Not How But Why
Sunday, October 15, 2017
One of the television shows available on the online service Netflix is called The Pinkertons. This modern western, if you will, is a Canadian television show set in the American West in the 1860s. As the name suggests, the series is based on real cases that the real life Pinkerton Dectective Agency dealt with during that time period.
The show also focuses in on a historical figure by the name of Kate Warne as one of the primary characters. Warne is considered to have been the first female detective in the United States. And, in the series, her major contribution is that while many of the male Pinkerton detectives see the big picture, Warne is able to recognize and understand the significance of minor details that could have been easily overlooked. With several episodes, it is Warne’s attention to detail that allows her to see what others fail to see and thus often leads to crimes being solved. (“The Pinkertons” and “Kate Warne” in wikipedia.com)
Attention to detail is often critical when studying scripture too. It is so easy for us to grasp the big picture of biblical stories while missing critical details that enable us to understand God’s word at a deeper and more meaningful level. Our text for today of Abraham’s nephew Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is an excellent example of this from my perspective.
The big picture in this passage is that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked places and Lot, as well as Lot’s daughters, were lucky to get out alive. Yet, Genesis offers several clues that are easy to overlook or miss that suggest the Lot and his family were happier and more content in Sodom than we might have realized and therefore may not have been as eager to leave as we like to think.
The first clue comes as the story begins. The text drops the hint that Lot was at the city gate (vs. 1). This means very little to us today, but, in biblical times the city gate was the place where leaders met and where significant civic decisions were made. For Lot to have been situated there was a way of pointing out that Lot was involved in city life and in community matters.
Second, as Lot is encouraged to leave Sodom, it is not only Lot’s wife, the soon to be infamous “pillar of salt”, who struggled with the decision. Rather Lot is hesitant too (vs. 16a). Lot wants to delay and even when he finally agrees to leave, he bargains to go to the closest city to Sodom and Gomorrah. In essence, the point is made that he reluctantly yet willingly leaves but even in leaving he is unwilling to go very far (vs. 18-23).
Finally, the story that immediately follows Sodom and Gomorrah focuses on Lot’s daughters while clearly illustrating the moral perspective on life that they had developed. Their decision as to how they will ensure that they are able to have children rivals the awful behavior for which Sodom and Gomorrah had become famous. What Genesis seems to want us to understand is that while God had graciously seen to it that Lot and his children would escape the horrors of Sodom, it wasn’t because they had been a bastion of light in a dark place. Instead, apparently they too had become products of the culture in which they lived (vs. 30-38).
Why rather than how Sodom and Gomorrah had fallen is the important take away here. And, it is equally important for us to see why Lot and his family, who had once been faithful followers of God, seem to have fallen too.
What I mean here is that much ink has been spilt over how the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah met their demise. The scripture says that the two cities were destroyed by sulfur and by fire (vs. 24). Readers of Genesis have always wondered what this actually means. Was there a great fire that destroyed the two cities? Were they destroyed by an earthquake that produced a fire? And, since archeologists have never found the ancient cities, were their remains ultimately buried at the bottom of the Dead Sea as many suspect? These are great, thought provoking and interesting questions to say nothing about the most interesting puzzle in this passage as scripture says that when Lot’s wife looked back, while fleeing Sodom that she became a pillar of salt.
The hows in terms of how this infamous story of destruction truly unfolded are fascinating but they keep us from the real question of why. Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed? The answer to that question is far more straightforward. While we know some but not all of the specifics of what life was like in these two towns, we can say this much with certainty – Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because the people there had no regard for God. They did what they wanted, followed their own desires rather than the expectations of God and they lived according to their own ideas and priorities. It was their own reckless behavior that led to their downfall. They had no one else to blame but themselves.
The other how here is even more significant I think. That how is the question of how did Lot and his family fall so far too? Based on what I said earlier, I think Genesis is far more straightforward on the answer to this question than we would like to think as well. Rather than becoming positive influences in Sodom who shaped life there for the better, Lot and his family were shaped by the influences around them. Yes, even as we see in the beginnings of Chapter 19, there were glimpses of Lot’s former priorities such as his protection of the messengers of God who visit he and his family to warn them of what is going to happen and who encourage them to leave. But, for the most part, what we find is a family who had settled into life in Sodom and who struggled with the idea of leaving.
Did Lot and his family intentionally mean to become like the people of Sodom. I don’t think so. Instead, over time, I think they simply and likely grew weary of the effort of being different. Perhaps , in the beginning, they thought they would go and change Sodom. But, over time, they were changed instead.
In his study of human behavior and the choices that we make, Dan Ariely tells the story of countries in Europe and the citizens in those various countries related to their willingness to donate their organs when they die. Like here in the U.S., being an organ donor is listed on one’s drivers license. What Ariely had noticed was that in countries like Denmark, the UK and Germany, the number of people willing to donate organs was less than 20% . But, he also found that in other European countries like Austria and France, a staggering 90-100% of the population had a willingness to be organ donars. Ariely wanted to know why. What lead people in Austria and France to make such better and more humane decisions than their counterparts in England, Germany and Denmark?
What Ariely learned was amazing. The reason for such a vast difference in the percentages of organ donors had nothing to do with morals, a desire to help other people or convictions. It simply had to do with a decision that had already been made. You see, on the Department of Motor Vehicles form in England, Germany and Denmark, where the rates of donors was so low, you had to check a box to say you would be willing to be an organ donor. In those countries, if you did nothing, if you just sided with the decision already made for you, then you were not a donor. In the other countries, like Austria and France, you had to mark a box saying you didn’t want to be an organ donor. There the decision made in advance for you was that you would be a donor. (Dan Ariely, Ted Talk, December 2008)
You can call all of this laziness, but, Ariely says that what is also shows is that we are simply willing to go along with culture’s decisions and the ways of the majority rather than taking the effort to be different.
I think Ariely is right. Even when it comes to our convictions, our morals, our sense of right over wrong, so often, we simply don’t want to exert the effort or stand out and so we just become like everyone else. We give in to what culture says is the right thing to do. Likewise, sometimes, our good decisions are not the result of our conscious effort, but simply the result of our being in the right place at the right time with the right people.
So, what do we do with this. Two things I think. First, no matter how strong we are, we need to always remember that the things and people around us will influence and shape us in ways far greater than we would ever imagine or give them credit for. So, we need to work very, very hard to surround ourselves with the right things and the right people. And second, we must realize that standing up and standing against those things that we are not in favor of takes hard work, takes daily focus and must be a matter of priority and prayer. If we are going to shape our culture rather than vice versa as people of faith, we had better be intentional about it. Because it doesn’t come easy.
Let me give you one final example. Take your phone out of your pocket or your purse for a moment. Go ahead, take it out, I know you have it with you just like I have mine with me. Do you really think it is good to look at this little screen as much as you do? Do you really think you should answer texts at 11 o’clock at night when you should be going to sleep? Do you really think it is a good idea to check scores or Facebook at the dinner table during the only 45 minutes or hour of the day that you sit down with your family a day? Do you really think it is a good idea to do those things while you sit in worship on a Sunday morning? Is it a good idea to say the things that perhaps you have posted on Facebook this week about someone else? Do I really need to tell you the answer to all of those questions I have just posed?
Ten years ago, did you set out to behave this way? Ten years ago, would you have believed that you would behave this way? No you didn’t and no you wouldn’t. But, this is what society has taught us to do and quite frankly all of us, you, me, all of us, don’t have the will power to resist. We would say that we do, but, we don’t. We are not shapers, we are being shaped. And, so, who and what will we surround ourselves with? And, how intentionally will we be about living differently? Lot and his story may be much more like our own than we think. Amen.