Coming straight on the heels of Jesus telling Martha that her sister Mary will not be deprived of sitting in the presence of God, Luke depicts Jesus as doing the same. The stories are less chronologically connected (i.e., there is no indication that this scene immediately played out after his night as a guest at Martha’s home), but there seems to me to be a clear purpose to link them on Luke’s part.
Jesus trusts his heavenly Father enough to sit in the habit of prayer, just as he invites us via Mary’s experience, to make use of the one thing needful. The disciples are so intrigued, encouraged, desirous even, by watching Jesus pray, that they ask Jesus to teach them. It’s almost as though their response is a foil to the one that Martha offered to the scene: they want to know how to pursue the one thing needful—communion with God.
Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is shorter than the one Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. Further, the commentary that Jesus adds after teaching them the prayer is on a completely different subject. In Matthew, Jesus talks more about forgiveness, but here he tells a parable.
As the textual point below highlights a little bit, the parable’s main point can prove to be a bit of a conundrum. Is it about the way that we pray? Is it about what we trust? How does the parable relate to verses 9-13? There is not universal agreement as to what/who the characters and actions of this parable represent, but there is consensus that our takeaway ought to focus on the character and nature of God, and that special attention can be focused on who the petitions are for.
When working with parables, I often follow look for what is the surprise in the story—the thing the original audience would have found unexpected or incongruent with reality. In this case, Ancient Near East scholar Ken Bailey makes the case that the entire situation would have been confounding to people of the time and place. In a communal, hospitality, shame and honour culture, Bailey argues, the resistance of a neighbour to help another neighbour provide for a guest would have seemed absurd. Hospitality was considered a communal task, and it would have brought shame upon the neighbour locked up in bed with his kids if he didn’t provide assistance. He will do it because it is the right thing to do.
But God! God will listen to our prayers and provide for what we need not only because it is the right thing to do—what he has promised to do—God will do it because he is our Good Father. The argument in verses 9-13 is a “greater than” comparison. If, out of our own love for our children, we would not respond to their requests with a malicious gift which will likely cause them harm, then we can trust our good, loving God to give us even himself: the Holy Spirit.
So whether we understand (see the textual point below) that the first neighbour petitions the second neighbour shamelessly or that the second neighbour, in order to avoid his own shamelessness, will answer the call of the first neighbour, we see that the point is that the request is both made and heard.
Notice, though, the nature of the request. It is not so much for a personal need as it is a petition on behalf of another. He intercedes. The first neighbour has a guest who needs food, the second neighbour has the ability to provide for it, so the first neighbour asks on behalf of his guest. The first neighbour calls upon his friend in order to help out a third person. He knows he can ask his friend to help because he trusts that his friend will do what is right as part of his responsibility as a member of the community. Even if they were not friends, the neighbour would help.
So might we understand that verses 9 and 10 apply to our intercessions on behalf of another? That when we seek the good of another, when we ask for God to provide what is necessary, we will find that God has given what is needful, and has opened the way to “be” in whatever situation we face through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God-still-with-us?
And, we might find that our own communal responsibility for God’s common good means that we are God’s way of providing those needs! This is why (or one reason) I think that Jesus specifies the gift of the Holy Spirit as what our heavenly Father gives to those who are asking. The Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth and equips us for service as agents of the Kingdom of God, is the source for all that is good in us and all that we do which can be called good.
Even as people who are regularly doing things that are not good (but evil), we know what it means to take care of others… so how much more does God know how to provide? Thus, we can intercede and act on behalf of others with assurance and trust that God is listening, that God cares, and that God is with us in order to provide. He does so for our sakes, and for his own—as a matter of keeping his own promises and intentions for the world.
One of the serious challenges with this passage is how to understand the meaning of the word anaideia, as well as which character in the story it is describing. Translations range from persistence, shameless audacity, and even impudence; these words are usually used when it is thought to be describing the man asking his neighbour on behalf of his guest. When it is believed to be describing the man with the bread, the meaning has more to do with wanting to avoid shame (related to the hospitality culture described above).
This word and its various definitions are important to consider as you think about what to preach. Be sure to keep in mind, though, that there is some consensus across the historical interpretation of the church into the modern day that this parable’s main point is not about persistent prayer (look to other parables for that) but about the nature and character of the God to whom we pray: always listening, always giving the good that we need, always providing the Holy Spirit. Or as Ken Bailey writes, “The parable said to the original listener/reader, ‘When you go to this kind of a neighbor everything is against you. It is night. He is asleep in bed. The door is locked. His children are asleep. He does not like you and yet you will receive even more than you ask. This is because your neighbor is a man of integrity and he will not violate that quality. The God to whom you pray also has an integrity that he will not violate; and beyond this, he loves you.”
There’s a scene in Phyllis Tickle’s memoir, The Shaping of a Life, that reminds me of the disciples’ desire to learn to pray while watching Jesus do it. Tickle writes about seeing her mother take time to silently pray each day on the “long bench” in their living room, “impervious to every possible interruption or distraction short of an emergency.” Every afternoon, after taking an hour to read a magazine and file her nails—so as to compose herself, mind and spirit, and to form a routine and practice for prayer—her mother would read the Bible for ten minutes, then
“Mother closed her Bible, setting it… on the sofa’s middle cushion. She turned off the lamp, she crossed her short legs at the ankles, and she went somewhere. This was to me the most curious of my mother’s feats. It was also the thing I would on many an afternoon sneak into the kitchen to wait to see.”
Tickle goes on to describe how she learned that her mother was praying on those afternoons by encountering her mother also praying in the morning while still laying in bed. She shares what her mother taught her through those actions:
“What my mother had just taught me, of course, was the first two basic principles of prayer: It requires a disciplined routine and it is an art best practiced by a composed mind and spirit: for that, I came to understand, was what the magazine and manicure kit and Bible were all about. They were not the purposes of Mother’s afternoon, only her preparation for it… her greatest gift to me was not some principle of other characterizing prayer, but the implicit suggestion that those lands were there to be entered into. I was to spend the rest of my life in their discovery.”
Jesus presents to his disciples is as sort of “composed mind and spirit” is one of trusting assurance that our Good Father is listening.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 24, 2022
Luke 11:1-13 Commentary