Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
I need to apologise for the longer length of this study. I hope, nevertheless, that you will persevere and read through it all, and consider what is written here.
We have been looking at the well-known part of the Sermon which, in the NIV, has the heading “Ask, seek, knock.” In particular we have studied it in light of the context, which is mostly that of enjoying the parenthood of our heavenly Father. But the last verse of this section almost appears to be talking about something else, and this will be the focus of the study here.
The last verse of this section, verse 12, has caused some interesting discussions in the past. Some have wondered if Jesus was even contradicting himself, when comparing this to many of the things we read in chapter 5.
Back in that earlier part of the Sermon, Jesus seemed to be showing clearly how the Law and the Prophets are of no value to you in gaining acceptance to the Kingdom, unless you understood them perfectly according to the Spirit and were also able to live them out perfectly. He proved that the literal interpretation of the scriptures leads to an understanding that falls short. He showed that legalism has great problems.
I linked all of this to some passages of teaching by the apostle Paul in his letters. He said he had every right to boast about fulfilling the Law, as a former Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. Yet he described all of this as worthless in regard to the Kingdom. In fact he called these achievements ‘filthy rags’ – which as I pointed out before refers to soiled menstrual cloths in the original. In this way he showed that, to be clothed in the righteousness earned through obedience to the Law, is to be as unacceptable as to be religiously unclean.
But now here is Jesus encouraging his followers to behave in a way to sum up the Law and the Prophets. Has he changed his mind? Having shown that it is impossible to be acceptable to the Father through the Law, is he now encouraging us to follow the Law?
Some have even used this verse as a doorway through which to bring legalism into the church and there has been, to say the least, some very heavy-handed leadership to enforce this.
For me there has always been a problem with regard to the selectivity of the leadership that demands an element of legalism. They will chastise a woman for not covering her hair, but allow her to be in the service at the ‘wrong’ time of the month (she is religiously unclean and should even be separating herself from her family most of the time for some days). They will encourage, frankly, completely wicked behaviour towards any who are known to be ‘gay,’ while wearing clothes of mixed fabrics (forbidden in the Law).
The hypocrisy is incredible to comprehend! When you read through Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, there are no verses saying that one law is more important than another. There is no ‘get-out’ clause to allow you to choose to obey some of the laws and ignore others. If God is going to pour hellfire on the gay person, He will also do so to the woman attending church at the wrong time of month, and He will also do so to the preacher wearing mixed fabrics. In fact, He will probably pour His wrath on every church for not making sure that every member pays the tithe in full and then failing to send all the money to Israel to be distributed to the Levites (because this is who the tithing is for – NOT the local preacher who is not even a Jew!).
When looking at the whole ridiculous and unsustainable situation with regard to legalism, and then looking at this statement of Jesus here today, I have to say that I do not believe at all that this is an encouragement to return under the bondage of the Law.
The context has very much been about life as members of the family of the Kingdom, with god as our heavenly Father. We have seen that, many times, the message of the Sermon points to the basic message of the gospel – because none of us can ever possibly be good enough. There is only one good enough, holy enough, righteous enough. It is my sin and your sin that pinned him to the cross of Calvary. And as we see our old sinful lives as crucified with Christ, we are raised into new life in him. And now we are clothed not in the filthy rags of our own works, but in the pure white garments of the righteousness of Christ. Now we have become children of the Father, and have gained access to the throne room – even to sit on the knees of our Father.
This is the context for the followers of Christ with regard to the interpretation of this verse. The reference to the Law and the Prophets is not for the sake of obtaining salvation. It is assumed that you have already reached that right place and are adopted into the holy family. And remember that Jesus came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but rather to fulfil them. In his life and death he did exactly that, and on the cross he said it is finished. So the Law and the Prophets have been fulfilled, and there is no longer any need at all to think of placing the chains of legalism once again on ourselves.
Jesus was rather referring to the Old Testament in a different way. Like in the way that is quoted elsewhere more than once in the gospels, and are often referred to as the first 2 of the 3 love commandments of Jesus. First, love your God with all your mind, heart, soul and strength. Second, love your neighbour as yourself. The third, of course, from John’s gospel – the ‘new commandment’: to love one another as he loved us.
In the normal natural world, and where parenting is done well, there is an unconditional and very openly demonstrated love that a small child has for its parents. Jesus has already been speaking much about the relationship between father and child in the section preceding this verse. So, in a sense, he had been touching on aspects of the first of the 3 love commands. In other parts of the gospels we read that the first 2 of these commands fulfils all the Law and the Prophets, so now he is encouraging us to follow the second: to love our neighbour as ourselves.
A parent is being a good parent out of familial love. But Jesus will not let us forget our other family – that of the whole human race. We have not yet been given the resurrected and glorified body that is promised, but still live in the fallen flesh (which the apostle Paul speaks of when he, in frustration, wrote: who will rid me of this body of sin!). This is our reminder of where we have come from, and of the larger family – among which most do not yet know the heavenly Father. And, as Christ died for you while in your sins and in a place of rejection by the Father, so he also died for each and every one of this larger family to which we all belong. There are no exceptions. Christ loves them all equally. Are we not going to be as Christ on this earth? In the epistles we read: as he was (referring to Christ) so are we in the world.
Think about this. We are now born again and our life is in Christ. We are covered in His righteousness. So we are to live among our human family as Christ. And Christ died for each and every person who you will ever meet, no matter how good or how evil. You have feelings of hate for that gay person you meet? Well here is the thing: Christ died for that person. And you are now as Christ in this world. Therefore you should have the heart that is willing to go to the cross for the gay person you meet – out of LOVE for that person.
There are no exceptions. The love is universal and unconditional. You are not allowed to say that you will be nice to someone only once they conform to your standard. Jesus died for you when you were just as evil as they are (it is human to think of more or less evil people. But with God it is simply evil or saved. No degrees of separation).
This is one of the reasons why I gained an interest in the ancient philosophical writings concerning the principles of unconditional love. Some of these date back to the Ancient Greeks, but I emphasise that this is philosophy and principles of behaviour and not about any religion. In fact, unconditional love is completely compatible, as far as I know, with all religions and it certainly would not hurt to get to know more about it. Some more recent writings about this have been tainted in New Age thinking (and I think here particularly about the writings of authors like Jon Peniel, whose writings would certainly be a problem for most Christians), and so I would recommend staying with the more ancient writings. The result will be to learn a discipline of living that will help you to fulfil exactly what Jesus is speaking of in this verse and in the second of the love commandments.
For instance, there is the recommendation to remove the word ‘hate’ from your vocabulary, and to become very sensitive and aware of hatred in your own life. Yes, this is quite radical! But Jesus was certainly very radical! I read that, if you find it hard to completely remove hatred, then have something worthy of the hatred. And that should be to hate hatred itself. Yes, that is a kind of circular logic, but in a strange way it helps and begins to make it all work.
But coming back to the text itself, imagine that it is possible for everyone to treat each other with an attitude of love and care and sensitivity. Surely this is desirable, to hope to be treated by all in this way…. And Jesus basically is saying, this is how we should treat all.
No, this is not at all something that is natural to us. But to Jesus it is natural. And if we have been saved and born again, then the life that we now live, we live clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and we are as Christ in this world. So let what is natural to the new life be encouraged and grow, and let the things that are not good or useful from the old life have no encouragement.
Feed the good and not the bad. My experience is that you need to focus on the good, not the bad. Simply feed the good, be thankful for the good, pray for more of the good, practise the good… and while this is your simple focus, the bad receives no attention, no focus, no energy, and so on. The things that you do not want and are not helpful in your life in this way begin to slowly die. In fact, in terms of basic psychology, if you think about things you should not be doing, it actually becomes harder to stop doing them! But if you focus instead on the good things that you should be doing instead, then after some time you may notice that those bad things are much less in your life, or maybe have begun to disappear altogether.
And this is simple spirituality. Focus on the good.
Listen, there are some Christians who speak as though the devils are everywhere and in everything and make the world to be such a dark and dangerous place. Where is their focus? Does this encourage faith and confidence? And I don’t want to begin to comment on how this affects their spirituality or personal growth…
Instead, I would recommend what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.
And, just as a thought, I would recommend to many to completely stop watching any television news, or reading news sites on the internet, or reading newspapers, or listening to the news on the radio – for at least 3 months. Firstly, for many, this will reveal that you were addicted and you may find this very hard to do – and the Lord would have us all freed from addiction. But secondly and most importantly, the news is mostly about terrible things and focuses the mind and soul on the negative. You will find it much easier to have a positive and loving way of thinking without this! And, into the bargain, you may even discover a reduction in stress and other problems. Just a thought…