There are some things I wish Jesus had not said with such unequivocal, straight-forward, un-ambiguous clarity. Among them are verses 9 & 10 of today’s reading from Luke 11: “I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened!” It’s a grand promise -- and I believe Jesus meant it! Furthermore, I believe it! -- but still I wish he had not said it in such an unconditional and bold fashion. (!)
Since Jesus makes that unequivocal statement right in the middle of teaching his disciples to pray, it suggests (as I said to the children) that praying to God might serve our wants like Aladdin’s Magic Lamp: rub it three times (saying “abraca-dabra”) and God, like a Genie, will grant your wish at your command.(!) There is no nuance in those two verses to suggest that a person may have to ask more than once to get what they’re after, or to seek longer and harder than they really care to, or that they will have to knock boldly and persistently.
If those verses are lifted out from this chapter -- as though it were a “stand alone” promise made by Jesus -- this saying (taken literally & in good faith) without exceptions or nuance of any kind, may generate a great deal of “disappointment” for the person who prays sincerely -- asking in Jesus’ name -- for something that they do not get. (!) The cancer is still there, even after the prayer. The job you wanted goes to a competitor. The dam burst after all, your loved one dies anyway.
Didn’t Jesus promise a better outcome, if we asked in his name? Aren’t we supposed to GET what we ask for in prayer? (!) People seek and (like Bono sings in the U-2 song) “I haven’t found what I’m looking for.” They knock (as in today’s parable) only to be rebuffed by the householder… refused… locked out.
You can see why I say that I wish Jesus had not been so all-encompassing, unconditional, and positive when he said: “I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Unequivocal clarity like that triggers natural skepticism in some people! “It ain’t necessarily so.” If you take Jesus at his word, every un-opened door feels like a failure to the one who’s been doing the knocking. Every unsuccessful seeking, and every un-answered ask, drives their doubt and disillusionment deeper.
I’d like us to put that single “saying” back into its context in Luke’s Gospel -- as well as in its historical context -- because that can help restore the logic and impact of Jesus’ whole teaching… and rescue this saying from the absurd exaggera-tion which can be off-putting (when taken out of context).
Prof. Bart Ehrman, whose DVD lectures on the New Testament constitute our Thursday Theology Class, said just this week that one of the major criteria scholars use to examine Gospel stories as historical sources is “contextual credibility” – traditions and sayings attributed to Jesus must be “situated credibly into what we know to be the context of Judaism in First Century AD Palestine.” And that’s what I want us to do this morning.
The text starts by observing Jesus praying in a certain place… And when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Jesus’ disciples saw Jesus praying, and maybe they even heard his words. They would have seen (as Karen Bacon led us last Sunday) whether he folded his hands, or pointed them upward, or raised his hands to heaven. They would have seen him as he fell to his knees, or bowed his head… And one of them (at least) asked Jesus to teach them to do the same. (I presume that some of Jesus’ other disciples were also interested in learning to pray, but I notice that they had not done so for the ten chapters leading up to this point! Prayer was not their thing.)
In the Gospels, Jesus prays frequently, but his disciples don’t. Even on the very last night that they were together -- when they went to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Lord’s Last Supper -- and Jesus asked them to “stay awake with me and pray”… they did neither. They slept, while Jesus prayed alone… to his Father: asking for help, seeking relief, to no avail.
Getting back to today’s text: Jesus begins his instruction by giving his disciples a much shorter, easier, and probably earlier version of the Lord’s Prayer than the more familiar one found in Matthew’s Gospel, which we use every Sunday during worship.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be thy name. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.” (That’s it: 37 words instead of the usual 64)
We address God, who is the Holy One, and ask for three things: (1) Give us bread; (2) forgive us our sins; and (3) spare us from being tested, or tempted. (1) Give us sustenance; (2) forgive our shortcomings; and, God, (3) don’t put us to the test!
Unlike the longer (more familiar) version in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Luke links the Lord’s Prayer to a somewhat humorous parable about a villager who asks for bread from a reluctant neighbor. That story ties in to the say-ing which follows that we were just talking about. The villager comes to his neighbor at midnight… asking for bread, seeking to borrow three loaves, and knocking at his neighbor’s door!
According to Jesus’ saying, the only appropriate response from the householder would be to give what is asked for, to help find what is being sought, and to open the door to the one who is knocking. (Period!) Everyone in the audience would know that! It’s basic hospitality. It’s what would be expected in the village. To do less would be un-gracious, un-generous… in fact, insulting!
So, the unexpected surprise in the parable (the twist to the story that would have made Jesus’ audience shake their heads) is that the person asking for bread was refused! “Do not bother me,” is the neighbor’s first response. (!)
While you and I (in our modern, market-driven economy) expect people to get what they deserve, get what they have earned, and get what they can pay for… this “do not bother me” response is fairly common; it seems quite natural, doesn’t it? “Look, your problem is not my problem! Go away.”
This, however, would have been unheard-of under the norms of Jewish hospitality -- which are patterned after the hospitality that Abraham extended to visitors. You may recall the story in Genesis 18:1-8, when the Lord and two angels passed by Abraham on their way to investigate the City of Sodom. He invited them into his tent… made bread, killed the fatted calf and barbecued it; conversing with them over a meal.
It’s how things were done in rural Israel, and the custom of hospitality became codified in Torah Law. For example, every third-year “tithe” (and some other provisions of justice) were explicitly set aside in a common storehouse (like our United Way) to support landless Levites, widows & orphans, resident aliens & sojourning strangers. (see Leviticus 19:10 and Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 24:17-22, 26:1-15, & 27:19)
In Leviticus 19:34 (see also Deut. 10:17-19) Jews are instructed to provide hospitality toward strangers: “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The unexpected guest (in Jesus’ parable), who arrives in the middle of the night, is more like a visitor (a “sojourner” or “alien”) than like a native villager. The home that opens itself to take in a visitor must also care for them. That’s the custom.
Furthermore, every Jewish villager knew that grapes that had fallen in the vineyard and crops on the edges of the field were not to be “gleaned” (or harvested completely), but were left out in the open… for the migrating stranger passing through, the itinerant (like Jesus and his disciples), as well as for the local homeless & the poor, so they’d have something eat.
So, in the context of village life, the first man in today’s parable -- the one who welcomes the visitor into his home in the middle of the night – is doing the right thing. He’s doing the acceptable “God thing” Jesus’ way. However, it seems he has no bread! His is apparently a poor household which is unprepared to host a visitor. And yet, the man still wants to show hospitality to the unexpected guest. His attitude and behavior upheld village expectations with honor! He was acting faithfully like Father Abraham, being true to Torah tradition, and he was holding his (& the village’s) reputation with integrity.
What the first man did was entirely in keeping with faithful Biblical expectations and cultural norms in traditional village life. His reluctant neighbor, on the other hand, was shamefully disrespecting them by saying “Do not bother me.”
The villager may have been shocked by his neighbor’s refusal, but he was not silenced by it. He keeps on asking! He keeps on knocking. Apparently, once is not enough!
Some commentators see in this parable an example of the need to be “persistent” in prayer… just as they do in the parable about a widow who won’t cease pestering the judge until he renders a verdict in her case. (Luke 18:1-8) The sleep-ing neighbor (in this parable) who has to be “bullied out of bed” is seen as analogous to the “unjust judge” (in the other parable) because they both are reluctant to do the “right” thing in the first place.
Unlike our contemporary callousness toward people in need, people in Jesus’ audience would have been shocked by the man’s statement: “Do not bother me.” They would have felt the public shame this disgruntled neighbor might bring to their neighborhood by refusing to help if he could do so. It is, after all, a request for bread: the “staff of life” – the very “stuff” of life! And he says, “No. Don’t bother me.” ?
“The door is now shut,” was the man’s second reply. “My children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you any-thing.” And yet, the neighbor keeps knocking, seeking, & asking!
William Herzog, one of my professors when I worked on my Doctor of Ministry degree, says (in his 1994 book, Parables as Subversive Speech, page 198):
“To Palestinian peasants rooted in the values of village life, it would have been simply inconceivable that a neighbor who had been awakened to help fulfill the obligations of hospitality would try to excuse himself from helping by offering flimsy rationalizations. He would be shamed if he did so; he and his family would lose face in the village.”
Well, in the end the man got out of bed, unlocked the door, and gave the bread to his neighbor. Apparently the first man’s shameless persistence (the “pestering”, or what our Bible calls “importunity” or impudence) convinced his neighbor that further resistance was useless. As Pheme Perkins put it (in her 1981 book on parables, which I read at seminary): “Maybe friendship will not motivate your neighbor to get up and get what you need, but a little persistent inconvenience will.” (page 194)
She expresses well what Jesus himself says at this point in the parable: “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impor-tunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” (Luke 11:8)
Jesus’ dismissal of “friendship” as a motivator of right behavior made me realize that the word “friend” was actually used three times at the start of this parable. Jesus begins by asking: “Which of you who has a friend… will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend… lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine… has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.” Friend – the Greek word “philos” – 3 times!
Apparently, friendship is not sufficient to motivate right behavior, if it risks inconveniencing the superior party. (!)
Let me take a moment, if I may, to point out that we have often seen well-known celebrities & powerful politicians claim as “friends” their lawyers -- their colleagues, maybe some beautiful women, high-ranking officials, and rich donors -- only to turn around and disrespect them (publicly disavow even knowing them, speaking rudely about them as “losers” or worse) when they no longer bow & kow-tow to the ego of their so-called friend! I think that happens because “philos”/love -- friendship -- thrives best among people of like mind, who care about the same kinds of things (like your family members or your political base does), people who agree with your opinion, and who are ready to support one another in a reciprocal way, because their success depends upon mutual cooperation, without any rivalry.
If there truly was “friendship” between these neighbors in Jesus’ parable, each one would supply whatever was needed to uphold the honor of the other. Because of their mutual concern to uphold each other’s “honor” in the community, a friend would not refuse anything that is asked (in appropriate circumstances).
With this context in mind, Jesus’ saying which appeared at first so unlimited and unconditional -- encouraging us to “ask, to seek, & to knock” -- may mean: “For every friend who asks, receives; when friends seek together, they find; and to every friend who knocks, it will be opened.”
When the man came to the door and said: “Friend, lend me three loaves”, such a request -- made direct and urgent in the middle of the night -- indicates to me the “closeness” of a friendship, not “impudence” or rudeness. (!) Asking to “borrow” the bread not only means that he’ll repay what he owes… but it acknowledges the inherent “mutuality” involved in their friend-ship… the willingness to “reciprocate”. What I mean is: we do for our friends things that we would expect them to do for us in return, if the situation were reversed.
Isn’t that what the “Golden Rule” says we are supposed to do? Jesus’ ultimate ethical rule is that we should treat everyone as though they were family-members or friends… whoever they are, wherever they are on life’s journey, and whenever they come knocking at the door. (!)
Their friendship should have been sufficient for the man to give the necessary bread. It’s what was expected; no excuse!
So, in the first place, Jewish village life would expect the neighbor to respond with hospitality, if possible, because the honor of their community was otherwise at stake. Second, their mutual friendship ought to have been reason enough to give the man the bread. But the reluctant neighbor is shameless in both regards: neither the honor of friendship, nor the honor of his community, mattered to him!
I realize that a lot of sermons have suggested that being “persistent in prayer” is the point of this parable… as though God is like the sleeping neighbor…the reluctant & shamelessly in-hospitable one, who at first refused -- justifying his inaction (1) due to the lateness of the hour, (2) the inconvenience of the children, and (3) the lock having already been set for the night… or, for that matter, any number of other reasonable excuses NOT TO DO what’s been asked to do.
With all due respect to those traditional and well-meaning preachers and Bible teachers of the last few Centuries… who have equated the neighbor – the one who in the end provided the bread – to the figure of God… (!) I believe (to the contrary) that the character in the parable who is more faithfully true to Judaism, and to the Jesus movement in his day, and to the God who is expressed in the Lord’s Prayer… is the first villager: the one who goes out looking for bread in the middle of the night.
He goes out – asking, seeking, knocking – not for himself (!) … but in order to meet the need of a stranger, a sojourner, a visitor, an alien resident, an asylum seeker, maybe a tourist… who showed up on his doorstep.
The Bible (Torah) mandates that we who believe in God must care for the sojourner, the stranger, the foreigner alien, in our midst. … and also that we must care for the poor -- for widows, orphans, the homeless, and the hungry…
The social expectation that we offer hospitality – even as little as three loaves of bread – should triumph over all the other petty, miserly, and self-centered reasons NOT to do so.
The disrespectful shamelessness in this parable is not the persistent petitioner, but the householder who didn’t want to give the bread. It is wrong to see in him a metaphor for God… because Jesus’ experience of God was the exact opposite of the reluctant neighbor in the parable!
In other words, if you asked God for something, you need not be afraid! God is ready and able and willing to help out. (!) So, ask! If you need something, bring your request to God, who (Jesus says) desires “to seek & to save that which is lost.” If you need something, be assured: God is awake at every hour, even in the dark of midnight, so knock!
Keep on knocking when you see that things are not yet right. Keep on seeking, against all odds, for that which you believe is God’s will. And, above all, feel free to approach God like a friend… from whom you may ask for what you need. Ask shamelessly! And be blessed for doing so, because (according to Jesus) that is how prayer works. -- Amen.