As I contemplated this issue throughout the month, something hit me that is elementary - so basic that I couldn't believe I hadn't had that epiphany much, much earlier. It is something I have taught my children and students for years, and it is something I have preached as a core, foundational study technique for as long as I can remember. Somehow, with regard to this particular passage, I have failed totally to incorporate this simple mechanism - and that is embarrassing to me. Greater than the embarrassment, however, is a sense of gratitude that the Lord would gently whisper to me somthing that deserved a good roundhouse kick in the head.
The principle I have taught is nothing more profound than the following:
If the meaning of somthing is not clear immediately, or if there is something that simply seems "off" or wrong about a common niterpretation, I stress two things:
1) Parse the words themselves totally devoid of context, simply to understand the possible meanings.
2) Look at the context in order to narrow down the possible meanings to the most logical or plausible one(s) - often reaching the conclusion that there really is only one reasonable interpretation or meaning.
Frankly, when Matthew 7:7-8 is parsed without context, the beliefs I can't accept are the most apparent interpretations. They are worded in a very straightforward, unambiguous manner and appear to leave little room for interpretation. However, when the overall context (The Sermon on the Mount) is considered - and especially when the immediately surrounding verses are scrutinized - the straightforward conclusion is shattered totally, and a new understanding emerges.
To illustrate this, I am going to summarize and excerpt from the entire sermon, quoting only those verses or statements that influence directly Matthew 7:7-8 - then I will re-interpret those two verses in light of the overall message Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5 = Blessed are those who possess (obtain) certain godly characteristics; there used to be a standard (from which some specific examples are given), but now another standard is in place (from which the counterpoints to the examples are given); through acquiring these characteristics and acting in this manner, become perfected (whole, complete, fully developed).
Matthew 6 = Don't be hypocritical; tackle the process outlined in Matthew 5 as a personal quest, not as a public endeavor; you can't serve two masters - heaven and the world; therefore, choose to serve heaven.
Matthew 6:33 = "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."
Matthew 7:1-5 = Don't judge others' journeys along the process outlined in Matthew 5; you will be judged in the same manner you judge others.
Matthew 7:6 = Treat sacred things with great respect and care.
Matthew 7:7-8 = Those who dedicate themselves to this process (acquiring godly characteristics, living the new standards of interpersonal relationships, avoiding hypocrisy, choosing to serve God, seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness, not judging others in their journeys and treating sacred things as sacred) will receive those things for which they ask (since they will ask only for God's will to be done - or for that which is proper), find what they seek (since they will be seeking internal godliness and interpersonal peace and fulfillment) and have heaven's doors opened unto them.
Matthew 7:9-12 = Those who reach this state will treat others as God treats them - as they want to be treated - in a godly manner.
Matthew 7:13-27 = This way to godliness is strict and there are many imitations. Follow the proper path and beware of false paths and guides.
Notice that the promise of Matthew 7:7-8 is at the tail end of the "path to perfection" - the ultimate result of that effort - a re-statement of the conclusion of Matthew 5 ("Be ye therefore perfect.") as a practical statement of what happens in that state of completion, wholeness and full development. In a way, the message really is that you get out of life what you put into it - but it is not a picture of a vending machine that emerges; rather, it is an image of a guide - a shepherd - a mentor - a teacher - someone who has laid out a clear path that leads to exaltation (real, practical, understandable, attainable "perfection").
In essence, in context, these verses say:
"As you journey on the path I have laid out for you, I will give you that for which you ask, allow you to find that for which you seek, open the door unto you as you knock."
What a powerful passage! What a beautiful message of inspiration and hope and empowerment - and ultimate, parental love!!