Thursday, March 5, 2020

Ask and you shall receive....really?

One of the great battles of medieval world, was the battle over the correct interpretation of Scripture. For centuries, the established church had kept somewhat of a lock on the Bible. Only selected texts were read, and only authorised ministers were allowed to preach. Quite often even those sermons could only be sermons which had been written by higher authorities within the church. Pre-prepared texts, if you like. Scripture itself was often read in Latin, so that it was largely beyond the comprehension of most of the population.

The problem, as the church authorities saw it, was that if you put the words of Scripture into the hands of ordinary people, they would mis-understand it. They would, for example, pick up the book of Genesis, and believe that it was a factual, historical account of creation – rather than an allegorical story.

But this wasn’t good enough for the Reformers, like Martin Luther, John Calvin and, famously William Tyndale who was the first to mass-produce Bibles in English. They argued that everyone has a right to read Scripture for himself, and, guided by the church, to arrive at a correct interpretation. The advent of the printing press made this move almost inevitable, just as the arrival of the internet in our time means that it would be impossible for the church to keep the Bible under wraps.

But this new found freedom to interpret Scripture for oneself does lead to difficulties. We have before us, this morning, one of the most frequently mis-understood texts of the Bible: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you”.

Sadly, there are churches all over the world where this text (and others like it) are taken at face value, without any scholarly context or interpretation being applied. As a result, the worshippers in such churches find themselves believing that if they want to get rich, all they have to do it pray for it. They are taught by their poorly educated leaders that if they don’t get rich, then that’s because they don’t have enough faith. So the worshippers try desperately to believe, believe, believe! Then, these false church leaders tell their congregations that in order to receive, you first have to give. Congregations are persuaded to give what little wealth they have to the church leaders…in the desperate hope that they will yet become rich.

It is a terrible, terrible con-trick…and it drives millions into abject poverty all across the world. And all because this one line of Scripture is taken, completely out of context, and used as a maxim for prayer and the religious life.

The problem is that in order to understand one portion of Scripture, we have to read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. I can certainly understand why the early church Fathers preferred to keep the Bible under lock and key. It is a dangerous text, if not read with wisdom and understanding.

For this particular verse, the biblical scholar understands that what appears to be a straight promise from Matthew’s gospel – “Ask and you will receive” needs to be read alongside other renderings of the same promise, in other gospels. (That’s why we have more than one Gospel – so that we can form a balanced and healthy view of Jesus’ life and teachings). John’s Gospel, for example, adds a very illuminating phrase to this saying of Jesus. “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you”.

In poorly educated churches, that results in the phrase ‘in the name of Jesus’ being peppered throughout their prayers. “Lord we ask for your blessing, in the name of Jesus”. The phrase is used as a sort of ‘magic word’ – “Lord, produce a bunny rabbit out of this hat…in the name of Jesus. Abracadabra!”

Names, in the Bible, are powerful things. They carry meaning of their own – well beyond the mere syllables we tend to give ourselves. Jesus’ name, in Aramaic, means ‘God Saves’. So, to ask for something in the name of Jesus means to ask for something related to God’s plan for our salvation. God will not hold back from giving us spiritual gifts and blessings that will help us along the road of faith. But if we think that praying for riches is going to miraculously deliver a Rolls Royce to our door, then we are sadly mistaken.

I rather like the saying of St Theresa of Liseaux, who said “God always gives me what I want, because I only want what God wants to give.”

St John expands on his understanding of what Jesus was saying, when he says this: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you”.

Do you see what I’m saying? For those whose wills are aligned to God’s will, prayer becomes a powerful force in the world and in our own lives. Ask for something which is not central to God’s plan for saving the world, then the answer will be “no”. But if your prayers are bent towards the will of God, seeking his face and his will for yourself and for the world, then get ready for showers of positive answers to your prayers!