So I say to you: 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. [Luke 11:9-10 (NIV)]
In the comic strip Peanuts, drawn by Charles Schultz, Linus and Lucy van Pelt are brother and sister who, like many siblings, often fight. For several days last week, Lucy tried to convince Linus to give her a Christmas gift. When she insisted the giving of Christmas presents is in the Bible, he called her bluff saying, “You can’t fool an old theologian.” Two days later, while Lucy searched in the Bible, she exclaimed, “I found it!…The word ‘sister’ in the Bible!…That proves you have to give me a Christmas present!” Her little brother merely sighed, “Oh, good grief.” While not as blatant as Lucy, we often find people taking Scripture out of context to justify their own meaning.
Luke 11:9-10 may be the most misinterpreted verse, especially by those who preach a “prosperity gospel” version of Christianity. At first glance, “ask and it will be given” sounds like God runs an Amazon wish fulfillment center in Heaven. Mercedes, check…winning lottery ticket, check…40-foot boat, check! By ignoring the verse’s context, people miss its meaning. Jesus’s reassurance of answered prayers follows the prayer model given to His disciples in what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The requests in this perfect prayer are that God’s name be kept holy, His Kingdom will soon come, for the day’s food, for forgiveness, and not yielding to temptation. Jesus didn’t ask for a new robe, a purse full of money, or a chariot to transport him on His travels! He asked for what was needed to serve God. Following His prayer, Jesus told a parable about a persistent man who boldly begged his neighbor for bread because he had a visitor and no food for him to give him. Jewish culture demanded that hospitality be offered to travelers and the entire village’s reputation was a stake if kindness was not extended. The man didn’t ask for a jug of vintage wine or a newly slaughtered lamb. He asked for the bare minimum: 3 loaves (each about the size of a pita) for a hungry guest so he could abide by the law of hospitality. Looking at Luke 11:9 in context makes it clear that Jesus’s words were not an invitation to “name it and claim it” from God’s vending machine. We wouldn’t open a novel and read a few random sentences and think we know what the story is saying but, like Lucy, we tend to do that with Scripture.
As it turns out, having forgotten about forgiveness, Linus was no better a theologian than his sister. Had Lucy read that Bible more carefully, she could have made an excellent argument for receiving a gift (and even used a verse that included the word “sister”). Linus’ refusal to give Lucy a Christmas present was because she punched him in the face several days earlier. After putting the verse in context, Lucy should have quoted Matthew 18:34-35. When Peter asked if he should forgive someone up to seven times, Jesus replied seventy times seven times and told the parable of the unmerciful servant. After the king forgave his servant’s enormous debt, the man refused to forgive a small debt owed to him and threw the debtor in prison. Upon discovering his servant’s lack of mercy, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” [Matthew 18:34-35] Using Scripture properly might have gotten Linus to rethink his position and Lucy her present!
George Bernard Shaw said that, “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.” That should never be true of a Christian. We’re not trying to convince a little brother to give us a Christmas gift; we’re sharing the Gospel message. Let’s make sure we do it right!