Scorpions for breakfast

John I. Carney
Jul 28 · 14 min read

First UMC Shelbyville

July 28, 2019

Luke 11:1–13 (CEB)

Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:

‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.

Bring in your kingdom.

Give us the bread we need for today.

Forgive us our sins,

for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us.

And don’t lead us into temptation.’”

He also said to them, “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night. Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread because a friend of mine on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ Imagine further that he answers from within the house, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.’ I assure you, even if he wouldn’t get up and help because of his friendship, he will get up and give his friend whatever he needs because of his friend’s brashness. And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.

“Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

In Jesus’ day, it was common for rabbis, meaning teachers, to give their followers a suggested prayer to pray. John the Baptist had given his disciples some sort of prayer, and so had many other neighborhood rabbis. One of the disciples asked Jesus for a suggested prayer, and Jesus’ response is what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer.

The version of the Lord’s Prayer that appears in the sixth chapter of Matthew is a little bit longer than the version we get in today’s lectionary reading, which is from the book of Luke. In many Bibles, the version in Matthew ends with the benediction “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” but that phrase appears to have been added by the early church and it isn’t in the oldest available manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel. If you have a newer Bible translation, it may be left out but mentioned in a footnote, or the translation may have brackets around it, or some other means of indicating that it’s part of our canonical Bibles but doesn’t seem to be original.

In any case, the prayer that Jesus gives his disciples to use is a brief one. It begins with praise — praising the name of God. That’s a good way to begin any prayer, because it reminds us of who we are, and who God is, and puts everything in the right context. And then the prayer asks for God to bring about God’s kingdom. It then asks for daily bread. I’m going to come back to that part of the prayer, the part about the daily bread, because it has to do with the story that Jesus tells after the prayer.

The prayer then asks for forgiveness of sins and also commits the people doing the praying to forgiveness of anyone who’s sinned against them. That’s a hard thing, and it’s one part of the Lord’s Prayer that we often conveniently overlook, because, doggone it, we really don’t want to forgive those people. But we have to, because God tells us to and because really, in the long run, it’s better for our own mental health.

That’s one reason that the prayer juxtaposes our own forgiveness of others with God’s forgiveness of us — to remind us how much in need of forgiveness we are, which helps, maybe, put us in a frame of mind to forgive others.

The last line of the prayer, at least as Luke records it, is another reminder of our own sinfulness, a request that we not be led into temptation. The commentator William Barclay points out that “temptation” here has a broad meaning, one that might be better described as “trials.” God does not try to tempt or trick us into sinning. That is simply not consistent with our understanding of a loving God. God hates sin and hates the idea of you or me sinning. God wants the best for us, an idea we’re going to get back to in just a few minutes.

When we ask God not to lead us into temptation, we’re asking to avoid trials — challenging situations which test, as William Barclay put it, “a person’s humanity and integrity and fidelity.” We will face trying situations, without a doubt, but we are praying that we will not meet anything so trying that we will sin, or lose our better selves. We are praying that God will be with us in those trying situations, giving us the grace to survive them.

Now I want to go back to the part of the prayer that talks about asking for our daily bread. Not wealth or riches or retirement income, but our daily bread. Get us through today safe and sound.

There’s something about us as humans that doesn’t like that. We want not only to be safe and sound today, but we want to be in control of our future status.

When the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, and they were worried about having something to eat, God sent them manna. But the manna came with rules — it had to be gathered every day, and you only gathered enough for that day. On the day before the sabbath, you could gather enough for two days, so that you wouldn’t have to work on the sabbath. If you tried to gather more than a day’s worth, the manna would spoil and become inedible. The way the manna functioned was a powerful lesson, for them and for us, about trusting God day by day.

There’s nothing wrong with planning for the future. God wants us to be good stewards, and to use our resources in a generous manner. But that planning is not meant to replace, or distract from, our day-to-day dependence on God.

I was watching the British Open golf tournament last weekend. I enjoy watching golf on TV — a lot of people find it boring, but I enjoy it, and it’s something I can just have on as background noise while I’m doing something else. I can check in on it whenever I like.

The depressing thing about watching a golf tournament, though, is the commercials. The target demographic for advertising in golf telecasts tends to be somewhat upscale, and you get all of these ads from financial management firms about how to manage your investments so that you can retire to the beach in Hawaii, or travel the world, or start a new business as a second career. I look at those ads and get depressed.

We want to look down the road and be assured that what happens five years from now, or 10 years from now, or 20 years from now look exactly the way we imagine it, and exactly according to the way we and our stockbrokers have planned it. But God offers us no guarantees, and asks for our trust in the here and now.

Many years ago, Sally Field was the guest host on “Saturday Night Live” and they did a skit — sort of unusual subject matter for “Saturday Night Live” — where they had her praying for every little thing — her child’s algebra test, and for the rice not to get sticky, and for her husband not to be late to work.

Finally Jesus, played by the late Phil Hartman, shows up and gently, but somewhat wearily, tells her that maybe she should stop praying so much.

It was a funny skit, and maybe it had a point in making fun of the way we sometimes treat God like Santa Claus or count on God to do things for us that we need to take responsibility for ourselves.

However, I think a life of constant prayer — a life which is, in effect, a constant conversation with God — is a good thing. It might not look or sound like the character Sally Field played on “Saturday Night Live,” because it might be a little less about the asking part of the prayer and a little more about the other parts.

Even so, God clearly wants us to approach the heavenly throne with our hopes and fears and our requests. God wants us to ask for the things that are important to us — if only because what we ask God for reveals what is truly important to us, and that can be an important bit of revelation for the person praying the prayer. As we grow in our faith, our priorities will change — and that means the kind of things we pray for will change. But God always wants us to be honest in our prayer, because if we’re honest with God, it helps us to be honest with ourselves.

The late cartoonist Doug Marlette had a cartoon strip called “Kudzu,” and one of the main characters was a preacher named the Rev. Will B. Dunn. That name served two functions; it was a reference to the line “thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer, but it also referred to the fact that the Rev. Will B. Dunn’s appearance was modeled after the Rev. Will Campbell, an iconoclastic Southern Baptist preacher and novelist who lived in Mt. Juliet and was a friend of Marlette’s.

The Rev. Will Campbell followed his own conscience, and wasn’t afraid to make people angry, but the Rev. Will B. Dunn was played for laughs, a clergyman who was just as flawed as his congregation — and maybe more flawed than some of them..

In one of my all-time favorite “Kudzu” strips, Will B. Dunn is praying for the face of a movie star. He tells God that he knows his ministry would be so much more effective if he had the face of a movie star. Suddenly, there’s a blinding flash of light, and in the last panel, Will B. Dunn has the head of Mickey Mouse.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he sighs.

God wants us to ask for our daily bread — for the things that we need in the here and now. God wants us to be focused on God’s provision, and God’s will, in this moment — focused on the opportunities and the challenges of this moment.

When we pray, we have to believe certain things. We believe that God is listening. We believe that God loves us and has our best interests in mind. And we believe that God has the power to respond.

If I were to ask for a show of hands, how many of you here believe that God loves us, I would probably get a lot of hands. If I were to ask how many of you believe that God listens to our prayers, I would probably get a lot of hands.

And yet, so many of us, in practice, seem to act like God is out to trick us, or punish us, or deny us. And that’s the type of attitude that Jesus is responding to in today’s scripture passage. He does it by giving an example. In the Middle East of Jesus’ day, it was the custom that when you received a visitor, it was etiquette to feed them, no matter when they arrived. In fact, many visitors waited until after the heat of the day to travel, so receiving a visitor very late at night was not an uncommon occurrence.

When I made my first mission trip to Kenya, it was the longest flight that I, and several of my teammates had ever taken. I’d made a short-hop flight from Nashville to Chicago, then an eight-hour flight from Chicago to London, then another eight-hour flight from London to Nairobi. Add to that all of the security lines, and the layovers, and getting to the airport two hours before departure, and the drive from here to Nashville, and immigration and baggage claim in Nairobi, and we’d been up for 24 hours or more by the time that the Rev. Paul Mbithi met us at the airport. We were, in once sense, keyed up — but we were also dog-tired. We weren’t particularly hungry; we’d gotten dinner on the plane, such as it was. What we needed was sleep, not food.

But Kenya also has a tradition of feeding visitors, and so Paul and his wife Grace had prepared a meal for us, and our team leaders passed the word that we were to accept it graciously and in the spirit in which it was intended.

When the main character in Jesus’ story receives a late-night visitor, he feels that he is obligated to serve a meal. But he’s run out of bread.

We were talking a little earlier about “daily” bread. Well, in that day and age, it wasn’t just an expression. Today, the loaves of bread you buy at the store have preservatives that allow them to stay fresh for days and days after you bring them home from the store. If you ever make your own homemade bread, or you buy artisan bread from a good bakery, you know it goes stale a lot, lot faster, because it doesn’t contain those same preservatives.

The type of bread made in Judaea in the days of Jesus was the same way, if not more so, and whatever bread had been baked that day had already either been eaten or thrown out.

So the man goes next door, to his friend and neighbor, and knocks on the door, hoping to borrow some bread. In those days, according to the commentator William Barclay, most doors were left open most of the time while people were up. If your door was closed, it specifically meant you wanted privacy.

This neighbor is referred to as a friend, someone who might normally be predisposed to help out, even to go the extra mile. But in this case, it’s late at night, and everyone is in bed.

In Jesus’ day, most houses had one big room where the entire family slept together, and in some cases some of the livestock would be brought in to sleep in the house as well. So if one person gets up to answer the door, it’s likely going to get everybody up. The neighbor tells the man to go away — he can’t get up without waking the children.

But the man keeps at it, and Barclay translates the Greek word that’s used to describe his approach as “shameless persistence.” Eventually, the neighbor has no choice but to get up, if only to get rid of the man.

Jesus’ point was not — NOT — to portray God as grouchy or unwilling to help us. Jesus was saying exactly the opposite. He was saying that if even this neighbor would eventually give in and answer the man’s request, how much more likely is it that God, who loves us, would give us what we need. God loves us. God listens to us. God responds to us.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”

In our day, of course, there has been a great perversion of this truth in the form of what’s called the “prosperity gospel” — the twisted notion that God is some sort of cosmic vending machine handing out ostentatious and useless wealth to anyone who has enough faith. There’s a difference between stewardship and greed, between stewardship and materialism. Many of these TV preachers hawking the prosperity gospel have gone so far over that line that it’s tragic, and even repulsive. They show off their jets and their jewelry as if they were somehow proof of God’s favor. There is no Biblical mandate for that sort of disgusting behavior.

I use that image of a vending machine because of something specific that happened to me when I was in college. I went to a college founded by, and named for, a famous TV evangelist.

In the first semester of my freshman year, when I was a little more wide-eyed about the world of TV evangelism than I would later become, we had a guest speaker in one of our chapel services who used the vending machine as a metaphor for faith. If you push the button on that vending machine, you reach down expecting an ice-cold Coca-Cola to pop out. This particular speaker, using that metaphor, was kind of ham-fisted in describing the nature of God’s provision and of our role in receiving it.

That night, during our mandatory dorm wing meeting, our wing chaplain, a man named Bill Meenk, stood up and said, “Contrary to what you may have heard today, God is not a Coke machine.” It was a great example to me, not only from the message itself but the fact that Bill had the courage to stand up and disagree with something that had been said by a university-approved chapel speaker. That was a turning point in learning to think for myself in the conformist environment of Christian college.

Bill was right; God is not a Coke machine. God wants us to make requests, and God wants to provide for us. But God’s provision doesn’t always take the form we expect.

Jesus asks the disciples, “If your child asks for fish, would you give him a snake? If he asks for an egg, would you give him a scorpion?” The obvious answer is “no.” You love your child. But those of you who are parents — and even those of us who are aunts and uncles — know that kids don’t always ask for healthy foods like eggs or fish. If your child asks for chocolate cake before dinner, you, the parent or aunt or uncle, are going to say “no.” If your child asks for a German Shepherd and you live in a tiny apartment, you are going to say “no.” In this case, the “no” is just as much a sign of your love for the child as giving them eggs for breakfast or fish for dinner would be.

And yet, you always want your child to bring you their requests. You may have to say “no” to the German Shepherd, but it makes you love the child all the more to know that the child loves and cares for animals. You may have to say “no” to the chocolate cake before dinner, but it makes you feel good that the child loves your chocolate cake, and you can always give them a piece later, after dinner.

God loves us and wants us to bring all of our requests to the holy throne. That does not mean that God will grant all of those requests in the way we imagine. As Garth Brooks once sang, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” God knows what is best for us and will answer our prayers according to our true needs, not necessarily our perceived needs. God will never give us a scorpion for breakfast or a snake for dinner.

Bad things happen, and the problem of evil, of explaining why bad things happen, is beyond the scope of this sermon or my abilities as a lay speaker. But we have to trust that God will be with us, will listen to us, and will see us through to our final destination.

Prayer is a critical component of our Christian life. Our time with God can take many different forms, but some form of conversation with God is essential. Jesus makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with bringing our requests to God. It’s what we are supposed to do. And by telling God what is important to us, and waiting for God’s response, we may just learn a little bit more about God and about ourselves.

John I. Carney

Written by

Small-town journalist; United Methodist layspeaker; lover of old movies and new comedy. http://lakeneuron.com

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