All You Have to Do Is Ask: Reflections on Luke 11:1-13
July 28, 2013
"Daddy, can I have a piece of fish? "
"No, have this plate of snakes."
"Mommy, can I have an egg for breakfast?"
"No, eat this bowl of scorpions."
The comparisons Jesus makes in Luke 11:11-12 are ridiculous. No one is going to give their child a snake or a scorpion for breakfast. A parent, even an imperfect one (which we all are), is going to give the child the wholesome food the child needs.
The analogy here is between imperfect human parents and a perfectly loving God. It is a "how much more" argument. If an imperfect parent gives the wholesome gifts a child asks for (rather than something harmful to the child) how much more God...
But Jesus is also saying you need to ask. And keep asking. Ask for what you need. The assurance in Luke 11:9-10 is that if you ask, you will receive. That's not a blanket promise for any self-serving request a human being might have in mind. The British essayist and humorist Oscar Wilde once said, "When the gods wish to punish us, they simply answer our prayers." The particular request that will never be denied is for the Holy Spirit (Lk. 11:13). When you ask for the Holy Spirit, it will be granted to you. This is the "one thing" Jesus tells Martha she needs to focus on instead of the multiplicity of distracting tasks in the story that immediately precedes this passage (Lk. 10:42).
Have you ever realized, too late, that help was available, if only you had known? If only I had known that the breakfast buffet was included in the cost of the room, I wouldn't have gone next door and bought an overpriced cup of coffee and a muffin. If students only knew that four counseling sessions per semester are available to them for free, they wouldn't struggle through their college stress without a valuable source of emotional support and guidance. If only I had known that there was a ski patrol to help injured skiers, I wouldn't have skied down the remainder of the mountain with a broken leg. This information is available, but apparently we have to be paying attention. We've got to read the fine print, the brochure or the sign. Luke 11:13 is the notification of availability of the Holy Spirit to those who ask.
Luke 11:13 is by no means the first time we've heard about the Spirit in Scripture. It would take a separate tome to cover all the references to the Spirit in the Old Testament. A few references will indicate its importance in God's creating and guiding presence as depicted in the Old Testament: Genesis 1:2; Job 32:8, 33:4; Isaiah 63:10-14; Nehemiah 9:20, 30; Haggai 2:4-5; Psalms 51:11, 104:30, 106:32-33, 139:7, 143:10.
Luke tells us that John the Baptist, even before his birth, will be "filled with the Holy Spirit" (1:15).
The angel Gabriel tells Mary that "the Holy Spirit will come upon you..." (Lk. 1:35).
John the Baptist (Lk. 3:16) promises that Jesus will "baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in bodily form like a dove (Lk. 3:22) at his baptism.
Jesus' public ministry is powered by the Holy Spirit. "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country" (Lk. 4:14).
Jesus, having read from the book of the prophet Isaiah 61:1f ("The Spirit of the Lord is upon me") tells the congregation, "This day this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk. 4:21-22).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.