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Is God some sort of a cosmic vending machine? Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t really how people understand and approach this relationship. Is God like a Jeanie in a bottle which must be rubbed a certain way if we want our three wishes. Religion seems to think so. If we peel back the metaphor, something transformative begins to emerge.
Today, I want to draw our attention to that point in life where we look upward, or inward, our outward from a deep place of need. Let’s go to that existential place of angst or pain, that place of uncertainty about where to go, what to do, or when we ask for help, with no assurance that our voice is even heard. Have you ever tried prayer and felt ignored, passed over or forgotten?
The audience hearing the Sermon on the Mount was a desperate people, not unlike us. They lived in the shadow of the Temple within a culture that upheld a pantheon of deities, each with its own set of rules for placation and atonement. The theological framework is that if you are good enough, or valid enough, then the deity will listen. After un-coaching many modern people, I can tell you that this framework is alive and well. In fact, I’m convinced this “Subject-Object” relationship is what so many people today have either rejected or accepted without much consideration of the alternative.
7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11 ESV)
Jesus is undoing religion by re-framing the relationship from placating a distant deity in an “I – Thou” framework, to the framework of a loving family. I’m convinced that the focus of this passage is not “how to get God to give you stuff” but “how to relate” within this family. Jesus is convinced that the greatest power in the universe is not some nameless, nebulous force, but our very maker and father or direct family member who is loving, generous, and kind to us. Jesus is revealing a God that religion has never been able to find. Jesus is offering subject to subject relationship.
Think about it. Judaism holds to the same theology of placating through ritual and obedience that Jesus often subverted. Islam has many names for God and none of them is Love and they reject God as a knowable father. Evangelical Christianity gets close, but then ads a huge contingency threat to the theology by insisting that this loving Father will inflict eternal suffering on you if you don’t pick his team, and offers a bi-polar God with a stink-eye. None are like the “heavenly father” Jesus depicts, they are all subject-object.
If we miss this new way of relating, our default mode is to resent the God or power that failed to meet our needs, who is either deaf and can’t hear our prayers, or is a jerk and doesn’t really care anyway. Religions only response to this is to say, “You didn’t placate the deity correctly” and put it all back in our face. The result of this dysfunctional way of relating are two types of unbelievers: Those who hold fidelity to the results of asking, and those who hold fidelity to the ritual of asking regardless of results.
This passage offers a new way of relating, and “God up there” doesn’t seem to be what Jesus is prescribing. From this vantage point, something amazing begins to emerge. It’s a subtle confidence, not that the answer is coming, but the answer is here, now. Without the “I-thou” standing in the way of “us”, a certainty bubbles to the surface which emits an indescribable optimism that defies our present suffering. Faith is born. Faith is the deep knowing that displaces our deep existential angst. This passage is not telling us how to get the genie out of the bottle, it’s unveiling a world where our asking is the answer, our seeking is the finding, and our knocking is to have the world open to us.
Let me explain. Lambáno is the Greek word for receive, acquire, take hold of, or experience. It connotes the receipt of an object or benefit for which the initiative rests on the giver, but the benefit is upon the receiver. Ánoígo is the Greek word for open, or make possible. The one who knocks is making themselves known to that which is beyond the door, the opening is to be known. It’s ontological not practical. When Jesus uses the Greek word poneroi which is translated “evil, or wicked” it comes from an idiom “evil eye” which means to be stingy. When we put this together we discover that faith is to ask, seek or knock. We already have what we really need even though we don’t yet have what we think we need. Thus, our requests are too small and as a result, appear to go unanswered. We simply miss it. As C.S. Lewis says, “…we go on making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine a holiday at the sea.”
This wisdom proves that Jesus was not inaugurating another world religion to stand in opposition to all other world religions. He is offering a direct line to our Maker without all the pomp, ritual, hierarchy, power plays, and segregation. Through this direct line, or way of relating, we are transformed by our faith and need. This faith and need enable us to see faith and need of others. This text of asking, seeking, and knocking sets up the apex of the entire sermon:
12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, ESV)
We have arrived at the Golden Rule. This is the answer for any who seeks, asks or knocks. Jesus is freeing all people from the burden of the law and he is coalescing all the teachings of the prophets by moving theology out of our heads into the faith of daily living. We prove our faith by how we treat others, not by our rank in religion, not by our bible knowledge, not by our donations. All religious behavior manifests itself in how we treat others.
This is the answer for all of us who have prayed at a point of need. If you want generosity from God, be generous to another. If you are asking God for something, ask it of others. If you are seeking help, then help others. If you want your presence to be known by knocking, then acknowledge the presence of others. How many prayers are answered by the hand of another? Our relationship to God is displayed in our relationship to all others and all things, because if God is in the midst of our life, God is in the midst of all lives. Too often our religions create and seek to overpower our enemies, while this liberating teaching eradicates all our enemies by allowing us to see them as ourself.
Jesus has come and brought a new way of relating instead of ritual, and for those who have eyes to see, Heaven (at least in part) is already here. What more can we ask for? What could we possibly seek beyond that?