Thursday in the First Week of Lent: Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25, Matthew 7:7-12.
With eight kids vying for attention and elbowing for their piece of pie, my mother was fond of the saying, “Ask and you shall receive.” I must have heard it a hundred times growing up. Today, we hear the origin of this saying, out of the mouth of Jesus as he encourages his disciples to petition the Father. Lest we think that any old way of asking is OK, we are given the ideal model of petitioning from Esther in the first reading.
For me, the Book of Esther is a bit of an odd duck in the Old Testament. It’s a great story explaining the establishment of the Jewish holiday of Purim, but the colorful narrative of ironic reversals and high-stakes changes of fortune remind me of a Shakespearean play. The setting is Babylon, and while many Jews have started to return to Israel after the Babylonian Captivity officially ends, Esther and her uncle Mordecai are some of those who remain. She’s not presented as particularly devout, and her most striking asset is her beauty, which gets her chosen as Queen after “trying out” with many other young virgins in the harem.
But her secularism changes when the king is convinced to pass an edict that all Jews in the kingdom “shall all—wives and children included—be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies, without pity or restraint, on the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, of this present year.” Mordecai asks Esther to intercede with the king. In a passage before the one read today, Mordecai implores her not to “keep silence at such a time as this,” and says, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
The rub is that no one can come into the king’s presence without being summoned or they are killed. So in order to ask for him to change the edict, Esther must take her life in her hands. But, Esther is convinced that action is needed. And — praise the Lord — the action she takes begins with God. She responds to Mordecai: “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do.”
This is where we join today’s reading. Esther, alone and “seized with mortal anguish,” falls back on the faith of her people. She covers her head with ashes and dung and utterly humbles every part of her body. Clearly, her prayer is fervent and sincere. It takes the form of both petition to help her find the right words and intercession, to save all of the Jews from slaughter. It seems to me that this reading is included in our Lectionary as a reminder of the sincerity with which we should pray to our God when we ask for His help.
The Jews are saved in the end, and it’s important to note that Mordecai offers a passionate plea for help and, in fact, “all Israel cried out mightily, for their death was before their eyes.” It was a group effort.
So when we encounter Jesus in the gospel reading from Matthew, we have in our minds the same impassioned, sincere type of prayer that the Jews of the time knew was an appropriate way to speak to God. This passage comes towards the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’s words upon the mountain after he preaches the Beatitudes. It’s a section that presents rapid-fire nuggets of wisdom. In fact, in the NRSV Bible, the last verse is given a different subheading: The Golden Rule.
Jesus’s words in our Book of Gospels: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Really? This seems like a carte blanche scenario, and our experience tells us otherwise. As our Fr. Erik is fond of saying, God isn’t a vending machine. You don’t put out a set of prayers in the right words and quantity and receive back exactly the thing you wanted. (Another phrase I like: God isn’t a cosmic genie!)
We must read this passage in its entirety. Jesus uses the analogy of how we give our children good things when they ask for them: “how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” A few things are going on here. First, we are reminded that the Father is truly that, a father, and all the aspects of that relationship apply. Second, the Father’s will is to give “good things.” He knows better than we do what we need and what is good. I’d venture to claim that we very rarely know what is good, especially from the perspective of God. What we know is what pleases us or solves our short-term problems. Children indeed.
So what’s the point of asking if we are like the four-year-old asking for more candy or for our dad to get the monster out from under the bed? I can imagine several reasons Jesus urges us to ask the Father and assures us that he will answer. The most basic one is that it reminds us to live in faith; it reminds us that we are dependent upon an omnipotent God who wants to bring us to Himself. The second is that this reminder, in turn, can deepen our contemplation of God and his will. We are not expected to stay in spiritual infancy but to mature and more closely align our own will with God’s over time. As the 1st Letter of John states, “And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (Jn 5:14, emphasis mine). The third reason is that we answer our call as Christians to act in the world according to God’s will. We are not called to sit in contemplation as passive lumps. We just read a few days ago that there will be a final judgment and it will be based on our acts of love. We have to ask, we have to seek, we have to knock, and we have to do God’s will. We are a people on the move towards the Kingdom, but we must get there in participation with God, not by somehow floating there.
And this is why the last verse is a great way to end the reading: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.” Yes, that doing — it’s on the same wavelength as the asking and seeking. It’s to be done in reverence to God (think about Esther) and in accordance with his laws. This great Golden Rule is an example of God’s love in action, a charitable act.
Back to Esther: she is a great model for us because she shows that even if you’re alone, terrified, and not regularly pious, if you appropriately petition God from a position of humility and have the courage to act in difficult situations, the way God answers may just align with your earthly desires.