Fertility cults are a constant problem in Scripture. Prophets condemn them; laws are created to deal with them; and the authors of the Bible warn us not to engage in them.

Though most of the passages relating to these rituals are in the Hebrew Scriptures, the beliefs underlying such practices continue to surface in the Christian Scriptures.

The name implies that these rites have something to do with fertility: an increase in children, crops and herds. However, the concept goes deeper.

Controlling gods

Fertility-cult systems teach and practice actions, words and rituals that are geared to control the gods from whom favors are being sought.

Many individuals believe if they use certain magic actions and specific secret words in the proper order, and repeat them the correct number of times, the gods will be forced to give them what they want.

But the authors of the Scriptures insist that, at times, God's answers are as complicated as our questions. The writers come down hard on anyone who attempts to control God instead of relating to Him.

It's an understatement to say interpersonal relationships are complicated. Married couples quickly discover that it's far easier to control than to relate. Some actually give into the temptation and spend their marriage in the control mode.

Sunday's three readings were written for people who have given up control and are trying to relate with God, even in those moments when they're attempting to get something from Him.

In the first reading (Genesis 18:20-32), Abraham's relationship with Yahweh opens the door for negotiations over how many "innocent" people must be found in Sodom and Gomorrah before Yahweh will spare those cities from destruction. Not lost on the original readers is the understanding that the "outcry" Yahweh is investigating revolves around the practice of fertility cults. The moral is that "relating" accomplishes more with God than "controlling."

In the second reading (Colossians 2:12-14), Paul zeroes in on the most basic truth of early Christianity. Long before "confession" came into existence, the Apostle teaches, our sins were forgiven because the person who committed those sins is no longer alive. That person "died" when he or she became one with the risen Jesus.

The new person who came into existence at that point is not responsible for the dead person's transgressions. God doesn't forgive us because we can successfully maneuver our way through a sacred ritual, but because we've merged with the personality of Jesus, the new creation in our lives.

What God gives

In the Gospel (Luke 11:1-13), Jesus presumes our relationship with God and His relationship with us must be before our eyes whenever we pray.

Though experts agree that Luke's version of the "Lord's Prayer" is older and more original than the one Matthew gives us, even here the petitions are surrounded by Jesus' assurance that God isn't playing a game of "Red Rover" with us. We don't have to say the proper words to get what we want.

If human parents and friends can be moved to action because of their relationship with us, so can God.

But notice what God gives: the Holy Spirit. We can never forget that the Holy Spirit is the force in our lives that tells us what to ask God for in the first place.

(7/26/07)