Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral (30th July 2017).
Before we look at these two parables, we need to listen to some general teaching of Jesus on prayer which follows the parable of the friend at midnight: “Ask, and it will be given to you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you… Is there anyone one among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg will give you a scorpion. If you, then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, HOW MUCH MORE will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit (or “good things” – Matt 7.11) to those who ask him?” (Lk 11. 9-13)
Note the emphasis on “how much more” God will hear our prayers.
- There is no comparison between God and even the best of human fathers – God outshines the lot.
- Likewise, there is no comparison between a man who gives bread to his friend in the middle of the night and God who delights to answer the prayers of his children.
- Similarly, there is no comparison between a judge who gives justice to a widow, and God who delights to respond to the prayers of his children.
“How much more” is the key phrase. It does not actually appear in the two parables, but it is there – assumed. God loves to hear our prayers. The rabbis used to say: “A man is annoyed by being worried by the requests of his friends, but with God, all the time a man puts his needs and requests before him, God loves him all the more”! (Quoted by FD Bruner, The Christbook I, 344)
LUKE 11.5-8: THE PARABLE OF THE FRIEND AT MIDNIGHT
By our reckoning midnight is a late hour for a guest to arrive – let alone an unexpected guest. However, in Palestine people often travelled after dark, for it was cooler then: nobody in their right mind would make a long journey in the heat of the midday sun.
Unfortunately this unexpected guest caught his friend without any food in the house.
For his host this was more than merely embarrassing – it would have been deeply distressing. In the East hospitality is a sacred duty. Not to have fed his friend would have gone beyond the bounds of human decency.
So what could he do? The shops were shut. In his distress he went next door and knocked up his neighbor and asked for “three loaves”. To us it sounds as though the guest was ravenously hungry, but in fact the loaves in question were more like rolls: 3 loaves was the usual meal for one person.
Now nobody in their right mind likes being woken late at night.
But here the situation was much more awkward.
For the poorer Palestinian houses of that day consisted of only one room: this room was divided into two parts – not by a partition, but by a low platform. Two thirds of the room was on ground level, but one third was slightly raised. On the raised level the family slept, not in separate beds, but on one large sleeping mat. On the ground level would be the livestock – the goats and hens which the man would have brought in for the night.
To make matters worse, doors in those days had no Yale locks. When the door was shut, a wooden or iron bar was thrust through rings in the door panels. Drawing the blot was a noisy operation. In other words, to get up and open the door would have meant disturbing everybody: children and animals alike.
So you can imagine the neighbour growling: “Don’t be such a confounded nuisance. My door was locked long ago. If I get up, I’ll disturb the whole family. No, I’m staying where I am – in bed”. But the guy outside keeps knocking – he refuses to take a ‘no’ for an answer.
He’s got to have food for his unexpected guest, whatever the inconvenience to anybody else… Jesus must have had a great sense of humour.
“I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs” (11.8)
That’s the story. What is Jesus saying about prayer through the parable?
First and foremost, Jesus is saying, God doesn’t need his arm to be twisted before he will answer a friend. If even a human friend can be induced to get up and give help, HOW MUCH MORE will God, our heavenly Father – and perfect Friend – be ready to supply our needs.
Jesus is not drawing a parallel between the Friend and God – but rather a contrast.
Jurgen Moltmann: “Prayer is not a servant’s desperate begging, nor is it the insistence of a demanding child, prayer in Christ’s name is the language of friendship”. If that is true of the one who asks in prayer, it is all the more true of the one who answers prayer,
When we pray, we can be confident that God will hear and answer our prayers.
But is Jesus saying more? The NRSV highlights the persistence of the neighbor:
“I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs”. Similarly the AV & the RSV speak of the neighbour’s “importunity”
However, some question the NRSV’s translation: for the underlying Greek word (anedeia), which the NRSV translates as “persistence” normally means ‘shamelessness’ or ‘impudence’.
So the NEB translates: “I tell you that even if he will not provide for him out of friendship, the very shamelessness of the request will make him get up and give him all he needs”. Similarly the NIV: “Because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up…”
Likewise GNB: “Because you are not ashamed to keep on knocking”
Should we therefore combine the concept of ‘rudeness’ and ‘persistence’? Yes, says James Edwards: “The perseverance of the petitioner is accentuated by anedeia, which throughout Greek literature has a thoroughly pejorative meaning: asking rudely – even acting rudely – to get a request at any cost, without thought of propriety or shame… The parable puts no premium on ‘niceness’ in prayers – or on pray-ers. The accent falls on approaching God with a not-to-be-deterred attitude. Prayer is not a polite religious sentiment: it is something on which people must be willing to stake their lives, the determination not to give up until God has heard us” (The Gospel According to Luke 337)
However, other commentators question whether there is any reference to ‘persistence’ at all.
They argue that we have interpreted the parable in the light of Jesus’ later saying to ‘Ask, seek, knock’ – present imperatives. So Klyne Snodgrass writes: “The parable addresses the implied question, ‘Will God respond to prayer?’ and argues as follows: “If among humans a request is granted even when or because it is rude, how much more will your heavenly Father respond to your requests?’ Indirectly the parable does encourage boldness in prayer… Yet nothing in the parable of the Friend at Midnight teaches persistence in prayer. Rather the parables teaches the certainty of a God who hears prayer and responds” (Stories with Intent 448). I have no doubt that we need to be persistent in prayer. But that is probably not the point of the parable.
Luke 18.1-8: THE PARABLE OF THE WIDOW AND THE UNJUST JUDGE
“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (18.1: GNB = “they should always pray & never become discouraged”).
“To pray always” need not be understood as continuous prayer, but rather to pray consistently and persistently. Rabbis used to tell their disciples to limit prayer to three times a day, but not to pray constantly, which was considered tedious to both God and man.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent’” (18.2,3)
The widow was owed money, but her debtor refused to pay up. We know it was a money matter, because only one judge – in all other cases 3 other magistrates had to be present.
The debtor not only refused to pay up, but almost certainly had bribed the judge.
Alas, the widow had no money with which she in turn could bribe the judge.
Nor had she any position with which she could influence him. Her only weapon was persistence. NB v3: “she kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent’“.
Eventually the judge gave in: v4f “For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming‘”. By her nagging woman got on judge’s nerves. Here again we see Jesus’ humour: just as dripping of rain may wear away a rock face, so in end the judge worn down too. NB Prov 27.15 “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious wife are alike”
Jesus then adds: “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (18.6,7).
What is Jesus saying through this story?
Is Jesus likening God to an unjust judge who needs to be nagged before he bestirs himself?
Is it only by being badgered that God will ever put matters right in this world?
Does God need to be worn down? Twist his arm long enough and he’ll give in?
Does there come a point when God claps his hands to his ears and cries: “Stop! I give in! I can’t cope with any more prayers”?!
No: here we have again a parable of contrast. ‘If even this callous judge could be moved to act by the widow’s persistence, HOW MUCH MORE will God answer his people’s prayers”.
For God is not only just – he also is loving. He is a God who cares for his children
A God who delights to hear his children’s prayers
Jesus is emphasizing that we can be confident that God will listen and answer our prayers.
However, the prayers that Jesus has in mind are not prayers for a parking place or for a sunny day for a family BBQ. They are not even prayers that God will bless everyone in the world.
In this context the prayers that Jesus has in mind and which God will answer are prayers where people cry out for God for justice – and for the coming of the Kingdom.
Such prayers God will answer.
But is there more to the story? Most commentators believe that the parable teaches us to persist in prayer. Indeed, this surely is what the introduction to the parable implies? “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18.1).
So John Calvin commented: “We must repeat the same supplications not twice or three times only, but as often as we have need, a hundred or a thousand times… We must never be weary in waiting for God’s help”.
But isn’t this the same thing as badgering?
What’s the difference between badgering and perseverance?
NB Mary Magdalen: “The first has all the feel of ‘getting one’s own way’ about it, of whining and wheedling in the way of small children. The second implies an earnestness in prayer, a steady pursuit of God that acknowledges our constant state of helplessness and our need for total dependence on him who has the power to change things”.
It is as if for God to work, we need to throw away all our self-sufficiency and cast ourselves on him and his mercy alone. Through persisting in prayer we are not cajoling God into changing his mind, but rather engaging in the process of opening up ourselves to become channels of his power, his healing, his love.
Klyne Snodgrass, however, is not convinced. “Luke’s concern in 18.1 is not prayer in general, but praying and not becoming weary (or giving up, enkakein) with respect to the eschaton, the time when deliverances comes… The disciples will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but will not (17.22) and people will go about their lives and be caught unprepared as in former instances of judgment. The opposite of becoming weary is steadfastness, faithfulness, and readiness” (Stories with Intent 457).
How do you respond to the cynicism of Oscar Wilde who said: “Prayer must never be answered: if it is, it ceases to be prayer and becomes correspondence”?
Have there been times when you have been tempted to ‘lose heart’ and to give up on praying? When have you ‘cried out’ to God, and God has seemed not to answer?
How do you react to the black preacher who said: “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not know what prayer is”? Fred Craddock wrote: “The human experience is one of delay and honesty says as much, even while acknowledging the mystery of God’s ways. Is the petitioner being hammered through long days and nights of prayer into a vessel that will be able to hold the answer when it comes”.
What encouragement do these two parables give to you?