THE CHARTER OF PRAYER
Keep on asking, and it will be given you; Keep on seeking, and you will find; Keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone that asks receives; And he who seeks finds; And to him who knocks it will be opened. What man is there, who, if his son will ask him for bread, will give him a stone? Or, if he will ask for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If, then, you, who are grudging, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
Any man who prays is bound to want to know to what kind of God he is praying. He wants to know in what kind of atmosphere his prayers will be heard. Is he praying to a grudging God out of whom every gift has to be squeezed and coerced? Is he praying to a mocking God whose gifts may well be double-edged? Is he praying to a God whose heart is so kind that he is more ready to give than we are to ask?
Jesus came from a nation which loved prayer. The Jewish Rabbis said the loveliest things about prayer. “God is as near to his creatures as the ear to the mouth.” “Human beings can hardly hear two people talking at once, but God, if all the world calls to him at the one time, hears their cry.” “A man is annoyed by being worried by the requests of his friends, but with God, all the time a man puts his needs and requests before him, God loves him all the more.” Jesus had been brought up to love prayer; and in this passage he gives us the Christian charter of prayer.
Jesus’ argument is very simple. One of the Jewish Rabbis asked, “Is there a man who ever hates his son?” Jesus’ argument is that no father ever refused the request of his son; and God the great Father will never refuse the requests of his children.
Jesus’ examples are carefully chosen. He takes three examples, for Luke adds a third to the two Matthew gives. If a son asks bread, will his father give him a stone? If a son asks a fish, will his father give him a serpent? If a son asks an egg, will his father give him a scorpion? (Lk.11:12). The point is that in each case the two things cited bear a close resemblance.
The little, round, limestone stones on the seashore were exactly the shape and the colour of little loaves. If a son asks bread will his father mock him by offering him a stone, which looks like bread but which is impossible to eat?
If a son asks a fish, will his father give him a serpent? Almost certainly the serpent is an eel. According to the Jewish food laws an eel could not be eaten, because an eel was an unclean fish. “Everything in the waters that has not fins and scales is an abomination to you” (Lev.11:12). That regulation ruled out the eel as an article of diet. If a son asks for a fish, will his father indeed give him a fish, but a fish which it is forbidden to eat, and which is useless to eat? Would a father mock his son’s hunger like that?
If the son asks for an egg, will his father give him a scorpion? The scorpion is a dangerous little animal. In action it is rather like a small lobster, with claws with which it clutches its victim. Its sting is in its tail, and it brings its tail up over its back to strike its victim. The sting can be exceedingly painful, and sometimes even fatal. When the scorpion is at rest its claws and tail are folded in, and there is a pale kind of scorpion, which, when folded up, would look exactly like an egg. If a son asks for an egg, will his father mock him by handing him a biting scorpion?
God will never refuse our prayers; and God will never mock our prayers. The Greeks had their stories about the gods who answered men’s prayers, but the answer was an answer with a barb in it, a double-edged gift. Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Tithonus a mortal youth, so the Greek story ran. Zeus, the king of the gods, offered her any gift that she might choose for her mortal lover. Aurora very naturally chose that Tithonus might live for ever; but she had forgotten to ask that Tithonus might remain for ever young; and so Tithonus grew older and older and older, and could never die, and the gift became a curse.
There is a lesson here; God will always answer our prayers; but he will answer them in his way, and his way will be the way of perfect wisdom and of perfect love. Often if he answered our prayers as we at the moment desired it would be the worst thing possible for us, for in our ignorance we often ask for gifts which would be our ruin. This saying of Jesus tells us, not only that God will answer, but that God will answer in wisdom and in love.
Although this is the charter of prayer, it lays certain obligations upon us. In Greek there are two kinds of imperative; there is the aorist imperative which issues one definite command. “Shut the door behind you,” would be an aorist imperative. There is the present imperative which issues a command that a man should always do something or should go on doing something. “Always shut doors behind you,” would be a present imperative. The imperatives here are present imperatives; therefore Jesus is saying, “Go on asking; go on seeking; go on knocking.” He is telling us to persist in prayer; he is telling us never to be discouraged in prayer. Clearly therein lies the test of our sincerity. Do we really want a thing? Is a thing such that we can bring it repeatedly into the presence of God, for the biggest test of any desire is: Can I pray about it?
Jesus here lays down the twin facts that God will always answer our prayers in his way, in wisdom and in love; and that we must bring to God an undiscouraged life of prayer, which tests the rightness of the things we pray for, and which tests our own sincerity in asking for them.
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