The Certainty of the Answer to Prayer

(Universal or Particular?)

by Herb Montgomery

hands folded in prayer

“I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks will it be opened. What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Q 11:9-13)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:7-11: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Luke 11:9-13: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you 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? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Gospel of Thomas 92: Jesus says, “Seek and you will find.”

Gospel of Thomas 94: Jesus says: “The one who seeks will find. The one who knocks, to that one will it be opened.”

There is so much to say in regards to this week’s saying. The passage has been touted by sincere Christians wanting to encourage others to have assurance in relation to their prayers. I believe that interpretation takes this week’s saying out of its context.

Most Q scholars believe that this saying originally appeared right after the section we call the Lord’s prayer. This means that Jesus isn’t trying to bolster up our confidence in prayer or setting us up for disappointment when things don’t work out the way we hoped.

In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus has just called us to pray for debt cancellation, today’s bread, and freedom from testing and trials. So with this week’s saying, Jesus is trying to inspire hope in that prayer. He is pleading with his audience to lean into the risk of being the first to set in motion economic revolution and then trust that it will come back around.

Remember, as we’ve said this year, God’s reign in Q is about trusting enough that God will send people to take care of you when you are in need tomorrow that you choose to be the person God sends to take of someone else today. Jesus’s saying is not on prayer in general. It’s specially in the context of trusting that Jesus’ economic plan will really work so we can let go and share.

If we do trust that if we seek this new world of people taking care of people, we will find it. If we knock on that door, it will open. Asking for today’s bread, we won’t get stones. Asking for fish, we won’t get snakes. And if we know how to take care of our kids, how much more will we, too, as we reach out to each other, also be taken care of.

Jesus shared this saying in the context of our fear or anxiety about following Jesus in mutual aid, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, and praying for our and others’ debts to be cancelled.

Gospel of Thomas

That this saying ever made it out of its original Judean context to the more Platonic context in the region around Edesse, where modern scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas originated, suggests that this is a saying of the historical Jesus and not simply a saying attributed to him after his death. There are a few points of evidence for this.

Matthew’s versus Luke’s Version

Matthew, believed to have been written before Luke, preserves the concrete, economic language in this week’s saying, even though the author of Matthew separated it from the Lord’s prayer by a whole chapter’s* worth of instruction. Luke, on the other hand, keeps this saying in the context of the Lord’s prayer but changes the wording dramatically to petition not for bread, resources, or debt cancellation but for the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a unique element in the books attributed to Luke. In both Luke and Acts, the Holy Spirit plays a much more substantial role than in Mark’s, Matthew’s or John’s gospels. Luke uses this saying about prayer to prepare us for what will later happen in Acts when the Holy Spirit is “given.” We’ve witnessed this kind of change before. In last week’s saying, too, Luke changed the earliest emphasis on debts being cancelled into personal grievances being forgiven. (See The Lord’s Prayer.)

As we said last week, both versions can be true. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are different, however, and these differences should not be glossed over as we study the canonical gospels.

Why Context Matters

I feel very strongly when we remove this saying from its context and make it about generic prayer rather than prayer specifically for economic revolution, then our false expectations set us up for deep disappointments. We might pray for something important to us and place all our hopes in what seems to be a magical promise, only to watch what we pray for not materialize.

A friend of mine recently claimed this passage as he interviewed over for job after job. He “asked, sought, and knocked,” only to be told repeatedly he was not what each company was looking for. After this series of disappointments, he wrote:

“I don’t believe in prayer anymore. I’ve prayed for jobs, specific jobs, and most of the jobs I prayed for, I didn’t get; most of the jobs I ever got, came without praying. Is it easier to believe in a God that plays favoritism or that there’s no God at all? I think it’s much easier to be an atheist or an agnostic.”

His disappointment over his unanswered prayer was only worsened by the false expectations of prayer that he’d been taught. Understanding this saying as a proverb about all prayer was emotionally damaging in a disheartening situation.

So how should we understand this passage?

In light of Jesus’ “year of the Lord’ favor,” the year when all debts should be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:1), imagine you are one in Jesus’ audience who both owes others money and is also owed money by others. You depend on being repaid to repay those you owe, and you have real anxiety about releasing those who owe you and the fear that those you owe will still hold you accountable is real. Jesus encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock. You won’t get a stone, and you won’t get snakes.”

Say you are one who barely has enough for yourself to survive from day to day. Jesus’ words on mutual aid and resource sharing activate your fear that you will go without if you share with others, and your self-preservation impulse is triggered. Jesus again encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock. You won’t get a stone, you won’t get snakes.”

Or imagine you are someone very wealthy in Jesus’ audience. You have taken savvy risks with your money. You have been careful and  overcome bad turns of events. Things may not have always gone your way, but somehow, today, you have come out on top. Jesus asks even you to voluntarily redistribute your wealth to those with great needs around you. Jesus is asking you to let go of your fear of what may happen to you in the future and to prioritize taking care of people today over profit so that you can survive what may come tomorrow. The fear is real, and yet Jesus encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock, you won’t get a stone, you won’t get snakes.”

It is easier to interpret this saying as about all prayer rather than specifically about the prayer Jesus taught. But we must allow the context of this saying to confront us, to inspire us to take specific economic action, and not to give us false hope. When we minimize the economic meaning of this saying, we only set ourselves up for grief when our expectations aren’t met.

Remember, the reign of God is not God simply raining down what we pray for from some place above. God’s reign, for Jesus, is people taking care of people. People who take responsibility for people, balancing the needs of each individual with the needs of the community, the human community, and the global community, and this would today include the care of the earth itself. Trusting in our choices today, specifically our choices to be the ones who take care of each other, we will be setting in motion an awakening where tomorrow there will be those who will also take care of us.

Recently, in an announcement that she would become a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminar in New York City, Michelle Alexander states, “Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.”

It is by understanding this week’s saying in its original context that we might be able to recapture a Jesus who called for an awakening in his own society. Two thousand years ago, he hoped for liberation that included being freed from “fear, greed, and the hunger for power.”

So, in this context, let’s consider the courage we’re called to take hold of in these words:

I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks will it be opened. What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Q 11:9-13)

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, go back to the Lord’s prayer from last week and look at all three sections:

a. Enough Bread for Today (Resource Sharing)

b. Cancelling/Forgiving all Debts

c. Choosing Life rather than Death

  1. Discuss what each of these look like to you personally and as a group when you apply them to your lives today.
  2. How can you help each other practice these three?
  3. Pick one of the ways you come up with to help each other this week, and do it.

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

However you choose to apply the values we are considering this week, do so in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


*Chapter and verse delineation did not exist in the original documents but were added between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Sayings Gospel Q: Workers for the Harvest 

A picture of harvest, and reaping tools, but no laborersWhat do you want the next revolution to look like?

by Herb Montgomery

“He said to his disciples: The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. So ask the Lord of the harvest to dispatch workers into his harvest.” (Q 10:2)

Companion Texts

Luke 10:1-2: “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”

Matthew 9:35-38: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”

Gospel of Thomas 73: “Jesus says: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but there are few workers. But beg the Lord that he may send workers into the harvest.’”

A Ripe Harvest; No Laborers

The image of a plentiful harvest and few laborers to reap it would have spoken volumes to the audience that Jesus’ teachings resonated with. In that audience would have been indentured farmers who now found themselves being little more than indentured slaves. They had used to own land, but now labored hard to survive from day to day on land that now belonged to their wealthy creditors.

It has been said that you can’t force a revolution, and all one can do is be ready and prepared for one.

The Jewish societies of 1st Century Galilee and Judea were brimming, boiling with the spirit of sometimes violent revolution, and things were about to boil over. The poor were becoming more and more exploited. The indentured farmers were becoming more and more enslaved. The laboring class was becoming more and more oppressed by a wealthy aristocracy. And political oppression from the Romans combined with economic oppression from the Jewish aristocracy and temple class was about to reach its limit.

The Jewish Roman war of 66-69 CE is evidence of this. This war didn’t just happen out of thin air. There was a long and slow build up that finally erupted, and the horrific outcome was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jesus’s saying this week is best understood with this historical backdrop. His efforts in Sayings Gospel Q are designed to avert failed revolution and the Roman backlash that was sure to come. Just like Hillel before him, Jesus was endeavoring to present a nonviolent revolution of restorative and transformative justice in the place of the divisive and violent revolution and the spirit of retribution that was growing in popularity at that time.

Revolution was brewing. The harvest was ripe. But finding those who understood the larger picture of what would result and how to avert catastrophe was a challenge. The numbers of those who sought out and taught the kind of revolution Jesus taught were few, according to this week’s saying. This different revolution was centered in voluntary wealth-redistribution, in resource sharing, mutual-aid, nonviolent enemy confrontation and transformation, restitution as a response to past injustices, and the restoration of justice to those presently being oppressed. It was rooted in the wealthy forgiving and cancelling debts, and the poor laboring class taking care of the sick and sharing of food with each other. In short, if embraced, it was a way of ordering society that would have revolutionized Jewish society as well as threatened the Roman way of life to its core.

The societal elements were ripe for this kind of harvest, but the workers, those who would labor a revolution characterized by these elements, were few.

Various Gospels

The fact that this saying survived to be included in the more platonic, introspective Gospel of Thomas is significant. This statement has an urgency even when removed from its Jerusalem context.

The gospel of Matthew, the first we know to have included this saying, situates it in a more sympathetic, compassionate context. Jesus is traversing the countryside, teaching and healing, and, on seeing the crowds, views the people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” More violent “shepherds” would surface in the coming years, and I can’t help but believe that Jesus understood the social dynamics in play and longed to save the “sheep” from being slaughtered.

Luke takes this saying and places a context of Jesus actually appointing and sending out seventy-two promoters, campaigners if you will, that would engage communities ahead of his arrival as he continued to travel and teach. These seventy-two campaigners would have been those who had already bought into the kind of society envisioned in Jesus’ “stump-speeches” later written in Sayings Gospel Q. As we’ve shared in previous weeks, the sayings in Sayings Gospel Q later became Matthew’s sermon on the mount and Luke’s sermon on the plain.

Second American Revolution

In our time, there are those who believe that a second American Revolution is coming. From those like George Orwell to those in more contemporary counter-cultural movements, some point to ever-worsening polls and people’s growing contempt for their governments as signs. The rumblings of our society suggest that a growing number of people are ripening for another American revolution. It’s not so far-fetched.

As with all revolutions, we have choices. We have an opportunity to shape what our revolution will look like. Could our society benefit in any way from a revolution characterized by some of the values and elements that the Jesus of sayings gospel Q offered? Voluntary wealth-redistribution, resource sharing, mutual-aid, nonviolent enemy confrontation and transformation, restitution as a response to past injustices, and the restoration of justice to those presently being oppressed: could this be a revolution we could live with? We could have a revolution where the wealthy choose to forgive or cancel of the debts of poor debtors, and a society where we take care of the sick together and ensure there is enough for everyone. We could have a safer, more compassionate, just world for us all.

This kind of revolution could begin in the hearts of humanity, allowing us to perceive one another and embrace our interconnectedness, our interdependence. It would transform our society. The reality is that it would also threaten our social elite classes. It could not be accomplished simply by replacing one hegemony with another.

John Lennon wrote, “You can say I’m just a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” There have been others, in every generation, especially from the marginalized and subjugated classes, that have envisioned this kind of society and worked to garnish support to experiment with what a society like this could look like.

Even theologians, who too often have benefitted in societies of oppression, are also opening up to a different lens. Christians specifically are waking up to a whole new and more historically accurate way of reading the Jesus story itself.

Gustavo Gutierrez, in the 15th anniversary edition of his A Theology of Liberation, states quite correctly:

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.”

Where might this revolution begin for us, today, right now? Perhaps with a simple choice from each of us. We can embrace a way of life where people take responsibility for taking care of each other as people taking care of people. This seems to me to be the root that, if really perceived and embraced, could threaten the whole domination structure.

Today, a harvest is ripening.

And, unlike in Jesus’s saying, there are many “laborers” teaching values that parallel and sometimes even center the values and ethics found in the sayings of Jesus in Q. Some of these laborers are within Christianity, but quite a few of them are not. It is this universal set of values that we must begin to recognize.

May it not be said of those who long for more holistic changes and have learned to recognize this universal set of values:

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. (Q 10.2)

HeartGroup Application

Often our texts this week are used to refer to evangelistic efforts within a Christian religious context where people labor to win as many converts as possible to one’s own religious beliefs. What does it begin to look like for you to take these texts out of that context and place them back within the revolutionary world of the 1st Century?

    1. What changes? (Make a list)
    2. Share with your HeartGroup which changes you feel are the most profound to you personally. Discuss together the practical difference that paradigm shifts such as these could make.
    3. Individually consider what these changes mean for you. Then, as a group, brainstorm how you can support one another as you each lean more deeply into these changes.

To each of you out there laboring for change, you’re not alone. Keep living out those values, living in love, setting in motion a different tomorrow. In the words of the late Howard Zinn, “What really matters are the countless small deeds of unknown people that lay the basis for the events of human history. These are the people who have made change in the past; they are responsible for making change in the future, too.” (Quoted in Requiem for the American Dream.)

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.