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Although Matthew has already offered a longer section on prayer (6:5-15), he emphasizes prayer again here. Because in the context the supreme object of "seeking" is the kingdom (6:33) and the door to be opened is the gate of salvation (7:13; contrast Lk 11:5-13), this prayer may especially represent a prayer for God's rule (compare 6:9-10 and the prayer for empowerment by the Spirit in Lk 11:2-13). But in any case, the specific application of the saying depends on its more general principle concerning how God hears prayers of faith (21:21-22; compare 14:28-31).
God Can Supply Anything to the Righteous Who Seek His Purposes (7:7-10)
This text indicates some important lessons for us today. First, Jesus promises his disciples extraordinary power from God, like that of Elijah of old. In this case the Gospel narratives (such as 14:28-31) and other "charismatic" sayings (such as 21:21-22) demonstrate that Jesus was not speaking figuratively, but training disciples to express bold faith. Early Jewish teaching did celebrate God's kindness in answering prayer (Hagner 1993:174), but rarely promised such universal answers to prayer to all of God's people as the language here suggests; only a small number of sages were considered pious enough to have such power with God. But both the Hebrew Bible (for example, Gen 32:26-30; Ex 33:12-34:9; 1 Kings 18:36-37, 41-46; 2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6, 9; 4:14-28) and the Gospel tradition (Mk 5:27-34; 7:24-30; 10:46-52; Mt 8:7-13; Jn 2:3-5) provide examples of such bold faith. The most crucial model for bold holy persons in Jewish tradition is probably Elijah, who despite his human frailty (1 Kings 19:4) could summon fire from heaven against those potentially threatening his life simply by declaring, "If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven" (2 Kings 1:10, 12-15).
James likewise tells us that Elijah was a person of flesh and blood just like us; if we begin to see ourselves as and act as men and women of God, we will have access to the kind of miracles that Elijah had (Jas 5:16-18). Scripture shows us Elijah's frailties as well as his faith. We are likewise men and women of God by God's grace, and as we dare to believe that and to live according to the relationship our Father has given us with himself in Christ, that confidence will transform our prayer lives.
Second, this empowerment presupposes that we are ready to be as committed to God's purposes as Elijah and like-minded servants of God were. Such a call to believing prayer supposes a heart of piety submitted to God's will; it would not apply to a man praying to obtain another man's wife or to a woman praying for a nicer car as a status symbol of conspicuous consumption. Although Jesus states the promise graphically, he implicitly addresses only men and women of God who will seek the things God would have them to seek for the good of his kingdom and their basic needs (Mt 6:11, 19-34). Jesus' promise is for the righteous-people who share kingdom values-asking basic needs and requests concerning the kingdom. Jesus' disciples were to be prophets (5:12) and holy persons, like Elijah, whose requests God would hear.
Third, this passage's context suggests the kinds of prayers such righteous people offer. They seek first in prayer the purposes of God's kingdom (6:9-10, 31-33; compare Ps 9:10; 24:6; 27:4, 8; 34:14; 63:1; 69:6, 32; 70:4; 119:45; 122:6-9; and especially Prov 2:4-5; 8:17; Is 55:6; Jer 29:13), and also request that God meet their own basic needs (Mt 6:11). The specific examples Jesus gives that children would request are basic staples in the Palestinian diet-bread and fish; and Jesus has already promised his hearers the basics (6:25-34). Jesus later provided bread and fish for his followers (14:19-20; 15:36-37), encouraging us that he will also hear our requests for provision today. While such basics do not include mere status symbols or other objects of fleshly appetites, they do include whatever is ultimately for God's kingdom-anything necessary for us to fulfill our life and call.
God's Fatherly Care Is Our Assurance That He Will Answer (7:11)
Jesus uses the familiar Jewish method of arguing by a "how much more" analogy. God who gives good gifts to children may not give everything every child asks, but he will not withhold his gifts from those who desire and seek what is right (Ps 37:4; 84:11). Our Father will give appropriate consideration to each request his children make, watching out for their true needs (compare Mt 6:8).
Reciprocate Good Deeds in Faith (7:12)
If those who condemn others are condemned (7:1-5), God clearly operates on a principle of reciprocity; we must do good to people in advance of their doing good to us, trusting God to reward us later. The principle in this context is that as we give, it will be given to us by God in the day of judgment. If God is the example of giving (vv. 7-11), we should give whatever people need (5:42). How we treat others (7:12) reveals our character (vv. 16-20) and hence reveals our eternal destiny (vv. 13-14, 21-23). At least since a sermon of John Wesley in 1750 this has been called the "Golden Rule" (Guy 1959); over a millennium earlier, a Christian Roman emperor allegedly engraved the saying on his wall in gold (France 1985:145).
This rule was a widespread principle of ancient ethics. The positive form of the rule appears as early as Homer and recurs in Herodotus, Isocrates and Seneca. The negative form ("And what you hate, do not do to anyone") appears in Tobit 4:15, Philo (Hypothetica 7.6) and elsewhere; one Jewish work straddles both forms (Ep. Arist. 207). Although some commentators have tried to disparage the negative form by contrast with the positive, both forms mean essentially the same thing; both biblical law (Lev 19:18) and Paul (Rom 13:10) define the positive commandment of love by means of negative commandments (E. Sanders 1992:258-59).
The principle appears in cultures totally isolated from the ancient Mediterranean; it appears, for example, in Confucian teaching from sixth-century B.C. China (see Jochim 1986:125). That others would discover this same principle should not surprise us, because one of the most natural foundations for ethics is for a person to extrapolate from one's own worth to that of others, hence to value others as oneself (compare, for example, Sirach 31:15). Thus every person is morally responsible to recognize how one ought to treat every other person. When we treat others (such as waitresses, store clerks or children) the way people of higher status treated people of lower status in Jesus' day, we invite God's judgment against us. No one so insensitive as to demean another human being on account of social station warrants God's mercy (Mt 5:7; 6:14-15; 7:1-5).
One who observes this basic principle will fulfill all the basic principles of the law the way God intended them (compare 5:21-48; 22:37-39). Later Jewish tradition declares that the sage Hillel, who taught before Jesus did, had already seen this rule as a good summary of the law. As the story goes, a Gentile approached both Hillel and his rival sage, promising each that he would convert to Judaism if the sage could teach him the law concisely. Hillel declared, "Whatever you do not want someone to do to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Law; the rest of it is just explanation" (b.Sabbat 31a; compare ARN 25, 53B).
This is the law of love, the principle by which Jesus epitomizes the entire humanward aspect of God's law (22:39-40; compare Jn 13:34-35), a principle Jesus' earliest followers never forgot (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; 6:2; Jas 2:8). What is distinctive about the principle as it appears in Matthew is its relation to the day of judgment (Mt 7:1-2, 13-14).