Ruth Jacob


The sin of Sodom is rife in the world today.  The Western nations are particularly guilty.  And it takes very little research to discover that in many churches, even evangelical and fundamentalist ones, this terrible sin is not only tolerated and condoned, it is even encouraged!  Videos, tapes and books are freely, even openly, passed from person to person telling church members how to indulge in this disgusting practice: children are exposed to this material, and preachers tell congregations that it is quite OK, even right, good and desirable.  Television programmes and adverts shown at family viewing time carry the same message.

Yet many of the prophets thundered against it.  And the apostle James warns against it, and against giving honour to those who engage in it.

We know that the messengers who visited Sodom to rescue Lot and his family were threatened by a dangerous gang who wanted to abuse them.  The men in the gang were quite frank about their intentions and cravings, which were definitely directed at the messengers as men (they wouldn't accept the substitute of Lot's daughters whom he offered, to protect his guests, in a gesture of extravagant desert-style hospitality).  Lot knew that this kind of incident was common; that was why he had insisted on the messengers spending the night in his house.  Probably because of this shocking account, it has been concluded that open and habitual homosexuality was the reason for God's disapproval of that city, hence the term "the sin of Sodom".

Sodom's notoriety was not by any means based on the attack of this gang alone.  Long before the messengers ever set foot in Sodom, the city was already doomed to destruction.  Genesis describes the inhabitants of Sodom as "exceedingly wicked and sinful against the LORD," and records that when God visited Abraham to talk over his thoughts of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, he said that, "the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave."  No more detail than that is given, but Genesis is usually fairly blunt in describing carnal behaviour, so perhaps delicacy was not the overriding reason for this vagueness.

Yet Ezekiel is the only one who will come right out and describe the sin of Sodom in detail.  He says,

"this was the guilt of ... Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  They were haughty, and did abominable things before me." (Ezekiel 16:49)
Violence, coercion, degradation, exploitation, and indifference to the sufferings of their victims; these are most of all what characterise the gang of men in Sodom, and indeed the whole attitude of that society.

The behaviour of this mob shows plainly that they had no interest in the friendship or welfare of those they were asking for; they did not even care whether the objects of their lust gave consent to their intentions.  We do know that this particular gang had a marked preference for males - but would their attitudes and actions be any less reprehensible if the intended victims had been women?  Gays are an easy target: the great majority of the population are not remotely tempted by homosexuality, and many even find it repugnant, so they can safely and comfortably condemn it.

But force, disregard for others when pursuing one's own ends ... oppression, victimisation ...? Not nice, not what we'd choose in a perfect world; evils - but necessary evils, right? We don't want to see that kind of thing. So we pay someone else to do it while we're not looking.

As for acquisitiveness and a lust for luxury and novelty - let's not talk about them, because these are temptations for nearly all of us.  And this is not merely a private temptation, or even one aroused only by bright, bouncy adverts offering gratification to our senses.

Our whole society pressurises us to capitulate lest we be seen as second-rate, or inadequate providers. Which of us hasn't been urged by family members, pastors and mentors to acquire bigger and better homes, furniture, cars, audio equipment, smarter clothes and jewellery?  Who among us has never been encouraged to find an occupation with higher pay, even though that might mean the compromise of something we held dear?  We all know what this is like.  We know the sense of shame when well-meaning people pity or chide us for not having the luxuries they think we shouldn't be able to live happily without.  Yes, shame!  The sin of Sodom is not a merely individual sin.

It's easy to denigrate those for whom we feel no identification, especially when they are tempted by, or even practice, what we find revolting.  But it's not so easy to resist and speak out about the unthinking expectations of people amongst whom we want to relax and be accepted.

There was once a man called Amos who would not keep quiet about this.  Here is part of his well deserved rant:

"Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, "Bring wine, let us drink!" ... I know your multiple transgressions and your mighty sins: afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate ... let justice go rolling on like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream ... You [cause] the rule of the violent to come near;  who are resting on beds of ivory, stretched out on soft seats, feasting on lambs from the flock and young oxen from the cattle-house ... drinking wine in basins, rubbing themselves with the best oils; but they have no grief for the destruction of Joseph ... Listen to this, you who are crushing the poor ... (Amos 4:1, 5:11-12, 4:23-24, 5:3-6, 8:4-5)
Amos had an important message which is still urgently needed.  But most of us would never have even heard of Amos if someone had not lived and died the exact antithesis of his description.

I have heard preachers say, "How can you bless others if you don't have plenty yourself?" teaching that the followers of Jesus should have an abundance of material wealth.  This is contrary to both Jesus's teaching and his own way of life.  Jesus never suggested that there was any virtue in accumulating wealth.  Sure, he didn't ask everyone to give up their possessions or property, (though some were called to do that), but he never urged anyone to become rich, either.

Jesus gave up everything he had, and even was, laying aside the wealth and power of the universe in order to come into the world.

So should we be ascetics, depriving ourselves for the good of our souls?  No, a thousand times no!!  Jesus did not come to bring us dullness, but to give us life, overflowing life.  He did not come to establish a club of self-absorbed, sour faced nay-sayers.  Nor did he teach self deprivation and austerity as desirable, or as ends in themselves.  He himself went to weddings and joined in at parties, danced, drank wine, and enjoyed the flowers, birds and mountains, and the company of friends. He was well liked by children, down-to-earth workers and people who were tired of the impossible demands of religion.

Let's look at the real reason Jesus chose the lifestyle he did.

Jesus was always motivated by love, making the needs of others his top priority.  His birth, life and death all sprang from concern for others; not for himself, not for his own development or enrichment.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus, though he was rich, yet for our sakes (not for his own sake) he became poor.

Jesus's life was not fired by striving for his own enrichment or spiritual development, but was lived entirely for the welfare of others.  Here is his stunning inaugural statement.  Notice how his whole mission is directed at the well-being of others, as he brings to life words familiar to all in his audience:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Isaiah 61:1-2, as quoted in Luke 4:18-19)
We know that he lived by this, giving himself to rescue people from illness, despair, disability and even, sometimes, death.  He gave the moments of his life, and his strength, thoughts and desires, for others; and in the end he gave up his reputation and his life itself as he suffered the death reserved for the lowest ruffians in the Roman Empire.

How different this is from the picture we have of Sodom, revelling in decadence, plundering the animal kingdom with their ivory furniture and exotic meats, and siphoning the life of the poor, just for one more treat or status symbol.

We too are challenged to follow this example.  Paul describes "us" (referring to those sent out with the Good News) as "poor, yet making many rich."  It is true that in some cases money can fix an immediate desperate need, but actually most of the world's problems are caused by long-term evils and will not be solved simply by throwing a load of money at them, especially when that money has itself been gained (as is often the case) by unjust policies, inequitable employment, or unscrupulous trading practices, and when those offensive conditions continue to be maintained.

Dom Helder Camara said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call be a Communist."

Yes, it is unpopular to ask questions about the rightness of the status quo, yet often those who have done so have changed the expectations and practices of the world in accordance with the working of God's spirit.

Jesus didn't hold up charitable donations as the highest ideal, but loving others as we love ourselves, and that involves sharing with others in a way that recognises them as equally valuable and worthy of the necessities and comforts of life. He is asking us to do less than he has done for us - he is asking us to share, whereas he gave up everything.

With the possible exception of intellectual royalties, there is hardly a method of amassing wealth that doesn't involve some kind of exploitation of the poor and powerless, of helpless animals, of rape of the earth, or a combination of these.  Try to find one and you will fail (believe me, I've looked for an ethical way to quick money for years, and not found one yet!).

When Amos and Ezekiel were shouting about it, the people they were challenging to change their ways lived side by side with those who were slaves, poorly paid labourers and disabled beggars.  They saw those they lived off every day - the conditions they lived in, the unsympathetic treatment they received.  They were even waited on by some of them.  They couldn't pretend that they didn't know.

These days the people who have produced our clothes, food and luxuries like cocoa, sports shoes and gold, often live far away, even on another continent.  We see an idyllic photo of a carefree, sun-kissed man in a sarong with a machete in one hand and a bunch of bananas in the other; and we imagine a smiling wife and healthy children in colourful clothes, who welcome him each night to a cosy (if humble) home and a good meal.  We would like to think that's how our more exotic goods are produced.  And sometimes they are.  But very often it is not quite such a pretty picture.

And although we don't live side by side with those who suffer to provide us with cheap luxuries, we can still see them: they are on our television screens, on the news, in our travel brochures.

Very often, those who have so hardly earned a breadline wage are cheated out of even that.  They sell the fruit of their labour and the goodness of their land to rich people for a pittance which may be reduced further without notice.

Worse, some don't even get a breadline wage but are kept as slaves.  The Channel 4 programme "Slavery", shown on 28 September 2000, stated that around the world there are about 27 million slaves.  They are not paid for their work, not able to leave and are controlled by violence.  Many are children.  (This is despite slavery being illegal in every country).  Many of these people are providing things which we buy from those who cruelly abuse them and pass on none of the profits to them.  One young man who was a slave on a cocoa farm said, "The people who eat this chocolate are eating my flesh."

If Amos were around now, he would be shouting out,

"Hear this, you cows of North America, and those in western Europe, who pay others to oppress the poor, and to crush the needy, but turn your eyes from seeing the consequences of your self-indulgence, who say to your husbands, "Bring me chocolate, let us pamper ourselves!"

You crush the poor further into their poverty, and take the very bread out of his mouth to feed your insatiable greed for variety and plenty ... I know your multiple transgressions and your mighty sins: turning a blind eye to inhuman working conditions, so you can get discounts on your luxuries; diverting the poor from justice in the international market.

But let justice go rolling on like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

You who put far away all thought of others' suffering, allowing the violent to profit; you who thoughtlessly plunder the animal kingdom, lounging around on leather seats, collecting useless trinkets of ivory, guzzling piles of meat at every meal; playing loud music; drinking gallons of wine, applying endless costly perfumes, lotions and beauty products; but care nothing for who is getting hurt by all this."

Jesus admired John the Baptist as the last of the Old Testament-style prophets.  John told people to change their way of thinking and living because the long-promised liberator was about to appear.  When he was asked for details, he said,
Whoever has two coats should share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do the same.
Tax officials must collect no more than is appointed you.
Soldiers must be content with their wages and not rob anyone or engage in violence or false accusation.

This is what it meant to be baptised by John (symbolic washing): it was not a mystical religious ritual, but a sign that, in honour of God, people would now live equitably in relation to those around them.  John was telling them how to put into practice the welcome of the world to the arrival of the liberator.  This welcome is described symbolically as a levelling and straightening:

"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
When the seer says, "all flesh shall see the salvation of God," this is by no means divorced from the rest of the statement, but an integral part of it.  Jesus' vision was to change the shape and modus operandi of society out of recognition; this is a huge aspect of the salvation that is promised to "all flesh".   Jesus portrayed God's welcome party as being one to which the street people and beggars were invited: he encourages people to invite home those who are unable to invite them back, and to give to those who can't repay them.  He tells us that this is what God is like.  He tells us that it is those who don't know God who boss others around and are called benefactors for it.  And he says that his society will be nothing like that, but will be filled with people eager to serve and benefit others.

Jesus himself gave us an example of this by voluntarily doing an act of service that even a slave couldn't be forced to perform (washing a guest's feet in a hot country).  He came into the world, not to lord it over others, though he of all people had the right to do so.  But instead he came to give what he had to us - to give his life to us, who were headed for death - to give his love to us, who were cold and wounded - to give the light of truth to us, who were stumbling about in darkness.

What can I do?

It is unusual for us to include a practical follow-up, but if you want to respond to this in a concrete way, follow this link for suggestions