Fish, Scorpions, Eggs, Snakes, Cadillacs

by Michael Usey

Luke 11:1-13, NRSV

Most of the time we think we are self-sufficient. We figure we can handle anything that comes our way. If our lives are not exactly what we have hoped for, then all we need is a little self-improvement. We will get to the good life through yoga, pickleball, soul cycling, podcasts, reading, journaling, dairy-free cooking, or seeing Marvel movies like Thor: Love and Thunder. 

All we need is to be more organized. If we are too busy, then we need to build in quality time with our loved ones. If we are overwrought and overweight, then we need a personal trainer that will help us reduce stress and burn fat. If we are tired, then we need a good night’s sleep, a weekend trip, or a weeklong trip. We keep believing that self-fulfillment is right around the corner. We think we are just a step away from making our lives everything we want them to be. 

But then something happens that lets us know that we are not in control. Someone we love gets sick and we are thrown by how little we can do. A friend dies unexpectedly and we are broken because we cannot do anything. We lose our self-confidence when we fail when we did not expect to fail. What we thought was a run of bad luck seems to have no end. The sadness you feel about an aging parent stays in the back of your mind. Maybe it is when you realize that your marriage is in trouble, or that the children are not who you thought they were, or when you try to put yourself back together after being abused. The problems that will not go away push us to the depths of our souls. 

It is also true that at other times, it is joy that makes us realize that even if it were possible, self-sufficiency would be empty. A child laughs us into a sense of wonder. An elderly woman who refuses to be old makes us smile. A troubled adolescent who finds a better way makes us proud. Or you meet someone else who has never seen an episode of This Is Us, and does not want to, or who agrees with you that Marjorie Taylor Greene should go to prison just for being Marjorie Taylor Greene.  

Something wonderful happens and you realize that you need someone to thank. Those surprising moments push us away from our mistaken sense of self-sufficiency and throw us into the great Mystery. We are suddenly aware of the Spirit within which we live and move and have our being. We may laugh or cry or hope the longing goes away. We are wondering if God is present even as we wonder at God’s presence. We long for God. We recognize that we are not in control and not alone. What are we supposed to do with our hunger for God, our longing to be loved? What exactly is our place in the world? We could of course talk to God.  How best to do that?

I know what prayer should not be. As Anne Lamott said this week, “Many of us who believe in a reality beyond the visible realms, who believe in a soul that survives death, and who are hoping for seats in heaven near the dessert table, also recoil from the image of a high school football coach praying at the 50-yard line. It offends me to see sanctimonious public prayer in any circumstance — but a coach holding his players hostage while an audience watches his piety makes my skin crawl.”

In Luke 11, this morning’s passage, Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In response, Jesus teaches them what we know today as the Lord’s Prayer, which serves as an example of how we are to pray.  This one disciple articulates what we all know privately within ourselves; we are an ambiguous construction of earth and spirit.  We are as grounded as the adamah (the red clay) out of which we are drawn and we are as free as the nephesh (the wind) that fills our lungs.  We are grounded spirits, the middle point of creation, as Plato describes us.  This ambiguity is our felt anxiety over how we should then live.  There seems to be no inner gyroscope to provide balance and orientation in our human life. 

Animals have long astounded us with their ability to find their way. This week Ann and Hannah saw the documentary My Octopus Teacher, and they continue to be amazed at these confusing and remarkable octopi, who can adapt to almost anywhere in the ocean.  But for humanity there is a strange void, as though we are observers who look out on the world with a question mark as to our place in it.  We lack the assuredness of a place; as one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy, notes, we are “lost in the cosmos,” a phrase I love and use often. Inevitably, our eyes turn outward in the hope that someone we see has something we do not.  Hasn’t the whole advertising industry been built on this ambiguity, this moment when we are poised in “reconsideration?”  This unnamed disciple asks Jesus, “Is there a model we can follow?”  

We hope to find in others what we need to know and sustain ourselves.  This disciple was no different than any one of us at any given point in time.  This unnamed disciple speaks of the human condition with a simple question:

  • We imagine who we are with reference to others;
  • We imagine how we should live by the judgment of others; and
  • We develop our self identity by our reflection in the eyes of others.

Jesus navigates the disciples’ dilemma. The ancient principles of navigation serve as points for understanding this condensed model prayer.  Explorers in a new region must find their way.  As others follow, they make a path and set up signposts.  In staccato fashion, Jesus identifies a model prayer to establish coordinates that navigate life for this and successive disciples: 

The address “Father” is a statement of affirmation, of relationship, and a web of belongingness.  It could have just as well been Mother. This familial term presupposes a deep connection.  

“Your Kingdom come” is a statement of orientation, priority and anticipation.  We move through the world of becoming, the ever-changing world of sensory perception, guided by a way, a path.  For some, this path is never a matter considered; a path simply happens.  For others, this path is created out of the randomness of existence–a way domesticated by human invention; and for still others this is a path discovered among the traditions of our ancestors and consciously chosen. 

Jesus relativizes all these competing paths with this statement of intention and commitment: “Your Kingdom come.”  The world has followed the paths of many lords. From kings and prime-ministers, presidents and chiefs, to datu, czar, and warrior, the titles of these lords have marked our history, all of whom have claimed to be a lord in each generation they lived.  Yet, for all of these lords, time itself became their master.  Jesus calls his disciples to a lord that never resorts to the sword to muster loyalty.  Jesus never demands that you follow this lord; he invites you to come.  Jesus never imprisons you for non-compliance; he calls forth forgiveness so that we might be healed. 

Forgive us as we forgive” is the statement of character and action.  In a radical reconstruction of human life, Jesus reveals that our fear of cosmic judgment is replaced by God’s compassionate eye of forgiveness.  This has revolutionary significance for us in a world which at times seems poised on the brink of apocalypse less by natural disaster than at the hand of human fear, violence, and avarice. 

“Give us each day our daily bread…. and lead us not into the time of trial” are both statements of sufficiency.  They imply low environmental impact, and defined limits.  For a species that finds no internal sense of satisfaction, these petitions are crucial boundary markers for our living.  As the Russian Christian and novelist Leo Tolstoy puts it:

Seek among men, from beggar to millionaire, one who is contented with his lot, and you will not find one such in a thousand.  Each one spends his strength in pursuit of what is exacted by the doctrine of the world, and of what he is unhappy not to possess, and scarcely has he obtained one object of his desires when he strives for another, and still another, in that infinite labor of desire which destroys the lives of men.  He who makes 300 rubles would rather have 400; he who makes 4000 rubles would rather have 5000; and he who makes 1 million rubles would climb after 2 million, and so on to the top of the ladder.  And so goes the life of men; they sacrifice their lives for this same God–Greed, & then they die, without realizing for what they have lived!

Perfect words for where we are now in America.  Scientists estimate that the current rate of human consumption and destructive activity will lead to the loss of half the species of plants and animals on Earth by the end of the century.  Life on this planet can stand no more plundering.

Jesus does not conclude his teaching with this model prayer; instead, he returns to the opening theme. Jesus  realizes that the question of our place in the world is still in the deep seated dislocation of the disciple’s soul, so he returns to it. “Which of your fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”  The great divide within our soul is almost crippling.  There is a world within our heads where origin, purpose, destiny and love all make sense, that world expects “fish and egg”–and there is an equally real world beyond our human life that shows little sign of caring, planning, love or joy; that world fears “snake and scorpion.”  We live in the tension of a meaningful and meaningless existence. [repeat]

This is week 5 of our summer series, I can do all things through a verse taken out of context, and this morning, we’re scoping out ask, seek and knock. Ask many theologians what the number one most misused verse in the Bible is, and you’ll likely hear “Luke 11:9, Ask, seek, knock,” followed by a long sigh. This verse is often used by too many people, but particularly by televangelists, as the source of “name it and claim it” Christianity, which treats this verse as an absolute. “Want that new Cadillac? Claim it in the name of God, and you’ll get the Caddy! Want that winning lottery ticket? Claim it! Just knock, and you’ll be richer than your sinful neighbor!” This kind of thinking, while conducive to filling pews and reaping large tithes, is not scriptural. Luke 11:9 (Ask and it shall be given to you) has little to do with guaranteeing our personal fulfillment. And it’s used in more subtle ways by Joel Osteen types, who emphasize that God wants us always to be happy and deeply personally fulfilled. 

Once again, the context is the key to understanding. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer—the example of how to pray—do we see Jesus claiming a new donkey and cart, or piles of gold. It is a humble supplication, asking God to help us live the way God wishes us to live, and to provide for us as we need to be provided for in order to do this. This is God’s promise. This is what God guarantees us, our place in life. Not self-sufficiency, but dependence on God.

In English when we read these verses we stress the words “receives, finds, opens”; however, the emphasis in Greek is different. To understand their meaning in English, we have to flip them around: “To receive something, ask! To find something, seek! To get the door open, knock! For everyone who receives has been asking; those who find have been seeking; and those for whom the door is opened have been knocking.”  

The three verbs – “will receive… will find…will open” – are confusing because in English, “will” implies that they are promises. But in the Greek text the conditions (whether or not you ask, seek and knock) do not convey certainty. Older translations, such as the King James, get this meaning right because they used the English subjunctive mood, “shall find, shall receive, shall be opened.” However, it’s difficult for us to understand this distinction today because American English rarely uses subjunctives and most English speakers don’t understand them. Also, our post-modern translations are reluctant to change the King James, especially for well-known passages like this, and so the emphasis has not been corrected.

The actual images that Jesus chose are also interesting. He could have said: “Pay, and you’ll own it”, or “Look, and you’ll see it”, or “Push, and the gate will open.” But these verbs imply that the outcome is more of a certainty – they will definitely happen. They also lack the sense of a request – which is, of course, the point of prayer. Prayer lacks the certainty of direct action, because it depends on a request to God. In Christianity, prayer is not a direct action, as in the teaching of ‘Name it and claim it’ preachers. Prayer is simply talking to and listening to the divine.  The words Jesus chose to use (ask, seek, knock) imply actions that don’t always succeed: people don’t always give you what you ask for; you don’t always find what you look for, and some doors remain shut however much you knock.  

Jesus told his disciples, “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened…” after giving them the example of what to ask for, what to seek for, and what to knock for—things like the forgiveness of sin, the coming of God’s kingdom, and the basic sustenance—our simple daily bread—needed to allow us to serve God. We would-be disciples are invited to become co-creators with Jesus in the arrival of God’s kingdom, and in the process we can discover our place in the cosmos. Ask, seek and knock for these things, and they shall be given to you. Ask for a Cadillac, and receive only the collective sighs and face-palms of a thousand theologians.