What Parent Among You?

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Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened.  Ask and it will be given.  In his teaching presented to us in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus promises God will respond to the searching of the person who persists and will not remain distant.  He does not say that finding God will be quick or easy, nor does he suggest that entering into the life God desires to give will be a simple or painless matter for the seeker, but he does promise it will not be futile.

Then he adds a parable which I understand to use the same type of argument from lesser to greater I explained in my previous post about the parable of the shepherd who goes out to find the one stray sheep.  This teaching method presents an ordinary human situation which serves as the lesser condition, then invites and challenges faith to make the jump to the greater condition which involves the will and way of God in dealing with human beings.

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!  (Matthew 7:9-11 NRSV)

The lesser premise is that decent parents know how to give good, helpful, life-nourishing things to their children.  Here Jesus suggests absurdities to clarify the situation and gain agreement.  What kind of parent would trick a hungry child by offering a small loaf of bread but then do a bait-and-switch with a stone of similar size and shape?  Would that be funny?  Even crazier would be the idea that some parent might actually think the stone was as good a provision as the bread for satisfying the child’s hunger.  Say what?  Worse yet is the idea of tricking the hungry child by offering a fish but substituting a (live, venomous) snake.  The obvious answer for the listeners to Jesus’ questions is something like, “Are you kidding?  No one would do such things, at least not I nor anyone else I know or would care to know.”  The questions are deliberately weird because they invite unquestioned agreement.  No even minimally good parents treat their children that way.

Don’t be thrown by the phrase, “you who are evil.”  Jesus is not calling them evil people as compared to others; he is contrasting them with God who, as far as Jesus is concerned, is the only one who is good (see Mark 10:17,18).  Again, lesser to greater.

The greater premise is introduced by the phrase, “how much more will your Father in heaven.”  Parents love their children and seek to care for them, provide for their needs, and keep them safe and sound, but human parents make mistakes, get grouchy and sometimes unreasonable, act selfishly, get sick or just exhausted, and so are limited in their ability to be good parents.  How much more, Jesus asks, will God, whose love has no evil (nothing harmful) in it and who does not get sick or drop exhausted into a soft chair, give good things to those who ask?

The logic is plain and simple, but the truth is not.  First of all, Jesus is presenting God, not as the supreme judge whose idea of justice is to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, but as the supremely loving Parent who loves the children no matter what.  Red flag!  The proudly virtuous will immediately ask something like, “So, if God loves ‘the children’ (all of them!) no matter what they do, does that mean all striving to be righteous and faithful is just a grand waste of time?  Are you saying the unworthy can still find God?  Then why bother to keep the commandments or try to be faithful?”  People who believe truth to be judgment leading to reward or punishment have a terribly hard time understanding love.  But the parent metaphor works because loving parents don’t stop loving the son or daughter who hurts them, messes up in life, or even goes horribly wrong.  The parents are not pleased (no kidding!), but they cannot stop loving.  True, we human parents have our limitations even on love, but God is greater.

Jesus is calling for a persistent trust in God’s love and care, but such trust is not clearly justified by the experiences of human life.  For him, God’s redemptive love and faithfulness to it form together the greatest reality of all, even though it remains a hidden truth that cannot be proved.  Jesus will not say to people that if they make a big enough pledge, they’ll be blessed with life’s goodies.  He will not base his confidence upon anything but God’s love itself.  As with parents’ love for their children, there is no question of deserving God’s love; the love itself is the overriding truth.  But what Jesus asks us to accept as true is not easy to believe, except perhaps when life is going very, very well for us and those we love.

One problem we encounter in understanding some of Jesus’ teachings that employ this argument from lesser to greater arises when we stumble over the lesser situation before we even get to the greater one.  What he presents as commonplace and self-evident to his original audience may sound strange to us or, as in this case, to some of us.  The sons and daughters of abusive parents probably will not respond well to the image of God as loving Father.  Those who have lived with neglect, scorn, violence, or sexual abuse in their childhood do not need to hear that God is just like their fathers only more so!  Plus, as the theologian Douglas John Hall notes in his three-volume work, Theology in a North American Context, many people have had more than enough of fathers almighty – at home and at work, in personal, economic, and political life.

So, in this seemingly simple, straightforward teaching of Jesus, we encounter a double problem of disappointed or even betrayed trust in people (parents or other parent-type authority figures) who were supposed to be loving and kind and, also, disappointed trust in God.  The Bible does not shy from these problems.  In Exodus we read that the Hebrew slaves are unable to believe Moses’ promise of freedom brought by the intervention of a God who is adopting them; they cannot believe him because they are too crushed and broken in spirit.  Exodus makes this observation with sympathy not scorn.  Jesus also shows understanding of the difficulty that broken, shamed, and suffering people have with faith in the unseen but supposedly loving God.

Children are supposed to be prepared for trusting the unseen God’s love for them by experiencing their parents’ seen, heard, and felt love for them.  They are supposed to learn what forgiveness, understanding, and compassion are all about – from their parents.  But if all they learn is to survive neglect or abuse, or if all they learn is that they must deserve reward or they will get punishment or “just” disapproval, then trusting the unseen God becomes extremely difficult for them.  To paraphrase the Bible, if they cannot trust the parents and other adults they have seen, how will they trust the God they have not seen?

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