A few months ago I visited the home of a permanent deacon who had worked for me at a previous parish assignment. When it was getting close to lunch time he asked, “Do you like Cuban sandwiches?” I responded, “Yes, I would really enjoy one!” He said, “Sorry, we don’t have any of those.” Then, he asked, “How about some Spanish Bean Soup?” “Sure,” I said, “that would be wonderful!” He responded, “Oh well, we don’t have that, either.”
That droll conversation was a typical form of communication among Tampa natives in which the participants intend to mislead one another by sounding very sincere, without actually being sincere at all. The promise made by Jesus in today’s Gospel passage might sound as if it, too, lacks sincerity. Jesus said, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.” (John 15:16)
If we take Jesus’ words literally we might think that we can request anything at all in prayer with the real expectation of having all our requests granted. Prayer, of course, doesn’t work that way. Each of us has asked for things in prayer, and not received them. All of us know people who, in desperate circumstances, have asked for divine intervention, only to be disappointed. When I was a college campus minister I was often asked to pray for a positive outcome for student exams and semester grades; I’m fairly certain that the students who made those requests had already sealed their academic fate by their study habits, or lack thereof.
How, then, are we to understand Jesus’ words, “whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you”? (John 15:16) Is this an instance of Jesus playing a word game with us? Was Jesus pretending to be sincere when he was not actually sincere at all? This, and similar, statements are a source of confusion to those who assume that Jesus’ command is directed to their wanting and wishing. That statement, however, contains within itself an explanation of its meaning.
There is a great deal of cultural information presupposed in this promise by Jesus, but it is cultural information we fail to grasp because we are so far removed historically and geographically from Jesus’ lifetime. Jesus’ statement presupposes the cultural experience of patronage. Patronage systems were the means by which people sought, and granted, protection and favor in ancient Hebrew culture. Patronage systems also underlie interpersonal relationships in modern middle eastern societies.
Middle eastern societies, both ancient and modern, tend to have weak central governments. It is for this reason that U.S. interventions in the middle east tend to be less than fully successful; real political power is almost never centralized in a government, but is almost always dispersed among many local patrons. Even in those instances in which there is a strong despot ruling a population, the despot tends to exercise power as a patron rather than an elected official.
In the absence of a strong central government, the responsibility and power for protecting the general population falls to individuals with wealth and resources. The wealthy and influential offer their help and protection to the vulnerable, but for a price. When one requests and accepts the help of a patron, one makes a promise of fealty to the patron. As a client of a patron, one becomes responsible to serve the needs of the patron in exchange for favor and protection.
In Jesus’ culture, patrons often allowed clients to act “in the name of” the patron. The parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-8), is based on the common practice of a client acting “in the name of” a patron. The dishonest steward had been granted authority to manage his patron’s financial affairs. The steward used that power to assure a welcome for himself after he lost his position of authority. (Luke 16:8)
In this passage of John’s Gospel Jesus presents himself as a patron who can wield divine power on his disciples’ behalf. The statement, “whatever you ask the Father in my name” (John 15:16), is a patron granting a share of his personal power to a client. The presupposition behind this statement is that the client, by asking for the patron’s help, has made a pledge of fidelity and obedience to the patron. Jesus’ promise isn’t open-ended and inclusive; nor does it offer the possibility of granting wishes. Jesus’ promise that his disciples may “ask anything in (his) name” is assurance that faith and discipleship will be granted to those who are prepared to accept them.
As I said above, this verse contains its own explanation and the key to its interpretation. Jesus said, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.” (John 15:16) This statement, and its attendant promise, are entirely and solely about discipleship. Jesus chose his disciples, and in choosing them, granted them divine help that they might persevere in faith. The promise, that we might ask anything in Jesus’ name, isn’t what the preachers of the “Prosperity Gospel” promise, namely, that we can ask for as much material wealth as we can grasp, and God will happily fill our hands. Rather, it is the “Faithful Gospel,” the promise of God’s assistance in our attempts to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
Another text in the Christian Scriptures reminds its readers that receiving what one prays for is a matter of, first and foremost, asking for the proper things in prayer. (James 4:3) The same idea underlies this promise by Jesus. What good would it do for us to receive all our wants and wishes, but fail to receive the gift of faith? The only prayer worth making is the only prayer worthy of God’s response; it is the prayer that asks for faith and perseverance.
Jesus wasn’t playing games with his disciples; he wasn’t making insincere promises. He was promising success in the life of faith to those who desire to be disciples. There is nothing at all wrong with the type of intercessory prayer that asks for various sorts of help from God, but that prayer is meaningless in the absence of faithful discipleship.
Do you want assurance that God will hear and answer your prayers? Jesus offers such assurance to those whose constant, daily prayer is the request for a disciple’s persevering faith.