Cities don’t get a very good press in the Bible. The garden of Eden is the biblical paradigm of peace, order, and well-being. The first biblical city was founded by the fratricide Cain (Genesis 4:17), and ever afterwards cities are suspect for their rebelliousness and defiance of God - and none more so than the city of Sodom. Sodom is synonymous with sin, and I don’t need to spell it out, we all know what the sin is, now don’t we? And here in Luke 10:12, our Lord himself joins the homophobic chorus. Of a town that rejects the gospel message, Jesus says, “on Judgement Day God will show more mercy to Sodom than to that town!” Unbelievers and faggots - they either turn or burn - it’s in the Bible.
Or is it? Is the sin of Sodom, enshrined as it is in our collective consciousness, and encoded in our common discourse, is it what we always take it to be, take it to be what we assume Jesus took it to be? Shall we take the line: “Don’t bother me with the evidence, I’ve already made up my mind”? Or shall we not rather turn to the Bible, look at the evidence, and see what it actually is? Of course I have you at a disadvantage here: I already know how this sermon is going to turn out. So let me warn you: not only is the conventional interpretation of Sodom so wrong as to suggest that it could only be held by the blindest of the prejudiced - that’s not my main concern here; no, my main concern is to discover what the real sin of Sodom was. And a hint: readers of the Daily Mail are in for an ironic and unwelcome surprise.
Let’s start with Genesis 19. On second thought, let’s not. For the story actually begins back in Genesis 18. It begins with the visit of three mysterious strangers to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. Abraham welcomes them to his home, has Sarah bake and cook for them, fetches a fatted calf and serves the veal himself. He is the very model of hospitality, and he is rewarded for his virtue by the promise that old Sarah will yet bear him a son. Two of the three visitors then make their way to Sodom; the one who remains, now identified as the Lord, then tells Abraham that he too will go to Sodom to see if the city is as wicked as its reputation.
Now: what actually happens in Sodom? The two men, now identified as angels, arrive in the city where again they are offered hospitality, by Abraham’s nephew Lot, who freely provides them with bed and board. It’s at this point that the menfolk of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand that he turn the two men over to them. Lot protests. On what grounds? On the grounds of hospitality: the men are his guests and therefore should be treated with respect. Indeed so important is this imperative of hospitality that Lot actually offers the mob his own two virgin daughters if they will only leave his guests alone. They refuse. Lot is, like his uncle, a migrant, and, like the visitors, a foreigner. “Who are migrants to tell us what to do with foreigners? What obligations do we have to you or them? If we want to storm your house and gangbang your guests, then that’s just what we’ll do!” But, fortunately, not in this instance. As they start to break down the door of the house, they are struck blind, and Lot, his family, and the two angels escape.
See the connection between the two stories? On the one hand, the hospitality of Abraham, and then Lot; on the other hand, the brutal inhospitality of the men of Sodom. The inhospitality takes the form of intended homosexual gang rape, but what does homosexual gang rape have to do with loving, faithful, stable gay relationships? Would it have been okay if the mob had raped Lot’s daughters instead? Of course not! In the context of the current discussion on human sexuality the story of Sodom is quite simply irrelevant. The sex of the intended victims has got nothing to do with the sin of Sodom. Male or female, the sin of Sodom would have been rape, and the rape would have been so sinful not least because it was a crime against hospitality.
And note well: the hospitality due to strangers, to visitors from another country. The Bible, you see, doesn’t have all that much to say about sex, let alone about gay sex, but it’s got a lot to say about hospitality to strangers. And not as a matter of charity but of duty. In the Bible to welcome foreigners is not an option, it is a solemn obligation. It is a matter of justice. The people of God - people like Abraham and Lot - they are known not only for but by their hospitality. And, conversely, those who are not the people of God, or who don’t act like the people of God, who reject God’s will and law, who have their own nationalistic agenda - today we call them xenophobes, the mobs who in policy, print, and picket lines shout, “Out! Out! Out!”
And the authors of Genesis aren’t the only Old Testament writers who lambaste the sin of Sodom. The prophets too are incensed by it. It is already proverbial for them - but, again, not in the way it’s proverbial for us. In the very first chapter of his oracles Isaiah condemns the ruling classes of Jerusalem. Why? What have they done? Isaiah spells it out. It’s not that they lack “religion”. Indeed the churches are packed, like the good old days, like the 1904 Welsh revival that some folk long and pray for. The Temple was the prototype of today’s megachurches! But Isaiah tells the people that such popular worship is not popular with God. Indeed, it disgusts God. Because the leaders and their spin doctors are thieves, fixing the economy to favour the rich and fleece the poor, and failing to defend the most vulnerable members of society. “See that justice is done!” cries the prophet (like Amos before him) - “help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows” (Isaiah 1:17). And who might be “the oppressed”? It is almost an Old Testament litany to hear of God’s special concern, as it goes, “for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger at your gates“. So that if foreigners don’t exhaust “the oppressed”, they are certainly included among them. Again, the sin is being unwelcoming to strangers, the sin is xenophobia. And so Isaiah says, “Jerusalem, your rulers and your people are like those of Sodom” (Isaish 1:10).
Over a hundred years later and Jerusalem has still not learned its lesson. Jeremiah (23) targets the court prophets, the King’s cabinet, the cheerleaders of the nation - “Israel right or wrong!” - for their lies. “They are all as bad as the people of Sodom!” (Jeremiah 23:14), declares the prophet. And Ezekiel (16) refers to Jerusalem as “Sodom’s sister”, because, like Sodom, “they had plenty to eat … but they did not help the needy” (Ezekiel 16:48f.). Plenty to eat, little to eat - it’s hospitality again, isn’t it? - or rather the lack of it. “Don’t scrounge on us! Don’t take our jobs! Don’t sponge on our taxes! Crawl back into your holes! Go back to where you came from!” - thus read the headlines of the tabloids of Jerusalem, directed against the peasant poor who have come to the city looking for work. Again, sound familiar? Where today are “Sodom’s sisters”?
Finally, Jesus in Luke (10). He sends out the seventy-two “like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). He has no illusions about the reception they are likely to get as they move from village to village. The welcome-mat will not always be laid out for them. In which case they aren’t to waste their time, they’re to shake the dust off their feet and move on. And Jesus concludes with that ominous prophecy: “I assure you that on Judgement Day God will show more mercy to Sodom than to that town!” (Luke 10:12). And, yet again - and oh so consistently - what have these towns done that is so wicked as to warrant such judgement? The text is clear: they have not welcomed strangers - and here the point is really driven home - strangers who have come as God’s messengers. The ultimate in xenophobia: the Other who comes with good news is rejected as bad news.
Speaking of the story of Sodom, the late Anglican theologian Michael Vasey concludes: “Like certain New Testament texts that have often been used to justify anti-semitism, it remains a warning of the way profound, irrational fears can arise within a culture and take captive even the scriptures. Careless exegesis costs lives” - homosexual lives. Indeed. And - how convenient - it also shields the prejudiced from acknowledging in themselves the sins that the texts are actually talking about - violating the sacred trust of hospitality - at the cost of more lives still. Think about it - think about the real sin of Sodom - the next time you read a homophobic or xenophobic editorial in one of our viler newspapers. And then ask yourself: Who are the real Sodomites here?