July 28, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“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!”
Jesus compares you to God the Father in today’s Gospel Reading. But the comparison is a bit striking. Jesus says that God the Father is greater and better. That isn’t the striking part; the way that Jesus says so is. Jesus’ words give a back-handed compliment about you. You might not see it at first, but you will after considering the entirety of the text. And what He says is a legitimate criticism of who you are by nature.
Jesus tells a parable to make the comparison between you and God the Father. His story is about a bothersome neighbor. And with it, Jesus shows how you act toward one another. He describes why you will do something as a favor for someone else. But Jesus does not tell a story that displays great human altruism. Instead, He focuses on the very practical, even ugly reasons why you will trouble yourselves with the needs of others.
Focus your attention again on details of Jesus’ parable. You have a visitor come to your house in the middle of the night, but you have nothing to feed this surprise hungry traveler. Unlike here in Mechanicsburg, you can’t go to Wegman’s or the Giant Foods in the middle of the night. There are no 24-hour convenience stores to be found. So you go and pound on the neighbor’s door. And you ask him to give you some food: “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.” You dare to ask him to serve you in the middle of the night, to take care of your problem.
So what does the neighbor say to you? Jesus gives the response: “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything.” For any reasonable person, the response is negative: “Don’t you know what time it is? Why are you bothering me? What does your problem have to do with me?” But in the story that Jesus tells, you are persistent. You keep knocking. You keep yelling at him from outside their window. He tells you to go away, but you don’t. You need what your neighbor has, and you won’t leave until you get it.
And what does Jesus say about this action in the story? “I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs.” The neighbor will give you what you need. But the reason is not neighborly kindness, it isn’t because your neighbor is your friend. He gets up and gives you the food because he wants to get rid of you. The neighbor’s action is rooted in self-benefit: to get rid of you “because of his persistence.” Or as the Greek term actually means “his shameful persistence.”
What Jesus describes in the parable is not an act of giving motivated by charity. Instead, the neighbor figures out that it’s advantageous to us to help the one who is banging on his door and shouting through his window. If he just gives the persistent man “the three loaves of bread” that he so desperately wants, then he will go away. There will be no more knocking on the door, no more being kept awake in the middle of the night. At its very heart, the reason why the man in Jesus’ parable helps his neighbor is purely utilitarian: he is better off without the bothersome neighbor pestering him anymore.
Not matter where you fit in the story—whether being the man with the surprise guest or the neighbor that gets the rude awakening in the middle of the night—that principle of why aid is given to others points out your sinful nature. Jesus’ story reveals a way of reasoning found in you that is ultimately selfish. Jesus is showing how you do things that benefit others, especially when you know that giving such help will actually benefit you. That is the selfish motivation that every single one of us has. And it’s seen in situations that might not seem as fictional as the surprise midnight visit of a friend.
Even if you don’t sit down and calculate what you will get by doing something for another person, just think about how you are more willing to give of yourself when there’s some sort of incentive. Donate money to a charity, so you can take the tax deduction. Support the local high school sports boosters by purchasing the 50-50 FFA raffle ticket, because you might just win the pot. Help out with the Boy Scout auction or the Legion Auxiliary lunch, and everyone will see just how generous and civic-minded you are. Take time out of your busy schedule and show up at the local festival parade, because you never know how many potential voters or clients might be in the crowd.
These are some of the myriad activities that actually do end up helping your neighbors. But they also are ways that you gain benefits for yourselves. You can figure out how you might get something out of the whole deal, even as you are seen to be self-giving. And when the formula really tips in favor of your side of the ledger, you are quick to answer the call for help. It is the way that you feed your innate selfishness.
But compare that to the way Jesus describes His generosity and the generosity of the Heavenly Father. There is no calculating, no figuring out how answering your needs will actually benefit Himself. In fact, when you examine how God the Father gives aid to you, you don’t see much of anything that is to His advantage. Really, how much benefit does one get by being betrayed by a trusted friend, beaten by your own countrymen, convicted by a foreign government, and tortured until hanging dead from a cross beam for all to see? Not much seems to be added Jesus’ side of the ledger. And since this is the way that God the Father serves you, the same can be said about Him.
That is the point of Jesus’ back-handed compliment: “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!” Jesus’ point is this: You can calculate how even helping your children can be beneficial to yourself. Even in your selfishness, you know how to give good things to them. Despite your sinful, selfish nature, you still end up being good givers. The neighbor gets the three loaves that he needs for his visitor. The son gets a fish and an egg to eat from his father instead of a serpent or a scorpion that would harm him. That’s what those who are evil end up doing: they give what is needed. So if those who are evil actually do all that, then what will the giving look like from someone who is perfectly good and not selfish at all? Certainly, it will be of a better sort, a purer sort.
That better, purer giving is also shown in Jesus’ teaching heard today. Jesus reveals how much God the Father is willing to give. He tells us how much God the Father wants to give by telling you how to ask for it. Jesus says: “When you pray, say: ‘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 lead us not into temptation.’” When you think of it, these are audacious things for mortals to ask of God. And Jesus says that you can offer these demanding petitions. He tells you to do so, with the understanding and belief that they will actually occur: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Because of what God the Father has made you through the work of His Son, you can ask and receive, seek and find, knock and have opened. And what is it that God the Father has done for you? Paul wrote of it to the Colossians: “In [Jesus] you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” That privileged status of being forgiven, living heirs of the God the Father is yours. It is not earned; it is given to you. And it allows you to come before His heavenly throne and ask Him for things with the full expectation of receiving.
You can expect to receive this from God the Father because His nature is selfless. He is a Giver, the Giver of all good things. He promises to give, and He even tells to you what we should ask for. Unlike the giving that flows out of your sinful nature, God the Father’s providence is not based upon calculating how He might benefit from His generosity, but is focused squarely on providing for your needs. You receive good things from Him simply because you need it…end of story. There is no other behind the scenes reasoning, like you are apt to find in your hearts and minds. Only divine, fatherly goodness and mercy motivates God the Father’s actions for your benefit.
So take the back-handed compliment from Jesus: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” Recognize that it is true. What Jesus says is an accurate description of what you are by nature. But even more, see the goodness of God the Father, the purest example of generosity. What Jesus says about Him is even truer. Much more than you will ever give, God the Father grants you the Holy Spirit and the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation He brings.
And when God the Father generously gives you the Holy Spirit that you ask for, that begins to change you for the better. He creates in you a new nature, so that the acts of giving aren’t simply done out of a calculating of what you can get. Instead, you become like God the Father, beginning to act out the pure generosity that He has shown to you. Then you will become ones who assist those who ask, seek, and knock. You will forgive everyone who is indebted to you. You will look to give what is needed, even without having someone pound on your door in the middle of the night. Such is the change that the Giver of all good things will grant to you.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.