God is Not a Genie
Today’s Gospel reading offers us a lot to consider as we move onward in this season of Lent, a time of reflection and evaluation. Like Jesus in last Sunday’s reading, who was “driven out” (ekballein in Greek, the same word that is used when talking about ‘driving out demons’) into the desert, we are “driven out” into a place of discomfort and solitude through penance and prayer. It is a spiritual location that is not so much a physical place, like the deserts of Arizona or Egypt, but an internal location. St. Ambrose of Milan describes this place as the “inner room” about which Jesus speaks when instructing his disciples to pray: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt 6:6). It is a place always with us, but do we enter it? And, in a season like Lent, when we enter it — either by desire or because we have been “driven there” by the Spirit — what do we do?
This morning’s Gospel, also taken from the Good News according to Matthew, is a passage frequently misunderstood (or, better put, frequently misused). It has been interpreted by some to suggest that God is like a genie, a magical and all-powerful being that can grant us the wishes for which we ask, that can give us whatever it is we desire. But this is not the point.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“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; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this opening part of the Gospel might lead to the “God-as-genie” interpretation. But it cannot be divorced for the following two parts:
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him.
“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”
The emphasis is not placed on our asking, as such, but shifts to what it is that God does for us and how God, here presented as an analog to a good parent, knows what’s best for us.
It is actually a reminder that, to quote the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes well you might find / You get what you need.”
What we need is provided for us by our loving God, yet it is we, you and I, that get in the way of that. We mistake what we need for what we inordinately desire, we mistake ourselves for the center of reality and seek to take care of ourselves first. The interpretive key to this whole Gospel passage comes in the so-called “Golden Rule” invocation at the end: treat others as you want to be treated, care for others as you would care for yourself, look out for one another as God looks out for you!
God doesn’t give stones when God’s daughters and sons, you and I, need bread. But we human beings — we who are tempted to often to be “wicked,” as Jesus puts it — we are the ones who interfere with the generosity of God. We are the ones who must align our wills and wants and desires with the vision of the Kingdom that God reveals to us in Christ.
During this time of Lenten reflection, may we be open to the Spirit’s “driving force,” which pushes us into a place of discomfort in order to see the truth of God’s generosity and our call to be agents of the Gospel in this world. May we enter that “inner room” of our hearts to hear this Word and, as we might have heard on Ash Wednesday, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”