Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
On the surface, the theme of this Sunday’s readings seems to be “It never hurts to ask…and ask, and ask!” In the first reading, we hear an almost painfully long exchange in which Abraham asks if God will spare the city of Sodom if fifty, or even forty-five, or even forty and so on down to a mere ten innocent people can be found there. As Abraham plays the haggler or maybe a nagging child, God patiently offers a steady answer each time: For the sake of the innocent, God will not destroy the city. In the Gospel reading, Luke’s parable tells of a person who calls upon a friend who is already asleep in bed – waking him up to ask for some loaves of bread that are needed to provide hospitality for guests. In case we didn’t get the message about the value of persistence, the author of Luke’s gospel spells it out: “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Honestly that message makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. First of all, the message here can be easily misconstrued to equate God with some kind of Santa Claus figure. I have had enough unpleasant conversations with atheists who have told me that believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus (which obviously, it is not) to be averse to any God-Santa parallels. But perhaps more significantly this passage always makes me think about the many, many people who ask but do not receive, and of those who seek but do not find. I’m not talking about people who pray that they will win the lottery. I am thinking of people who pray for the return of a missing child who later turns up dead. I am thinking of people who pray that they will find a job that will put food on the table but remain unemployed. I am thinking of children who pray that their parents will stop fighting and just get along, but they never do. In short, my reaction to the phrase “ask and you will receive” is similar to what I think and feel when people tell me “God doesn’t give us any burden we can’t handle.” I cringe a little bit. I don’t really believe it. It doesn’t seem true and it doesn’t describe my experience of God.
And yet, I cannot ignore the fact that in this same Gospel reading, Jesus teaches us to pray by asking God for what we need. We are to pray for God’s Reign to come that all will be made right. We are to pray for our daily bread, for forgiveness, for mercy – that we might not be put to the test. For this reason, I cannot stop trying to figure out how to believe in the words “Ask and it shall be given” and so on. I keep on trying.
One thing that has helped me along is to see that these readings are also very much about the magnitude of God’s mercy and generosity. Despite Abraham’s annoying persistence, God shows mercy to him and promises to spare the guilty for the sake of the innocent. The story ends abruptly, leaving us wondering just how far God would go – would God spare the city for even one innocent person? The structure of the story suggests that God would be even that merciful. The immensity of God’s mercy also comes through in the second reading. By the cross and resurrection of Christ, all of our transgressions have been forgiven. Perhaps what we are meant to ask for and receive is forgiveness and healing? With the persistence of Abraham or the visitor in Luke’s Gospel who shows up looking for loaves of bread in the night, we are meant to stand and ask again and again for God’s mercy. I may have trouble believing that anything that you ask for will be given to you, but I can certainly believe that when we ask for forgiveness and mercy God will grant us our request.
Or maybe Jesus encourages us to ask God for all things in order to remind us that we are creatures. We sometimes need to be reminded of our ultimate dependence upon God. In his book Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice, Daniel Groody writes that there was a persistent tendency among the people of ancient Israel to deny that they needed God. When they were successful, they forgot that it was God who delivered them into the land and sustained them. They deluded themselves into thinking that they had only themselves to thank for their success (“It is my own power and the strength of my own hand that has obtained for me this wealth” – Dt 8:17). This tendency persisted in the time of Jesus and it persists today. Perhaps that is in part what these readings are getting at today. We are called to turn to God and ask for all that we need in order that we might remember that God is the ultimate source of life and all that is good.
I haven’t figured out exactly how all of this comes together. I haven’t figured out how there can be suffering and unanswered prayers co-existing with a promise that “everyone who asks, receives”. But I continue to knock at the door, hoping that it may be opened and I will come to know God more deeply and understand.