Read the Parable here: Luke 11:1-13
Reflections on the Parable of the Friend at Midnight – Luke 11:1-13
We have come to a peculiar set of parables in Luke 11/12 which will be our focus for this week and next. Up until now, for the most part, the parables have been fairly transparent in that it has been easy to see which character represents God, which character represents us and to see possible applications to daily life. “The Good Samaritan” and the “Prodigal Son” are complex and multi-layered stories but they are engaging as stories and it is not too hard to see where Jesus is going with these stories. But, there is a set of parables that are not so easy to interpret and the “Friend at Midnight” is one of these parables. On a quick reading you might get the idea that Jesus is lifting up perseverance or persistence in prayer, and that is the traditional interpretation. But there must be more to it than that. Is the point of this parable only that God can be manipulated to answer our prayers and give us what we need/want because we get on God’s nerves through our constant prayer? Kind of like a whining child at Walmart who wants his mom to give him a candy bar and keeps at it until she relents? Well, I don’t think so. There is more to this parable than that.
So first let us remember that these parables all give us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God – which is come into our lives now. 2nd, these parables all point to grace – God’s overwhelming grace which God showers upon us abundantly and generously in different ways. So the traditional interpretation (which is essentially my Walmart example) really does not point us towards grace, rather it points us to works righteousness, so let us set that aside. So, in order to interpret this parable I would want to turn to the context – both the textual context and the social context. We’ll start with the latter.
Most peasants lived in small villages in Jesus’ day. Cana and Nazareth were both villages and in village life people were very interdependent. They had to count on each other to assist them with various tasks in order to live. One simply could not survive on one’s own. Our American “rugged individualism” would not have worked in this context. For example, small villages would have had one communal oven in which to bake bread. The women would have worked together, helped each other, and provided for each other in this important task. Consequently there were expectations and even rules governing this interdependent community. One of the important and essential rules (which actually goes back to the Pentateuch) was the treatment of strangers and visitors. Hospitality was absolutely mandated. A visitor was to be taken in, cared for and fed – even if it meant that the family or even the village would have less food for themselves. In our parable a visitor has arrived in the village. The host needs to provide food, but doesn’t have enough food to provide for him and so, as expected, goes to a neighbor for assistance. The neighbor is not very receptive (which would be the shock element in this story) and comes up with all kinds of lame excuses. But eventually he agrees. Why? The English text uses the word “persistence” – because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
The choice of this English word is understandable, but incorrect. The original Greek word actually means “Shamelessness.” In other words – it is the threat of being shamed in the village for not fulfilling his obligations and the expected code of hospitality that finally induces the neighbor to do the right thing. This story is not about personal persistence – it is about community and how we are interconnected and have responsibilities for each other. In other words, the Kingdom of God is like a tapestry where all of God’s people are woven together into a complex tapestry and where they are all interdependent with each other.
Textual context: This parable follows immediately upon Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. “Teach us to prayer,” asks the disciples and Jesus launches into this version of the Lord’s Prayer which is much shorter and feels incomplete to those of us who pray the Matthean/Didache form each and every week. But notice where Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer breaks off: Bring us not to the time of trial – do not bring us to temptation. And then Jesus launches into this parable. It is not an accident. I believe that for Luke one of the greatest and most destructive temptations is the idea that we can do it on our own; that we are independent and don’t need any one else. This is the temptation we ask God to keep us from being seduced by: we pray - Help us to recognize that we are interdependent – help us to accept and live that as citizens of the Kingdom of God we are also the tapestry of the Kingdom.
Finally, note the importance of “bread” in this text. Give us the bread for today and the man then comes to ask the neighbor for three loaves of bread. In Luke, references to bread are references to the Sacrament of Holy Communion – which is the ultimate Kingdom meal. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is what weaves us together as the Kingdom Tapestry. In the breaking of the bread we recognize Jesus present with us and we see our brothers and sisters in Christ as fellow citizens of God’s Kingdom.