Asking for God’s Help

Thursday in the First Week of Lent: Esther C: 12, 14-16, 23-25, Matthew 7:7-12.

Today, we hear Jesus tell us “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Christians have reflected on these words since the earliest days of the Church, and our perspectives have ranged from awe over a responsive God to expectations of a vending-machine deity. God is decidedly not a vending machine or djinn in a lamp, granting wishes. The key to not misunderstanding Jesus is to put today’s gospel reading in context.

This reading is a small excerpt from the magnificent Sermon on the Mount, which stretches from Matthew 5:1 to 7:29, three full gospel chapters. It opens with the Beatitudes, includes the Lord’s Prayer, and ends with dire warnings over not aligning oneself interiorly to God. This is one great teaching, and cherry picking a saying here and there, while easy to do, greatly misrepresents the complex threads of His teaching.

Old Man Praying (1665-1670), Gerrit Dou | Creative Commons, courtesy The Leiden Collection.

There are several passages that specifically warn against a flippant, easy way of asking God for what you want. The most direct might be: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (Mt 7:21-23). This is a person calling out — asking, seeking, knocking — but the answer is unimaginably awful. Christ tells this person, “go away from me, you evildoers.” Doesn’t this contradict the excerpt from today’s gospel? Jesus tells us the crucial qualifier: only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven will enter the kingdom. Another aspect of this passage that jumps out at me is when He says, “I never knew you,” to the person clamoring to enter the kingdom. Getting to know Christ is an absolutely essential part of our Christian journey. There simply is no salvation unless we acknowledge Him as God, walk alongside Him, and ask Him to intercede for us to receive God’s mercy.

This Christian journey happens as we live the liturgy, both sacramentally in our sacred spaces and practically in our secular spaces. And at the heart of today’s reading is a particular aspect of the journey: prayer. Our asking, seeking and knocking are ways we appeal to God through prayer. But let’s not get this backwards — anything we ask God in prayer is already a response to Him having first reached out to us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “God calls man first. Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer” (2567). He gave us prophets, He gave us revelation, He gave us His Son; in short, He gave us the reason to believe in Him and a reason to call out to Him for help.

The question is, are we coming from a place where we are His humble servants, begging to know His will? Or are we instead coming from a place where we’ve already identified an outcome we want and are asking Him to fulfill it? I want a good grade, a healthy dog, a politician to change his views, etc. In these scenarios, we have supplanted His will with our will. It’s easy to do — something, in fact, we’re much more likely to do than not because patiently, quietly, humbly discerning God’s will takes lots of prayer and lots of practice.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that asking for a good grade or a healthy dog is a bad thing. In fact, it is a sign that we want to bring God into our daily travails, to live with Him and His help in everything. My gripe (to be honest – that’s what it is) is the all-too-common contemporary response we hear when people don’t get what they want. “How could God do that to me?” is the gist of this response. And sometimes it’s such a violent response when dealing with things like life, death, and suffering, that people decide to push God out of their lives, stop “being Catholic” (which is impossible, BTW, once you’ve been baptized into the Church), or even deny His existence. This is as transparently the work of Satan as it gets; we can practically see him sitting on the shoulder of these people prompting them to put their will ahead of God’s, to react with anger over outcomes they set for themselves, to blame God, and to ultimately decide to deny Him. We must avoid these things at all costs.

And Jesus teaches us how to orient ourselves appropriately right here in the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord’s Prayer is the pinnacle of how to pray to our Father and the way to orient ourselves. Let’s recall our first two petitions at the beginning of the prayer, after acknowledging His holiness: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done …” We are asking, before all else, to hasten to the Kingdom of God. This does not mean that we are asking for death or for the end of the world, but for unification with God, which can happen while in this world as the saints show us. Do we believe this when we say it? Is this the thrust of our lives — to hasten to the Kingdom above all else? If it is, then earthly concerns take on a decidedly lower importance. The second request to God is that His will is done here on earth like we know it is in heaven. Christ repeats this many times throughout His ministry and lives it by willingly going through His Passion and Death according to the will of His Father. Jesus can’t stress enough for us how important this aspect of prayer and faith life is for us. God’s will — often unknowable and veiled — is something we hope to discern; but regardless of fully knowing, it is something we desire to be realized in the world. That’s real trust, you might say, and yes, it is! But there is nothing better to want than the will of Goodness itself, of Love itself, of Wisdom and Justice itself. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to align ourselves with His will, feed ourselves on the spiritual food of His Word and worry less about this world and more about our spiritual well-being.

Jesus reiterates this a few verses later: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:25, 33). Ahh, what a salve for our constant worry! Our Lord tells us not to worry about our lives and earthly things but to “strive first” for the Kingdom and God’s righteousness, then everything else will fall into place.

Woman in Prayer (contemporary), by Maria Magdalena Oosthuizen | Image from pinterest.com.

So, let’s return to today’s gospel reading with the broader context of the Sermon on the Mount in mind. When Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” I have to believe that He has something specific in mind. He has already told us to be humble petitioners yearning for the Kingdom, so what we are asking for is ultimately for God’s will to be done, if not understood. What we are seeking is His guidance in our lives. And we are knocking on His door in that response to His invitation to know Him — we are knocking because we want His grace and love to overwhelm us in our lives. And just like we know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” Let’s just not imagine that we know what those good things are or when we’ll receive them, if ever in this world. Our humbleness dictates that we to not presume to put our desires or will ahead of the supreme will.

Does Jesus direct us only to ask for God’s will to be done and nothing else? Not exactly, although I think He emphasizes that this should be first in our order of operations. Once we start to know God and love Him, we can become instruments of His love in this world and that’s where charity comes in. We can bring our petitions on behalf of others, which come about because of God’s love working through us and manifesting as charity, thanks to “that mysterious encounter known as prayer.” And so in the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Mourning is an act of charity for the souls of the departed. Also: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This hunger and thirst for righteousness is not just one’s own perfection but a desire for God’s justice for others in the world. And, of course, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” The mercy that we pour out for our fellow humans is absolutely an act of charity, and God rewards us in the Kingdom for this.

But let’s remember the order of operations here: 1. Love God first; ask for His will to be done, seek for His guidance, knock on His door for grace; and then: 2. Love your neighbor; ask for God’s love to pour through you to them, seek for their good, knock on His door to grace them. All of our Christian attitude and prayer is outwardly focused, not inwardly. May we remember this!

I don’t want to miss saying a few words about the lovely reading from Esther. Here are my thoughts as recounted from last year’s reflection. 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.”

Queen Esther (1878), Edwin Long | Wikimedia Commons.

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. Also, it shows us that she is moved by charity, not selfish concerns, something that prefigures what Christ will eventually set up as the paradigm for His Church.

 

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