Asking and getting
One of the great battles of medieval world, was 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 might, for example, pick up the book of Genesis, and actually believe that it was a factual, historical account of creation – rather than the allegorical story that it is.
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 now.
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.
For this particular verse, what appears to be a straight promise from Jesus’ lips – “Ask and you will receive” - turns out to be not so straight forward, after all. It 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, from the variety of voices who told his story). Matthew’s gospel has an account of this very same teaching of Jesus – in Matthew 7. John’s Gospel 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”.
But actually, we don’t even need to look at the other renderings of Jesus’ promises on prayers. Luke provides all we need to know for a sound understanding of what Jesus was teaching. At the end of today’s passage, we read these words:
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
So, it turns out, prayer is not an open invitation to present God with a shopping list of things we’d like. Jesus is teaching us to ask for the gift of God’s Holy Spirit! He encourages us to be persistent – like a man knocking up his sleeping neighbour and asking for bread. But the object of our desire is not for bread, or even gold. The object of our desire is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Why? Because the Spirit is the comforter, and the teacher. He is the one who helps us in Augustine’s words of today’s Collect, ‘to find our rest’ in God. He is the one who Jesus promises will ‘lead us into all truth’, and who will empower us to live, move and have our being in God. How could we desire anything else?
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, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, prayer can indeed become a powerful force in the world and in our own lives. If we ask for something which is not central to God’s plan for saving the world, then the answer will be “no”. But if our prayers are bent towards the will of God, seeking his face and his will for ourselves and for the world, then we should get ready for showers of positive answers to our prayers!