Ask, Seek, Knock: Fifth Sunday in Epiphany

Matthew 7:7-11; 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2

Scholars have suggested that after Jesus’ death, his disciples and followers developed two streams of thought or action.  One was to memorize and memorialize Jesus’ sayings, and apply his teachings to a particular way of life.  Another was to memorialize and give meaning to Jesus’ death.  We might call the first the Kingdom movements, represented by the Q and Thomas communities who collected and preserved the sayings and stories about Jesus.  The second we might call the way of the cross, represented by the Apostle Paul and the leaders in Jerusalem such as James and Peter.  Eventually, the two streams were brought together by the Gospel writers.  It is possible that the gospel writers had access to Paul’s thought, if not his actual letters.  The opposite, however, is impossible to determine.  Paul never quotes Jesus in his letters to the communities he founded.  He is not concerned with Jesus’ teachings.  He is consumed with the transformation in human life that is the result of God’s radical action in accepting the crucified man Jesus as his anointed representative.

Jesus speaks of complete confidence in the covenant with God’s commonwealth.  Paul says that the Corinthians should not let the gift of God’s favor go to waste.  The time is now, the day of deliverance from the corrupting influence of conventional life has arrived.

Jesus probably said at some point,

Ask – it’ll be given to you; seek – you’ll find; knock – it’ll be opened for you.  Rest assured: everyone who asks receives; everyone who seeks finds; and for the one who knocks it is opened.  Who among you would hand a son a stone when it’s bread he’s asking for?  Again, who would hand him a snake when it’s fish he’s asking for?  Of course no one would!  So if you, shiftless as you are, know how to give your children good gifts, isn’t it much more likely that your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him?

The Elves do not use Matthew’s presentation of this three-fold admonition.  They prefer Luke’s setting, which is part of Luke’s treatise on how God answers the prayers of the righteous (Luke 11:1-13).  But Matthew puts this quotation in the context of the Sermon on the Mount.  The poor and oppressed are given a feast; don’t worry about what you will eat or wear; ask and it will be given to you.  The message from Matthew’s Jesus is, trust God, open your eyes and ears, and live in God’s realm, not Cesar’s.

Paul’s letters assume a profound reordering of reality – the Kingdom has arrived with Jesus’ death.  The poor and disenfranchised now hold the real power because God has raised a crucified criminal to be equal with God.  The Scholars Version puts it this way:

From now on, therefore, we don’t look at anyone from a worldly point of view [i.e., from the old paradigm of imperial power-over].  Even though we thought of God’s Anointed in that way, we think of him that way no longer.  Consequently, for anyone in solidarity with God’s Anointed, it is as if there is a new world order.  The old order is gone, look – the new order has arrived!  All of this comes from God who changes our relationship with the divine through the Anointed and has made us agents of this change. 2 Corinthians 5:16-18 [Emphasis mine].

Jesus said, ask, seek, knock, and all will be provided to you, just as it is to the non-human world which does not need to ask, seek, or knock.  God’s realm, the divine commonwealth, belongs to the poor, not the rich; the ones in grief will be consoled; those who hunger and thirst for justice will have a feast.  Mark’s Jesus said that the realm/kingdom of God has arrived.  Paul says, those who accept Jesus as the Anointed representative of God’s justice are the ones who will manifest this change on the planet.  He goes on:

On behalf of God’s Anointed we implore you: Accept the new terms of our relationship with God: It’s as if God took him, a coin in mint condition, and treated him as if he were a coin that had lost its value for our benefit so that through him we might be recast into the coinage of God’s integrity.

“The coinage of God’s integrity” is a powerful image, both from the point of view of Paul’s Roman context, and from the point of view of the 21st century.  The metaphor here is of minting new coinage to indicate a change in imperial rule.  As the scholars explain in a footnote, “The root metaphor may well be that of reminting new coins from old.  This would nicely tie in the notion of a new cosmic order.  Not restoration, but a revolution” (p. 129, emphasis mine).  In 1st century Rome, to mint a new coin or to strike a new medallion reinstated the power and honor of Rome.  But Paul is saying that God’s action overthrows the power and honor of Rome and replaces its corruption with the integrity – the honesty, and trustworthiness – of God’s covenantal rule.

The meaning for 21st century skeptics who stumble over the “God language” is challenging to put into words.  Science suggests that the known Universe operates and is governed by particular rules of order.  There is an integrity, a wholeness, even a trustworthy predictability about everything, from quantum physics to basic biology; from the rhythm of ocean tides to the flow of the jet stream.  The basic thrust of the natural order is toward balance, wholeness, even distributive justice: Gravity continues to hold us firmly to the ground, no matter who we are or what we have done.  The weather is quite predictable, whether we believe in global climate change or not.  The rain continues to fall on the just and the unjust.  That integrity gets compromised by the actions (both deliberate and accidental) of humanity; and that compromised integrity finds its human expression in imperial systems.

Matthew’s Jesus (and Mark’s) brought a message of liberation to the poor and disenfranchised, and to the oppressed merchant classes of Roman-occupied Palestine.  Live as though you are part of the natural world that doesn’t have to toil and spin, plant and harvest.  Ask, seek, and knock expecting to find what you need for your life, not from deals made with unjust systems, but from a radical trust in the way the Universe works.  Whenever anyone commits to the great work of distributive justice-compassion, that one becomes the “coinage of God’s integrity.”  It’s not about political or economic power – in fact, the opposite is true. Paul says,

As co-workers of God we implore you not to let the gift of God’s favor go to waste.  As scripture says, “At the right time I heard you; on a day of deliverance I came to your aid.”  Look!  The right time is now; see, today is the day of deliverance!

What is hard for most of us to get our minds around is that this revolution is a non-violent revolution, a turning around (as the word implies) from the normal assumptions of what constitutes a successful and sustainable society.  This revolution began with the execution of a criminal; it continues with the empowerment of the disenfranchised poor; Paul’s hope (and the hope of those who understand) is that the revolution ends when the last hold-out for the normalcy of civilization’s violent, hierarchical systems agrees to participate.

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