat that Sodom and Gomorrah faced, but their hearts were different. Ephrem describes the Ninevites’ ashes and sackcloth as being like blood money and an offering that made reconciliation. The tears that flowed from their eyes were met with mercy flowing from heaven, Ephrem writes. God always meets repentance with mercy. Anyway, this describes God’s wrath as something whose very purpose is mercy.
“Give thanks to the One Who sent His anger to Nineveh
that His anger might be a merchant of mercy.
For two treasures His anger opens:
the treasure of the deep and the treasure of the height.
Urgently the fruit [repentance] went up from below to the height.
Urgently mercy rained from above to the deep.
Urgently the blood money went up to the height.
Urgently pity came down from above to the deep.”
It seems that God’s visitation on Sodom and Gomorrah that was a shower of brimstone on unrepentant souls was no different from his visitation on Nineveh that was a shower of mercy on the repentant. Abraham’s prayer didn’t change God, nor did the Ninevites’ sackcloth, because God’s will is always mercy on the repentant. Abraham’s prayer for mercy toward the righteous is in conformity with God’s eternal intent.
Here is another quote from St. Ephrem comparing Jonah with Abraham. It doesn’t necessarily answer any questions, but it’s interesting, and it suggests the difference between Sodom and Nineveh and between a merciful man and an unmerciful one:
“That Sodom not be overthrown Abraham prayed.
That Nineveh be overthrown Jonah hoped.
That man prayed for a city that abused watchers [angels]
This man was angry at a city that made the watchers rejoice.”
This is a wonderful piece. With your permission I’d like to post it so that more will read it.
You are too kind. Feel free to post it. It makes me want to add more verses from St. Ephrem:
“Tears moistened her (Nineveh); mercy shone on her;
weeping rained in her; pity sprouted in her
The King of the height saw and desired
the fruit that a flow of tears grew.
The High One hungered very much for her tears,
since He tasted remorse in her fruits.
He came down and opened the treasury of mercy
to purchase by His mercy the fruits of His servants.”
“thanksgiving (should) should be offered for these righteous holy saints.”
Sorry to bother. It seems that there was someone, Karen I think, who would point out errors in the text. It looks like she may have given up proof reading for lent. Sorry, if you want I will stop, although it may be difficult to refrain. Maybe you can leave the extra should. Double emphasis to drive the point home, for thanskgiving is certainly crucial to the spiritual life. (a small joke) Feel free to delete this comment.
Thanks for the edit – it’s welcome.
Thank you William, and thank you again, Father, for the most recent post. 🙂
you made me cry (once more). For I realized (once more) my own shortcomings and failings, and how the prayers of holy men and women in this world and the other, spare me (once more and again and yet again), not from the anger of a loving Father, but from the destruction and abuse that I myself inflict on my soul.
Pray for me.
I listen to a Greek theologian called Father Athanasius who has a series on Genesis and he also says a similar thing regarding Abraham’s prayer for Sodom … one thing he points out is how great Abraham is since he skillfully “manipulates” God (an intelligence wrestle) into not destroying Sodom and Gomora should he find at least 10! Rather than say straight out to God, you know what God my nephew Lot lives there can you save him … he approaches God in an extremally humbling and skillful manner – God, IF you were to find 50 people would you destroy? In other words, he bargains God down until he reaches the number that relate to the number of his relatives in that town …