Thursday of Week 1 of Lent – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 7:7-12

Today’s readings are about prayer, specifically prayer of petition. The Gospel reading sounds marvellous:

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find…

It seems all I have to do is pray for something and I will get what I ask for. And yet, we all know from experience, that that is simply not true. I pray to win the lottery, but don’t even get one of the minor prizes. I pray for the recovery of a person with cancer, but the person dies. What is happening? Is Jesus telling lies? Are there some hidden conditions that we are not aware of?

I believe the answer lies in the second half of the passage. First, Jesus asks whether a father would offer a stone to his son asking for bread, or whether a snake would be offered instead of a fish.

If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him.

In other words, if we human beings, in spite of our shortcomings, care for the well-being of our children, then surely God, who is all good, will be infinitely more caring. The problem is not that God does not answer our prayers; the difficulty is that we tend to ask for the wrong things. We do not give a child a sharp knife to play with even though, when we refuse to do so, he throws a temper tantrum and gets angry with us. A good parent, of course, will try to give the child something else which satisfies its real need at the moment.

Jesus is saying that God will give “good things” to those who ask. In fact, as Jesus says elsewhere (Matt 6:8), God already knows all our needs so it is not necessary to tell him. Then why pray at all? The purpose of prayer is for us to become more deeply aware of what our real needs are.

The things we ask for in prayer can be very revealing of our relationship with God and with others. It can be very revealing of our values and our wants (which are very different from our needs). The deepest prayer of petition will be to ask God to give us those things which most benefit our long-term well-being, those things which will bring us closer to him and help us to interact in truth and love with those around us. It is a prayer to be the kind of people we ought to be. It is difficult to see that prayer not being answered.

It may be useful for us to look at the prayer of petition of Jesus in the garden and how it was answered. Paul, in the second letter to the Corinthians also shares an experience of petitionary prayer which he made (2 Cor 12:7-10) and the surprising answer that he got.

The passage ends with the so-called Golden Rule:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Note that it is expressed positively rather than negatively and that makes a considerable difference. The negative version can be observed by doing nothing at all; not so the positive version. Although it is a separate saying, it can be linked with what Jesus says about petitionary prayer. If we expect God to be kind and generous to us, surely we are expected to be equally kind and generous to those who come asking our help.

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