Prayer: the best gift

“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Luke 11:11-13 NLT

In the first half of Luke chapter 11 Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. First, in the Lord’s prayer, he instructs them in what they should pray about. Then, in a story about getting food from an uncooperative neighbour, he teaches them howthey should pray, with persistence. Now, in the paragraph above, the focus changes from the disciples to the Father, he speaks of the one his disciples are praying to. The message is simple. God does not deceive us. He will not respond to our requests by giving us something that will cause us harm, like a snake or a scorpion. God will give good things to his children when they ask.

Or more specifically, Jesus said that the Father will give us the Holy Spirit when we ask. Which is interesting because up until this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus hadn’t talked a whole lot about the Holy Spirit, and certainly the concept of the Holy Spirit was not one that was familiar to his disciples in the way it is familiar to us. The idea of “receiving the Holy Spirit” was not introduced by Jesus until somewhat later, just before his death, and not really experienced in its fullness until the day of Pentecost, after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. The concepts of “fruit of the Spirit” and “gifts of the Spirit” were not really developed until the apostle Paul wrote about them years after Jesus had ascended into heaven.

Mind you, I’m sure the disciples had some concept of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is mentioned from time to time in the Old Testament, so it was a familiar idea. I think of David’s cry to God when he realised the enormity of his sin in taking Bathsheba as his wife (which required the effective murder of her husband). “Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me,” he cries out in Psalm 51, showing that he had some notion that the Spirit of God was with him or in him. He feared (justifiably perhaps) that God would punish him by withdrawing his Spirit, which in David’s mind meant withdrawing his favour, which David saw as the source of his personal joy and success in life.

However, the idea of asking for the Holy Spirit and receiving it would have been foreign to the disciples. Yet here is Jesus speaking of just that. The context is one of understanding that God wants good things for his children, just as an earthly father wants good things for his. The good thing, in this case, is not a fish or an egg (as good as they might be in certain situations!), but the Holy Spirit. Was Jesus saying that he would not give a fish or an egg to those who ask, but rather the Holy Spirit? I don’t think that was Jesus’ intention here. The bit about the fish and the egg was simply to say that God is not a cruel trickster, but rather a loving Father. That is the nature of God. He sees what we need and he gives it to us.

But Jesus also seems to be saying that the Holy Spirit is the best thing the Father could possibly give to us, and that if we ask for the Spirit, we will receive it. Which is an interesting conclusion to Jesus’ teaching on prayer. He has taught us what we should pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. He has taught us how we should pray, in the story about waking a neighbour with a request for bread, with persistence, never giving up.

He finishes by saying that one thing that we should ask for perhaps more than anything else, is the Holy Spirit. That is the greatest treasure, the source of godly success and prosperity, the source of wisdom and strength. King David knew it, as did all the great men and women of faith down through the ages. According to Jesus’ teaching here, it is ours for the asking.

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