Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

65. Receiving and Giving (Matthew 7:7-12; Luke 11:9-13)*

Jesus turned from instruction and reproof regarding one’s disposition towards others, now to encourage right attitudes towards God and one’s own personal needs and aspirations.

In a nutshell, what he taught here was: If it is a genuine need, and you want it hard enough, God will give it you. But there must be importunity and purposeful personal dedication to the goal in view. This is indicated by the form of the verbs which the Lord used: “Keep on asking...keep on seeking...keep on knocking.”

These precepts of persistence each find their illustration in one of the Lord’s later parables. There was the widow who knew her cause was right and who therefore would not desist from her pleading, even though the character of the judge who could help her was in itself a massive discouragement (Lk. 18:1-8). There was the merchant man “seeking goodly pearls” (Mt. 13:45, 46). Implicit in this short parable is a picture of journeys undertaken far from home, of patient enquiries and yet more patient bargaining, of disciplined sacrifice of pearls already treasured, but also of ultimate acquisition and deep satisfaction. And there is the story (Lk. 11:5-8) of the householder who, because faced with the obligations of hospitality, beat ceaselessly on his neighbour’s door in the night to plead for the help which he could get from nowhere else. Indeed, this parable has all three elements asking, seeking, knocking.

The spirit of precept and parable is the same. A man must know what he wants, and must want it so badly that all his desires and energies are focussed on this one thing until the end is achieved. Alas, the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. The purposeful spirit of men in eagerly seeking their aims or desires on a more mundane material level so rarely carries over into the field of spiritual aspiration. Yet, clearly, it is these that Jesus was talking about. Whether it be understanding concerning the fulfilment of God’s Purpose in the world (Mt. 24:3), or wisdom to direct one’s life aright, or that of the ecclesia (Jas. 1:5, 6), or aid in the exacting work of preaching the gospel (Jn. 15:7), or deeper understanding of the work of Christ (Jn. 16:23-30), or help for a brother in spiritual low water (1 Jn.5:16)-whatever the need, if it be not selfishly materialistic, the Father stands ready to give the desired aid. The Lord’s repetition, which might be judged unnecessary, emphasizes this truth: “For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”

It is clear that Jesus expected unbelief of these assurances (and how justified he has been in this!). So he went on to reason his case with a devastating logic and insight into human nature which are not to be gainsaid. Would a man mock his hungry child by offering him a stone to chew? And instead of the customary dried fish as appetizer, would he hand him a serpent or scorpion to scare or sting him? Such things-the first a mockery, the second and third positively dangerous-are unthinkable. “If you, then, bad as you are (and Jesus was addressing his close disciples!) know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!” (NEB). Jesus himself exemplified this by giving his hungry disciples both bread and fish (Mt. 14:19; 15:36; Jn. 21:9)-and this without their asking. And for those who do ask for fish his response is even better (Lk. 5:6, 10).

The realism about these words shows Jesus to be no starry-eyed air-borne enthusiast. He knew from personal experience the tremendous power of the ties of family affection. But he was not blind to the innate evil of human nature (Mt. 15:19). “Bad as you are!” - the phrase stresses: ‘This is your very nature!’ If even this ingrained selfishness can be swamped by parental instinct, then with how much more confidence may not the children of a God who is all loving-kindness look to Him in every need! (Cp. the argument in Lk. 18:6, 7.)

This counsel, which God’s sons accept so readily in theory and are yet so loth to profit by in practice, is the positive counterpart to what the Lord had taught a little while earlier regarding the danger and sin of worry. Both there and here his illustrations from ordinary experience were designed to bring faith and dependence on God into everyday life as a normal reality.

Yet is it not true in practice that men do ask God to satisfy their needs, they do seek wisdom and guidance from Him, they do knock at doors which He can open? - and then they positively forget to scrutinize their experience, whether soon or late, for the divine response. The children of God are not comfortable breathing the rarified atmosphere of the life of faith, although this is their native air. So it was not for nothing that Jesus said: “Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.”

Indeed, it is almost as though Jesus were saying, in modern phrase: “You can’t lose!” The hungry child in God’s family, asking for something to eat (as healthy children always do) and already taught to ask when hungry (Lk. 11:3, 5), will not be fobbed off with the mockery of a piece of stone. The worst of human parents, “being evil”, would hardly indulge in such mockery. And isn’t your Father in heaven the best of all possible parents in this world? The child clamouring for a fish to add flavour to his barley bread-would you dream of offering him an unclean eel or a deadly serpent? Will a stinging scorpion show your love for your little one asking for an egg? Then with what confidence may not God’s children come to Him and experience His opening the windows of heaven to pour forth blessing-not necessarily the blessing that is asked for, but certainly the blessing that is needed.

In Luke, the promised gift is “Holy Spirit”. It is doubtful if the absence of a definite article makes any difference to the meaning here. It might mean “a holy mind or disposition”. It might mean “the powers of the Holy Spirit” to aid the work of preaching the gospel (see Study 128 on vv. 5-8). Yet apparently Jesus had already given Holy Spirit powers to the Twelve and the Seventy (Mt. 10:1; Lk. 10:1).

Next follows an altogether unexpected inference from the simple but difficult principle just taught: “Therefore (because your heavenly Father is ready to show such liberality towards you), whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

The words were not unfamiliar to the ears of his disciples, for something rather similar had been enunciated as a leading principle of one of the two main rabbinic schools. Hillel, father of the Gamaliel who trained Saul of Tarsus, a pleasant humble man, had taught his followers: “What is hateful to thyself do not to thy fellow-man; this is the whole Law, the rest is commentary.” Jesus said the same, but stated it positively, and thereby widened its scope enormously, charging it with an idealism which is positively frightening. And he introduced it with an important “Therefore”, as though implying from the context: ‘God does good to you because that is His nature. But men are naturally evil. Therefore, if you would receive good from them, should you not first show that kind of divine goodness to them?’ The Lord does not add that such an attitude will infallibly succeed. But neither does God’s lavish goodness to all His creatures evoke that response (indeed, hardly ever!), yet is He never dissuaded, never discouraged.

In this all-embracing principle-doing to others as one would be done by--there is turned to positive usefulness the ingrained selfishness which is a natural trait of every man alive. Would he know his bounden duty to his fellows in the world or in the ecclesia? Then let him mentally change places and ask himself what he would most appreciate in friendship, understanding, practical aid, sympathy, fellowship. Few things said by Jesus are more wide-ranging in the impact they can make on daily life. Perhaps it is for this reason that this principle appears to be so rarely invoked. It is just too uncomfortable.

Notes: Mt. 7:7-12

Ask. Mk. 11:24; Gen. 18:23-33; ls. 62:6, 7.
Every one that asketh receiveth. But is this always true? It has been very well said that the answer to every prayer is always one of three: Yes. No. Wait. Nor is the answer necessarily just what has been asked.
Scorpion (in Gk.). Has been interpreted as meaning a biting retort; ls. 59:5; Ez. 2:6; Lk. 10:19.
Your Father which is in heaven. Lk has the unusual variant: “from (out of) heaven”, as though picturing a Father looking down with concern out of heaven.
If this verse is Christ’s counterpart to that famous precept of Hillel, then v. 13 may be read as his equivalent to the austerity of the school of Shammai.

Another possibility about this verse is that its “therefore” makes it a final commentary on v. 1-5.

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