Knock on the Door – By Common Consent, a Mormon Blog


“CHRISTIANA began to knock . . . she knocked and knocked again. But instead of anyone answering, they all thought they heard a dog coming toward them barking. A dog, and a big one at that; and that frightened the women and children. They didn’t dare knock for a while either, for fear the mastiff might fly at them. . . . . They weren’t allowed to knock for fear of the dog; They dared not go back for fear that the keeper of this gate might see them on their way and be angry with them. Finally they thought of knocking again and knocked harder than the first time. The gatekeeper said, “Who is it? – John Bunyan, The Way of the Pilgrimage, Part II

Even by the standards of 1678, the first volume by John Bunyan The Pilgrim Way is misogynist. When the hero Christian discovers that he is one of the chosen ones, he turns his back on his wife and embarks on a quest for redemption. Although The Pilgrim’s Progress became the best-selling book of the century (and the next two centuries thereafter), readers expressed great dismay at the fate of Christian’s wife.

But Bunyan changed his mind. Six years later he wrote a sequel, Pilgrimage Part II, chronicle of the salvation journey of Christian’s wife Christiana. Unlike Christian, who experiences an irresistible call to mercy, Christiana takes her children on an uninvited quest for salvation. When she gets to the gate that begins the journey, she is denied entry. So she knocks. When no one answers, she knocks again. And she knocks harder and harder until she is finally let in. In terms of Bunyan’s theology, she wants her own election because she refuses to take no for an answer.

The Scriptures are full of people knocking on God’s door until they are answered: Jacob wrestles with the angel (Genesis 32:23-32), Zipporah talks God out of killing Moses (Exodus 4:18-31), Enos pray until God blesses his people (Enos 1). And Job basically bothers God for 50 pages until he shows up in a hurricane and somehow explains why people have to suffer. In today’s reading, Jesus makes this point directly as he teaches his disciples how to pray:

And he said to them: “Suppose one of you has a friend and you go to him at midnight and say to him: ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to offer him.’ And he answers from within: “Don’t bother me; the door is already locked and my children are in bed with me; I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I’m telling you, even if he’s not going to get up and give him anything because he’s his friend, at least because of his persistence, he’ll get up and give him whatever he needs. (Luke 11:5-8, NE)

From this launch pad, Jesus gives the more famous line: “Ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). The context of this line makes it very clear that sometimes it takes a lot of knocking.

The most remarkable thing about this whole passage is the way it formulates God’s motives. Inasmuch as God is represented in the allegory by the sleeping friend—and this at first seems to be the equation the text makes—Jesus is saying that God responds to persistent supplication rather than the merit of a supplication.

Even more surprising is that the parable suggests that God would grant a request out of anger rather than out of affection or love. God seems to respond to annoying children the same way most parents do – by giving in so he can go back to sleep.

With good reason, I think, most people hesitate to attribute these all-too-human motives to God. We all know, of course, that squeaky wheels get the grease. It’s something of a universal principle of human behavior. And it is also a perfectly reliable principle of organizational behavior. Organizations want stability, and vocal petitioners disrupt that stability. Indeed, in any organization that deals with people, squeaky wheels walk away with the lion’s share of the grease. But we live in hope that God operates on principles different from the DMV—that the squeaky wheel gets the fat, but not the mercy in the end.

But what if Jesus is not talking about God here, but about the human institutions that represent God to different groups of people? This would still agree with the parable since most people experience God in some sort of human community: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and the like. These things are not God, of course, and they vary greatly in composition, formal regulations, and authority structure.

But they are all human institutions, operating on human principles while doing their best to structure human relationships with the Divine. When they get it wrong–and all human institutions get it wrong from time to time–their mistakes profoundly affect people’s relationship with God.

And this particular parable is about just one type of mistake – the mistake of excluding someone from our community who wants to be a part of it. One of the organizing principles of the New Testament is the continuous enlargement of the church. Whenever the disciples find a group of people they want to exclude—prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, lepers, Roman centurions, and even uncircumcised Gentiles—they find Jesus gently (and sometimes not so gently) pushing them beyond their comfort zone, to create a more inclusive community.

Some people naturally decide that they don’t want anything to do with a religious group that doesn’t seem to want anything to do with them. However, some people insist on knocking on the door. Sometimes this is a gentle, pleasant tapping during normal business hours that most organizations handle very well. But more often it’s a loud, boisterous pounding in the middle of the night, accompanied by insults and demands and words I don’t want the children to hear.

We like to use loud knocking as proof that knockers hate us and don’t belong in our homes. Only the wisest can see that the insults stem from pain rather than hate, and that the mere tapping indicates a deep desire to be included in the community.

When a religious community claims unique access to divine truth, it positions itself as the gatekeeper of the kingdom of God. When such an organization locks the door—when it restricts access to the fellowship for any reason and claims to be doing so in the name of God—it must expect loud and constant knocking on the gates it has created. It cannot then say, “Don’t ask us to change; we represent the Lord.” That’s exactly why people knock in the first place.

If an institution claims to be God’s representative on earth, it should expect to be wrestled, negotiated, pleaded with, summoned and harassed by the people outside the gate. Jesus taught us all that.

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