7 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.
We are in the middle of a sermon series on belonging and we are beginning to look at the practical application of our beliefs in a variety of secular settings. What difference does it make to be a Christian in the worlds of business, sports, health, government and academia? How do our spiritual values overlap and how do they conflict in these particular communities?
In order to make these distinctions, we have to identify and articulate some of Jesus’ core teaching. These teaching have been our spiritual foundation for centuries and require a deep respect for the value of all of God’s children. This is the most fundamental ‘belonging’ we have as Christians. Belonging to Jesus means we have worth and everyone around us has worth. That simple statement dramatically changes how we interact with the world. There are many secular values that embrace inclusiveness, but under sufficient threat, self interest almost always trumps concern for the greater good. Christians must always live in tension between our own needs and the needs of the people around us. Neither gets priority and neither can be ignored. In real life that is a tricky balancing act.
To help with that balancing act, I want to take this passage paragraph by paragraph.
1. Verses 7-10 evoked the most comment in FIRL. The common first reaction to these verses was that searching, knocking, and asking would result in a ‘good’ end was simply not true. Individuals had many experiences in which they had fervently asked—with no response. They were left with painful uncertainty and no resolution. They had to endure silence when they asked for guidance, endure confusion when relationships were broken and endure fear when physical disaster visited people they loved. Promises of God’s presence seemed far off.
Only in retrospect could ‘answers’ be discerned. Unfortunately many of our most heartfelt prayers did not leave room for God. Our first reading of “Ask and it shall be given…” is read as ask and you will get what you asked for. That puts us in charge of God and us in charge of ‘’good outcomes”. Asking, searching, and knocking are processes—not outcomes. We can bring anything to God. We can pray for rain, pray for vengeance, pray for miracles—even pray for a million dollars. If that is who we are or where we are, that is what we bring to God. But then we wait. The response is always up to God—and we may not like it.
The next verses provide hope and asks us to trust. A child may well believe that the father loves them less because they do not get what they asked for—but that does not make it so. Saying yes or no to a request is not a test of love. It may seem that way to a child (or to us) but that just means the child has to mature. The same is true of our faith. We believe that God is in whatever happens to us—and that includes what is incomprehensible to us. It includes the the times we are lost, in pain and when we cannot see relief. God is with us. And as much as we would like to understand, as much as we want particular outcomes, we can only defer to ‘if it be your will’—trusting in a good God when we are at our lowest and God is hardest to see.
2. Verse 12 offers us the golden rule. Undergirding this practical guide for behavior is a direction for living that expresses our deepest faith—that as brothers and sisters in Christ, everyone we encounter has needs, concerns and wants that are just as important as ours.
3. Verse 13 warns us about real life—living a life of trust in God and offering care to others is not only not easy, it is the harder road. Few take it because our self interest and self protection never leave us. We do not want to be accountable to God. We want to decide and/or rationalize exceptions to the golden rule. It is particularly hard to trust God when we are in danger. That is indeed, a narrow gate.
4. Finally verses 15-20 warn us in a different way about real life. There are hundreds of ways we are tempted to avoid the demands of following Jesus. In the blatant extreme, the prosperity gospel neatly suggest that God does not want us to be poor and if we are it reflects our lack of faith. Any outcome we do not like, illness, loss, a dip in the stock market is a test of either our, or God’s, fidelity. There is no reliance upon God—only our attempts to make the world manageable on our terms.
With those thoughts as our foundation, what are the implications for us in the real life world of our business transactions?
Let’s start with: “What is a good deal?” Whether it is the grocery store, clothing store, a real estate deal or a corporate buyout, the most common way we think about a good deal is the price advantage to us. If I can get the same item cheaper than I would have to pay somewhere else, it is a good deal. It is embedded in our attitudes in almost every financial exchange we make.
In our travels, we frequently shop for souvenirs. When the group regathers, we compare our purchases and discover many of us bought identical items for different prices. There is considerable pride in learning we paid the lowest price—we got the ‘best deal’.
But for Christians the criteria for a good deal cannot be reduced to our financial advantage. What is best for us in terms of price may well be imposing unknown hardship on the vendors, or the people who make our products. We all know about fair trade but typically such considerations are limited to a very few products. Most of us have no idea what our IRAs are actually invested in. We just want a good return.
Please notice I did not say there is anything wrong with seeking a profit or being wealthy. I did say that the advantage to us cannot be our only criteria. Christians are obligated to struggle with the implications of our choices. That is a high bar. It complicates decisions and may well mean less profit and less advantage to us.
It is embarrassing to me, and I hope to you, to see how easy it is to praise the golden rule in church and ignore it in the transactions of real life. It is very tempting to compartmentalize to avoid the ethical dilemmas. (“It is not practical to be a Christian in a world that will take advantage of you—so let’s separate our faith and our economics.”) As the privileged, it is quite a challenge to be willing to notice that we are not entitled and that (hopefully unknowing) we are profiting on the backs of disenfranchised people.
I am not particularly interested in evoking guilt (and that was a strong element in our FIRL discussion). What to do or what issue to focus upon are not answerable questions. But there at least be should be some humility in the discussion. We are sinful people who as often as not rely on our own resources to ensure our safety. We need to confess that and we need to consciously orient ourselves to God. We can do that only if we trust God’s love for us. That is why it is called the narrow gate.
The ways of the world may well yield wealth. It is a seductive and tempting goal. It turns out that 26 richest people in the world have more money than the lower half of the world’s population combined—that’s 3.8 billion people compared to 26. That is a discrepancy that cannot be rationalized. Again, I have no answer but we must struggle with these embarrassing incongruities.
The world’s fruit is the best deal. God’s fruit is love and life for all.
Help us to find ways in our daily life to seek to bear God’s fruit. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.