Everyone who asks receives

Anthony Zimmerman
Reproduced with Permission

"Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 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! "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matt 7:7-12).

Bread, the kind baked in Palestine, can look a bit like a white stone, but it would be most untypical of any parent to give a stone to a hungry child when it asks for bread. Some fish look a bit like a snake, but parents who naturally love their children would not play games with them by giving them a snake instead of a fish. The people sitting in the grass on the mountain side who heard these words from Jesus could agree fully. And so Jesus makes them aware that God is not a distant Someone in the sky who does not listen when we pray; God is not a Deus otiosus - One who doesn't want to be bothered. Quite to the contrary, just as good parents are ever sensitive to their children's needs, so God hovers over us, completely aware of us, of what we need, of what we ask for.

God does not want us to feel that we must strive all by ourselves, for He wants to help us, said Saint John Chrysostom in his Sermon 23 on Saint Matthew: "Thus, we are not ourselves, saith He, to strive alone, but also to invoke the help from above: and it will surely come and be present with us, and will aid us in our struggles, and make all easy. Therefore He both commanded us to ask, and pledged Himself to the giving" (Logos CD, Early Fathers of the Church).

How much should we depend upon God to guide and help us, and how much should we do by our own inventiveness and eagerness to work? We must do both, not just one or just the other. For example, if you need to find the house of a friend when it is pitch dark at night, it is not reasonable to look up to heaven and allow our feet to walk where they will. Rather breathe a prayer to God and then use a flash light. Chrysostom sums it up like this: "We ought neither to feel confidence in prayer, while neglecting our own doings; nor, when taking pains, trust only to our own endeavors; but both to seek after the help from above, and contribute withal our own part; He sets forth the one in connection with the other."

When Jesus said "seek" He meant we should ask with earnestness and assiduity, like the woman looking for her lost coin: "Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?" (Luke 15:8). When asking, we put other things out of mind, we ignore people around us, and make our quest the sole object of our attention. With people things are different in this respect than with God. People get tired or our asking, get bored, even irritated. But with God it is the opposite, says Chrysostom. God gets provoked if we don't ask enough. "If thou doest not so, then thou dost more entirely provoke Him." Jesus told us to ask, so it is God's good pleasure that we ask, that we ask often, that we ask continuously. And do not forget to thank Him for the favors received.

And why did Jesus say "knock" asks Chrysostom. To which he answers: "To this end He said, "knock," to signify that even if He should not straightway open the door, we are to continue there." Just stay at the door and keep knocking.

And if thou continue asking, though thou receive not at once, thou surely wilt receive. For to this end was the door shut, that He may induce thee to knock: to this end He doth not straightway assent, that thou mayest ask. Continue then to do these things, and thou wilt surely receive.

But what if we still do not receive? Then you may be asking for what God does find it good to grant, or you ask for what He sees is not good for you. Which reminds me of the time when a woman offered me a Mass stipend with this intention: that the wife of the man she loves might die soon so that she can then marry him. I refused her request, of course. God does not want us to ask for what He does not approve, or for what is not to our good. Chrysostom says that "we must not only ask, but ask what we ought." Then ask with insistence: "Do not withdraw until thou receive; until thou have found, retire not; relax not thy diligence, until the door be opened."

There may be a another reason for not receiving. God may want to bargain with us. He may want us to go and make peace with our neighbor. "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go first to be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (Matt 5:23-24). Then let us do what He asks, to clear away the obstacles that may be blocking our prayers. "In no case is it owing to God that we receive not," said Chrysostom, because "God who loves us so much as to surpass even fathers, to surpass them as far as goodness doth this evil nature."

Experience teaches us also that when God does not seem to hear our earnest prayers for this or that gift, the prayer is not in vain. We become all the more familiar with God's ways through our converse with Him, we become wiser about our own true needs, and the prayers we directed into one direction, God re-directs into other good ways to help us.

While Jesus is discoursing in this manner, He appeals to our common sense to believe that God is at least as kind to us as a father is to his children. He cannot yet use the ultimate proof of God's goodness, because He has not yet met His passion and death: "He that spared not His own Son, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things" (Rom 8:32). In the Sermon on the Mount He cannot point to His own coming passion and death as proof of God's love for us, because His hour had not yet come.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets

The English translation here misses a word that is in the original Greek and is significant. The word is "therefore": Therefore in everything do to others." Chrysostom notes that Jesus did not add the word without a purpose: "If ye desire," saith He, "to be heard, together with what I have said, do these things also." So if we desire that God hear our prayers, then we will gain a good hearing if we therefore do to others what we would have them do to us. Being kind to others disposes God to be kind to us. The saint adds: "What is less burdensome than this? What fairer?"

And how can we know what others want us to do towards them? Chrysostom responds that we all know that because our nature informs us about that. "Whence it is evident, that virtue is according to our nature; that we all, of ourselves, know our duties; and that it is not possible for us ever to find refuge in ignorance." Tobias had put this into a negative: "And what you hate, do not do to anyone" (Tobias 4:15). Jesus makes it into a positive command of love. He also encourages us to love the neighbor in this positive manner so that God will then hear our prayers with immense love and generosity.

What's lacking in the Sermon on the Mount

The subject of chastity is mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather briefly in the sections about adultery, divorce, and looking at a woman with lust in the eyes. Jesus spoke at a time when pornography was not yet on the Internet and Planned Parenthood was not busy teaching sex ed in schools - how to do it - and then where to go to get the abortion. But Jesus did arrange to be born of the Virgin, and so to give us her inspiring and uplifting example. And He also gave us the example of living a celibate life and modeling it for His apostles, He made up by deeds what He spared in words. Allow me to finish this letter with these words of appreciation about chastity from a book titled Mary and the Fathers of the Church:

Mary, Wondrous Model of the Virginal Life

The birth of the Son of God from a Virgin Mother, as well as her perpetual virginity, greatly exalted the virginal state within the Church and made a chaste life highly attractive to all the faithful, whatever their state in life. In this climate of widespread asceticism, one can understand the easy, confident tone of the final exhortation of Catechesis XII [by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 387)]:

Let us all, by God's grace, run the race of chastity, young men and maidens, old men and children, without abandoning ourselves to lust, but praising the name of Christ. Let us not disregard the glory of chastity, which is the crown of the angels and a superhuman state of life!

Let us respect our bodies, which ought to shine like the sun. Let us not stain the body, which is so beautiful and so great, through brief pleasures. Sin is brief and lasts but a little while; the shame of sin lasts a long time, forever.

Those who profess chastity are angels dwelling on earth. The virgins have their portion with the Virgin Mary. Let us be rid of every sought-for ornament, every dangerous glance, every wanton movement, every scent that leads to lustful pleasure. Instead, let there be in all the sweet smell of prayer, of good works, and of bodily holiness, so that the Virgin's Son may say to us also, chaste men and crowned women: "I will dwell in their midst, and I will walk with them; I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Lev 26:11-12). (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 138.

P.S. A reader of last week's letter, Debi Vinnedge of Cogforlife, asked to learn more about the how Saint Ambrose refused to celebrate Mass with Catholic Emperor Theodosius present, if the latter would not do public penance, and how Theodosius submitted. Here is more information. Actually there was more than one confrontation.

1. Theodosius had ordered the Christians who had destroyed a synagogue after a Jewish provocation, to pay for its rebuilding. Ambrose wrote to him privately protesting that In matters pertaining to religion the Emperor should not act without the advice of the Bishop. He added that he would make the matter a public issue if the Emperor did not withdraw the order. The Emperor ignored the private letter. Then, from the pulpit in the Milan Basilica, with the Emperor attending Mass, Ambrose spoke to Theodosius and rebuked him for what he had done. Theodosius was listening. "As the bishop came down from the pulpit the emperor stood in his way. The bishop insisted. If the emperor would not withdraw his order . . . the bishop would not offer the sacrifice. Theodosius submitted" (Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, Vol. 1, p.218)

2. At a riot in Thessalonica a high public official had been murdered. In response the Emperor ordered his troops to do an organized massacre, killing at random 7000 inhabitants during a three hour pogrom. A public crime had been committed by the Catholic Emperor. Ambrose pondered, then took action:

Ambrose waited, resolved, at the last extreme, to do what hitherto no bishop had dared, to threaten the Roman Emperor with expulsion from the Church. As before he first of all wrote to Theodosius. The emperor was only a man. He has sinned. Sin is not taken away but by tears and penance. Until the emperor acknowledges his wrong-doing and submits to penance, in no church, while he is present, will the holy sacrifice be offered. Once more religion triumphed, and Theodosius, his insignia laid aside, publicly confessed his crime and asked God's pardon (Hughes, 219).

Thus Saint Ambrose followed with actions what he had said in words: "The Emperor is in the Church, not above it."

Application: Catholic legislators today are within the Church, not above it. The Ten Commandments bind all of us, whether within legislative halls or outside of them. The bishops of legislators are Ambrose today, who need to teach this by action as well as well as by word.