Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Seeking God’s Goodness

If you then, being wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give His Holy Spirit to those who ask.

Luke 11:13

We know God because He has told us who He is. He did not do so in the beginning. When at Mount Horeb He spoke to Moses from the bush that burned but was not consumed, commissioning him to lead Israel out of Egypt, Moses asked, “Who shall I say has sent me?” And God did not reply with a name, with Baal or Isis or Toth or any name, but with the Hebrew “I am who I am,” which would be represented by the four Hebrew letters, the tetragrammaton, now pronounced Yahweh. Tell them “I AM” sent you. The God of Israel, and hence the God of the Church, has neither a proper name nor is He rightly described by any adjective but He is who He is, ipsum esse subsistens as the medievals will say, self-subsistent being, Being Himself.

God’s self-revelation to Moses would then be hedged about by the first commandment which forbade the worship of the one who had spoken to Moses under the form of any creature, the terrible image of Moloch of the Carthaginians, the Deyus of the Mycenaeans, Toth of the Egyptians or any of the other gods of the tribes among which the descendants of Jacob moved. This refusal of God to allow Himself to be given a name other that “I am” is the cornerstone of reality and at the same time the warrant for one of the two ways in which we can know Him, the via negativa, the way of negation which insists that even when we call God good, we must know that He is good in a sense so far beyond human comprehension that He is not good in any sense that we can muster. In the words of opening chapter the great Dionysius’ Divine Names, which Thomas quotes, “Sense cannot attain to Him, nor imagination, nor opinion, nor reasoning, nor knowledge.” The intellect, because it is created, can only know things that are created. As Thomas says in his great book, “God, however, is not there.” (1a, 12, 1, 3); “He is beyond what is there.” (1a, 12, 1, 3)

If the via negativa were not the cornerstone of our attempts to know God, if that attempt did not begin in the admission of our profound and inexpungible ignorance, an ignorance not due to inattention or sloth but to the fact that the distance between God and His creatures is not bridged by any necessary commonality, it would follow that the rag-tag band of eighteenth-and-nineteenth century critics had a point when they argue that our image of God was the image of man writ large, projected on the heavens by human imagination. This the via negativa puts out of court. But it belongs to the superabundantly generous mystery of Christian truth that, once the fact that we cannot know God, we cannot name him, we cannot build a tower to heaven that will enable us to know him, once all this is established the rest of the Bible is the account of God’s self-revelation through His actions, through His prophets, and finally through His Son, who is indeed “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), so that Jesus can say to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And this is the perfection of our other way to knowledge of God, the via affirmativa. We cannot name Him but He can tell us who He is. We know who He is because He leads us out of slavery, because He has given Himself for us, because He had led us into His marvelous light.

The Gospel for this day is about God’s response to our asking, finally about our desire to know Him, and in it Our Lord gives examples that interweave the necessity for persistence with the generosity of God that goes out to meet our seeking. There is the man who suddenly needs provisions for an unexpected visitor, who importunes his neighbor for three loaves after that neighbor is in bed. If that neighbor will not respond out of friendship, he will surely do so because of persistence (Luke 11:5–8).

Ask and you will receive. Knock and the door will be opened. Seek and you will find. And this persistence will be met by the goodness of God. It is touching that this text uses as a justification for His assurance that if one knocks God will answer, a fine, if seemingly commonplace, example of the via affirmativa, the affirmative way, that from the Psalmist’s declaration that the heavens declare the glory of God to Thomas’s encounter in which he recognizes Jesus as “my Lord and My God” (John 20:28) assures us that our experience of His world, evil-stained though it be, does tell us something about God. Just as surely as the via negativa reminds us that if we would know we must not name but listen, the way of affirmation may find God in things human. In this text Jesus cites the common experience of fatherhood as grounds for belief that God answers when we call and reveals himself when we seek, allowing the image of God’s love to be illustrated by the experience of even the most ordinary father, who, being wicked, is able to give good gifts to his children. He made us in His image. If human fathers would surely not give a scorpion when a son asks for an egg or a serpent when he ask for a fish, how much more can we be certain our Father in heaven gives good gifts to those who persistently do ask. And the argument of these verses that God gives to those who persistently ask is crowned by the prophecy that He will give the greatest gift, the gift of participation in His own life, the gift of the Holy Spirit, without measure to those who ask. This is a promise, it is a promise of God, and it is the greatest promise, to be compared only with His promise that He will return in Glory. It is the gift for which Christ died and rose again. It can guide the human heart, gentle the world, and form souls for eternal life with the Author of Life.

The text Luke 11:1–13 opens with the disciples’ request, “Teach us to pray as John taught his disciples to pray.” We can presuppose that John had taught his disciples in much the same way that Jesus required in the sixth chapter of Matthew: quietly, not with the empty repetitions of the Gentiles, and with the same expectation that God hears and answers. This text adds to the form of rightly ordered prayer the necessity for persistence. And there is this terrible axiom: we will receive what we ask for. Our high capacities to know and love were given so that along the way we could know others, nature, art, and even ourselves, but finally and summarily so that we could know God and His Son Jesus Christ, apart from which all other knowledge will turn to dust. If we do not ask for God, if we pray for nothing, perhaps that is what we will receive, nothing in all its frightening implications. But if we ask for good things and most of all for life with God, that too is what we will receive. Thomas More on the scaffold is said to have told the executioner to do his work quickly; “You send me to God.” The cleric attending said, “Are you so sure, Sir Thomas?” to which More replied: “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to come to Him.”

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