Luke 11:1-13 – Ask. Seek. Knock.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So, I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (New International Version)

Jesus, in his teaching ministry on earth, often used the “lesser-to-greater” argument in getting his point across. And that is precisely what he was doing with his disciples in today’s Gospel lesson, instructing them about the nature and motivation of prayer.

The lesser-to-greater argument implies a comparison of values. It’s grounded on a common sense and logical convention that if this lesser thing is true, then, of course, how much more is this greater thing!

If something less likely to happen is true, then something more likely to happen will probably be true as well. The technical phrase for this is the a fortiori argument. It’s a Latin term meaning, “for a still stronger reason.”

So, then, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that prayer has value because God is a loving Father, not a begrudging friend. Whereas the friend in the story was badgered just so the person could get some real necessities, God needs no badgering to generously give good gifts that may or may not be considered as necessities by us.

Prayer has veracity and potency because of whom those prayers are directed to.

In the ancient world, it was common understanding that you needed to get the local gods attention if you wanted something. Which is why, for example, in the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, that Baal’s worshipers were yelling, gesticulating, and even cutting themselves for hours. They fully expected to put a lot of work into getting Baal’s attention, to convince him of intervening in their ancient version of a wild West shootout. (1 Kings 18:16-29)

In contrast to the four-hundred prophets of Baal, a single prophet of the Lord utters one simple prayer, then fire comes rushing down from heaven. (1 Kings 18:30-39) Much like the person who badgered the friend for bread, the prophets pestered Baal for hours.

It all comes down to who really cares. The friend? Not enough to jump out of bed right away and meet a need. Baal? Not so much. God? Now we’re talking.

We typically don’t ask, seek, or knock, if we believe we won’t get a response – or if it will take a lot of energy, time, and effort we don’t have.

Yet, if we are confident of being with care, then we are likely to have a habit of asking, seeking, and knocking.

If a friend begrudgingly gives to you because of persistent knocking, how much more will God graciously, generously, and with gaiety give you goodness when you ask? Because God is good, God gives good gifts. The largess of the Lord is willing and ready to dispense grace from an infinite storehouse of mercy.

This is why Jesus encouraged people to not pray like those who don’t know God, babbling on because they think they’ll be heard because of the sheer volume of words. (Matthew 6:7-8)

There are two misconceptions of prayer which existed in Christ’s day, and today. They come from non-Christian sources:

  1. There must be a lot of prayer before prayer “works.” Although I believe repetition is important for forming good habits, praying the same prayers over and over again so as to be heard betrays an ignorance of God, not to mention an actual lack of faith. Many ancient religions were based in learning how to manipulate the spiritual forces out there to get what we need. It’s kind of like a divine version of hustling for love in all the wrong places. Christians need to know they don’t need to have thousands of people praying in order to get God’s attention to answer prayer.
  2. I must convince God of the need to answer my prayer. God is not a reluctant listener. The reason the Lord already knows what we need before we ask is because God has been paying close attention to us well before we got around to asking, seeking, and knocking on the divine door. God’s ear is already inclined to hear us – expectantly awaiting our petitions. This is a tremendously freeing idea, that I can come to God openly and honestly, without wondering if I am heard, or not.

We might too often neglect to ask, seek, and knock because we rely on our own determination, abilities, education, or observations. Life can be hard. So, we keep on asking, seeking, and knocking.

No one enters God’s realm because of sheer determination. God’s kingdom is only accessed through humble prayer. God is the One with the supernatural resources to help us live the Christian life.

And God is pleased to provide what we need to live that life. God delights in hearing our asking’s, responding to our seeking’s, and answering our knocking’s. With God, there is no daydreaming while we ask, no avoiding us when we seek, and no pulling the shades on the windows as the door is being knocked.

In love, God looks forward to our asking, seeking, and knocking.

Repetition is important – not vain repetition which believes that the more prayer is repeated, the greater possibility of the answer we want – but a routine lifestyle of persistently and consistently praying.

Ask

You want something you don’t have, and you will do anything to get it. You will even kill! But you still cannot get what you want, and you won’t get it by fighting and arguing. You should pray for it. Yet even when you do pray, your prayers are not answered, because you pray just for selfish reasons. (James 4:2-3, CEV)

The Apostle James, learning from his brother, Jesus, gets behind the asking to the heart of why we ask and why we do not ask. This, in no way, is to discourage us from asking or to be doubtful whether God cares about our asking, or not. James also said:

Anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. (James 1:5-6, CEB)

Seek

If you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29, NIV)

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6, NRSV)

Prayer is much like a wrestling match. It requires a great deal of effort. In fact, every good thing in life demands blood, sweat, and tears. We are to keep on seeking, to continue searching and looking for God amid our life circumstances. The Lord will be found.

Knock

God has said:

“When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.” (Isaiah 58:9, GNT)

Prayer isn’t all continual searching and diligently seeking. Sometimes, there is an immediate answer to our knocking on heaven’s door.

God has also said:

“I will answer their prayers before they finish praying.” (Isaiah 65:24, CEV)

It is to God’s glory whether our prayers are answered quickly, or not. It is to our glory that we exercise our ability to enter God’s throne room and ask, seek, and knock. We have the assurance that whatever the answer is from God, it will always be a merciful response.

For God mercifully gives us what we ask for, and also mercifully does not give us what we ask for.

We do not know what tomorrow may hold for us. All we know for certain is that we are known by a God who hears when we ask, is worth seeking, and answers when we knock.

May you be encouraged to pray, to truly connect with God, because the Lord is available without appointment, and is waiting for us to ask with bended ear.

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed: Guide and strengthen us by your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today and every day in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Luke 11:37-52 – Calling Them Out

Pharisees by German painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1912

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so, he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So, you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

“Woe to you experts in the law because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” (New International Version)

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”

Socrates

An outward showy spirituality means little to nothing – and it actually results in injustice and a lack of concern for others. Conversely, paying attention to the inner person has the effect of making our outer actions helpful and healing.

As you can tell from today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus had no use for the showy kind of spirituality. He was looking for a generous spirit of love and justice, willing to share with others from altruistic and benevolent motives. Instead, he got bupkis.

The woes Jesus pronounced on the showy spiritual charlatans were a kind of grieving and lamenting of how far astray the religious were from genuine heartfelt spirituality.

Unfortunately, there are pious people today who claim the name of Christ and slam the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of others by:

  • Saying God’s grace is for all, then turning around and avoiding certain people, calling them “sinners.”
  • Having explicit written statements or rules that exclude people from serving God.
  • Binding people to human traditions and practices instead of Holy Scripture. 
  • Declaring the seven deadly words of the Church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” 

Jesus called the religious leaders out. And rather than listening and changing, the leaders just felt insulted and offended. They refused to hear that their nit-picking religious obsessions and criticizing judgments of others kept people from accessing God’s love and justice.

The Lord’s words are pointed and hard. Jesus talked to them this way, it seems to me, because they probably wouldn’t have heard it any other way. In other words, Christ talked their language so they could hear him.

The Pharisees often get a bad rap. But they were faithful givers. They rightly and deservedly gave a tenth of everything they had. However, the problem was that they did it so they could feel really good about themselves, thereby feeling justified in neglecting the weightier matters of the law, the stuff they really didn’t want to do. 

This is the kind of mental gymnastics which is still done today, by saying, “Hey, man, I do my part. I give,” but all the while having no intention of focusing on weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. It is essentially using money and stuff to buy off God. It is focusing on the minutia of pennies and dimes, instead of saving lives.

The weighty matters of the Law were there in the Old Testament. They just got ignored….

“This is what the Lord All-Powerful said:
‘You must do what is right and fair.
    You must be kind and
    show mercy to each other.
Don’t hurt widows and orphans,
    strangers, or poor people.
Don’t even think of doing bad things to each other!’”

But they refused to listen
    and refused to do what he wanted.
They closed their ears so that they
    could not hear what God said.
They were very stubborn
    and would not obey the law.
The Lord All-Powerful used his Spirit
    and sent messages to his people through the prophets.
But the people would not listen,
    so the Lord All-Powerful became very angry. (Zechariah 7:9-12, ERV)

Righteousness is profoundly social. It has to do with pursuing right relationships with people, not just people I like or who I feel deserve it. Jesus mentioned justice and love because these terms really have to do with our neighbors, not only our buddies and cronies. 

Any evil person can love those who love him; but the one who loves Jesus, loves the people for whom no one else cares or loves.

As God’s people, we are meant by the Lord to be forthright, frank, genuine, honest, humble, open, real, truthful, authentic, just, righteous, sincere, and upright in all our relations with others. To do otherwise is to be hypocritical.

Hypocrisy does not practice what it preaches, keeps people out of God’s kingdom, focuses on externals, and majors on the minors. Jesus loved the Pharisees enough to call them out and call them back to the true worship of God.

Because anything less than a deep concern for all humanity is not true religion.

Blessed God and Father of the universe, I am not above you and I am not the master of all things. Instead, I am your servant and your child. Help me be quick to look at myself when I am prone to look over to others. Thank you that you have wild and abundant grace for me that will never end nor let me go. Teach me your ways and help me be receptive to them, so I will not fall. I submit to your rule and reign over all things, including all my thoughts, opinions, perceptions, decisions, beliefs, and actions, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

Luke 11:24-28 – Human Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

“When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, searching for rest. But when it finds none, it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So, it returns and finds that its former home is all swept and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before.”

As he was speaking, a woman in the crowd called out, “God bless your mother—the womb from which you came, and the breasts that nursed you!”

Jesus replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” (New Living Translation)

You have likely heard the old adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” This idiom is used to express the idea that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural as they go against the laws of nature and physics. Jesus expressed a similar statement, not about physical nature but human nature.

People experience emptiness whenever something, or someone, has been expelled from our lives, creating a vacuum. In today’s Gospel lesson, the expulsion is that of an evil spirit. The bad spirit is kicked to the curb, so it goes looking somewhere else to settle, with no success. Then, the spirit decides to go back, check, and see if the person is occupied, or not.

Everything in nice, neat order. Cleaned up, looking good. But empty. For the spirit, this is ideal. So much space in such an organized environment that it becomes the ideal spot for a party of peers to turn the order back into chaos.

Yet, if there had been something to fill the void, the spirits could never have come and occupied the space.

It’s a pointed lesson about truly hearing. There’s the kind of hearing that goes in one ear and out the other. There’s also a type of hearing which listens yet does nothing to act on what is being heard. That seems to be the kind of hearing Jesus was talking about.

To hear God’s Word is one thing. To make it stick by putting into practice, is another thing altogether. It’s akin to the difference between having an attractive and expensive goatskin leather Bible adorning a coffee table in the center of the house. Looks great. Problem is, it never gets a genuine hearing because the cover rarely gets cracked open.

Once, in my first church as their Pastor, a man had a bevy of family issues which seemed endless. At first, I didn’t understand it. He seemed like a really nice guy. Every Sunday he was there, without fail, and always brought his Bible.

Then, one Sunday, after everyone had left, I found a Bible sitting in the pew where the man always sat. I opened it, and sure enough, it was his, his name written inside the cover. It appeared to be a brand spanking new one, until I looked at the publication date and inscription from when it was given to him: 1949.

In returning the Bible to the man the next day, I discovered that he indeed never read it. In fact, I quickly found out that in the thousands of sermons he had heard over the decades, none of them seemed to ever stick. He heard but didn’t really hear. Instead, he spent most of his life trying not to be involved in much of anything as a means of protecting himself from hurt.

Hearing God’s Word without putting any of into practice isn’t ever going to end well.

Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirror and forget what they look like as soon as they leave. But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget. (James 1:22-25, CEV)

The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice.

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He can’t stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes.  And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing. 

Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith.

Learning the Bible is useless without living it.

Acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up. 

Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodoxy; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

Good hearing leads to a good response.

When my firstborn daughter was still in her mother’s womb, I constantly talked to her. I was in seminary at the time, and I would come home and read her fairy tales in Hebrew. I spoke to her when I got up in the morning and when I went to bed. I told her all about how God was going to bless her and do great things through her. I told her of Jesus and his love for her. I practiced my sermons and Sunday School lessons on her – all before she was born.

When the day finally came of her birth, the nurses took her, and she cried and cried. She cried so much and so hard that I finally said to them, “Let me hold her.” The minute I held her, I began speaking to her, and what happened next got the attention of everyone in the room: my little baby daughter immediately got quiet. It was like that the entire time she was in the hospital. The only time she was happy was when I was speaking to her.

We respond to God’s voice when we recognize it. If we are not in the habit of responding to God’s Holy Word, it is likely that we do not know the Divine voice. My baby daughter didn’t need a lesson on how to respond to me. She knew exactly who I was: her father. 

Do we know our heavenly Father? Can we distinguish God’s voice?

We need to be servants who hear and respond to the voice of God, and not soakers who just sit and hear without any response at all.

Human nature abhors a vacuum. Our own inner emptiness needs to be filled with practicing the words of life we hear. This is the true path of blessing.

Gracious Lord, you have caused Holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word so that we may do what it says and embrace the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.