God is not a vending machine.
I know, it seems like that’s what Jesus is saying here. If you are persistent, God will give you anything you want. Ask, and it will be given. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened. If you put the right combination of words into the slot, ba-bump-dump! Whatever you wanted comes tumbling down the shoot and into your life. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
The problem is that this isn’t what Jesus is saying at all. “Teach us to pray,” his disciples asked. How do you teach someone to pray? It isn’t as simple as putting your hands together and saying some pretty words. No, prayer is so much more than that! Jesus chose not to answer the question by telling them how to pray (you can’t, really), he chose to answer the questions by showing them. So he prays…
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
We recognize that as Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus gave to his followers as a model of how to pray. In the Episcopal order of worship, the priest sometimes introduces the Lord’s Prayer with the words, “Now, as our Savior Christ hath taught us, we are bold to say…” The word bold is a fitting way to introduce the prayer. This is not a prayer that we should pray lightly. It is not a prayer that we should pray with acquisition in mind, as if God were some vending machine in the sky. We can recite it with that in mind only when we completely disregard what it is that we’re saying.
What we’re saying, essentially, is “Thy will be done”. We are asking for God’s will to be done here on earth rather than our own. To speak these words requires boldness, indeed. We are asking God to unleash God’s own power in our lives. We are recognizing that in truth we are nothing without God. We depend upon God for our daily bread: our sustenance, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the people with whom we share our lives. All of these are free gifts from God. We are also recognizing that we are slaves to temptation and sin, powerless to deliver ourselves from them. So, we ask God to lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil. We recognize that we nevertheless will be sinful people who do wrong to each other, so we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. We remember that we live in God’s kingdom, not our own. We remember that God has the power, not us. We are forced to pause and give God the glory for everything that we would claim for ourselves.
That’s not quite as simple as “ask, and it shall be given,” is it? And yet, there is something about what Jesus says that suggests that prayer is more intimate and more relational than we typically make it out to be. There is the suggestion that God responds to us when we pray. It might not be with what we want, but it will be what we need.
In the film Evan Almighty, Morgan Freeman (playing the role of God) says to a woman struggling with the notion of prayer:
Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If they pray for courage, does God give them courage, or does he give them opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for their family to be closer, you think God zaps them with warm, fuzzy feelings? Or does he give them opportunities to love each other?
I wonder if Jesus didn’t have something similar in mind when he answered the disciples’ question. Ask, and it will be given. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened. Opportunities, all. It isn’t as if God simply gives us what we ask for and that’s that. What God does is bless us with the opportunities to receive, to find, and to enter. Prayer is merely a precursor to an opportunity. Prayer requires us to be a participant in what God is doing. Prayer leads to action.
There are people who call this “putting feet to prayer.” When you pray for justice, take the opportunity to work for justice. When you pray for peace, take the opportunity to make peace. When you pray for healing, take the opportunity to bring about healing and wholeness that will follow. When you pray for God’s kingdom to come, take the opportunity to build it!
That’s what many in our culture don’t seem to understand about prayer. Several weeks ago after the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma City, celebrity Ricky Gervais tweeted, “@MTVNews: Beyoncé, Rihanna & Katy Perry send prayers to#Oklahoma #PrayForOklahoma” I feel like an idiot now…I only sent money.” The false dichotomy between prayer and action is one Christians everywhere should resist through word and deed. When we pray for victims like those in Oklahoma, our prayers are also accompanied by action. They are accompanied by giving, and service, and fellowship, and love. In other words, we put feet to prayer!
Jesus said it himself, as it turns out. Ask, and it shall be given. Seek, and you shall find. Knock… and the door will be opened!
Thanks be to God. Amen.