I was meeting with someone for coffee this week, and in the middle of our conversation my phone rang. It was my 18-year old son. He was actually calling me! He had just had his wisdom teeth pulled earlier in the day. I normally wouldn’t pick up in the middle of a conversation, but under the circumstances I excused myself to take the call.
“Hey buddy, what’s up? Everything ok?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. Can I have forty bucks?”
I should’ve known.
So we can all relate on some level to that dynamic of a child asking their parents for stuff. Whether from the child perspective, or the parent perspective, or both. It usually begins with food, progresses to food and then stuff (like toys), and eventually it settles into a consistent lifelong rhythm of requests for any combination of food, stuff, and money.
Jesus, in his teaching today, invites us to make requests of our Father who is in heaven. “Ask, seek, knock,” he says, adding that “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give . . .” By the way, did not notice how he slips in that subtle dig? “If you then, who are evil ….” It’s like, “Hang on, what’d you just call me?” The Greek word used here actually means … evil, bad, wicked. Yep, there’s pretty much no work around. Jesus straight up says, “If you then, who are evil …”
But let’s be honest, as much as we would like to put people in fixed categories — good parents and bad parents, good kids and bad kids — the truth is that we are all some blend of both. We all have good in us, made in the image of God who is good, but we’ve also got some bad in us, some evil, manifested in our sin. “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” As much as we may not like it, Our Lord is not wrong to say to us, “If you then, who are evil . . .”
But the point he is making is not about our badness, it is about God’s goodness. If even we who are evil know how to give good gifts … how much more will our heavenly Father give good gifts to us? The portrait Our Lord paints of Almighty God is not that of a tyrannical authoritarian; a big jerk or a mean bully, but that of a good dad, a loving Father. Jesus refers explicitly to God as Father, and invites us to do the same; to envision Almighty God as our Father in heaven.
In recent years, the identity of God as Father has been called into question because of the associations it may conjure for those whose earthly fathers have been, how shall we say, particularly evil. This impulse to erase the Fatherhood of Almighty God for pastoral reasons — to comfort those who have been injured or afflicted by their earthly fathers — is understandable as such. However, its premise is flawed.
The heavenly Father/human child imagery is not a man-made metaphor that has been overlaid onto the divine/human relationship. We did not make up this language to talk about God, it is the other way around. It is a core profession of the ancient Christian Faith that God has revealed Himself to us as Father. He has done so principally and climactically through His only-begotten Son our Savior Jesus Christ. And through His Son, he invites us to become His adopted sons and daughters.
Our earthly father/child relationships are merely a shadow of this supernatural reality. The sin of our earthly fathers is not a reflection God, but rather a distortion of the true image of the divine Father, and His goodness and love to which every earthly father is called. It is men who have missed the mark of their calling as loving fathers. But erasing the identity of God as Father does nothing to reform the sins of men. If anything, removing the source and model of what a true Father is, only sets us further adrift.
Jesus, in his teaching today, invites us, as adopted sons and daughters, to make requests of our Father who is in heaven: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” He goes on to promise, “For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”
Not it is dangerous, and dangerously easy, to lift this promise out of context. So let’s be very clear, this is not a “genie in a bottle” verse. This is not an invitation to send up a “blank check” prayer. This is not, “Ask whatever you want and it will be given to you.” Every parent knows that giving their child whatever they want — everything they ask for — can be very very far from a loving response. In fact, depending on the request, the loving response is quite often “no”, or even “absolutely not.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria warns us that sometimes we ask God for objects according to our pleasure. He writes, “Sometimes we pray without discernment or any careful examination of what truly is to our advantage, and if granted by God would … be to our injury if we received it. Rather, by the inconsiderate impulse of our fancy, we fall into desires full of ruin that thrust the souls of those that entertain them into the snare of death and the meshes of hell. When we ask of God anything of this kind, we will by no means receive it. On the contrary, we offer a petition suitable only for ridicule.”
What then is it we are invited to ask for?
Context is key here. And we do well to observe that the asking, seeking, and knocking piece is smushed in between the Lord’s Prayer — which serves as a kind of “petition” guide — and the promised “good gift” of the heavenly Father, which is His Holy Spirit.
In teaching us to pray the Lords prayer, Jesus invites us to ask that his kingdom would come. To ask for our daily bead. To ask for forgiveness of our sins. To seek his leading in our lives. He encourages us to persist in this asking, and seeking, and knocking. And he goes on to promise “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The Holy Spirit is the answer to the prayer, the good gift of the Father in heaven.
Knock on the door to the Kingdom of God, and by the good gift of His Holy Spirit it will be opened to you.
Ask for God’s kingdom to come, and by the good gift of His Holy Spirit it will be given to you.
Ask for forgiveness of your sins, and by the good gift of His Holy Spirit it will be given to you.
Ask for “daily bread,” for Gods provision of divine sustenance for this day, for this present moment, and by the good gift of His Holy Spirit it will be given to you.
Seek Gods guidance, his teaching, his leading in your life, and by the good gift of His Holy Spirit you will find it.
May God give us grace to persevere in our prayers and petitions, trusting that if we, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will our heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit — His very life, and presence which is our salvation — to those who ask Him!
Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.