In Luke’s gospel, immediately on the heels of teaching the disciples to pray, Jesus launched into a story that expands a bit on the idea of prayer. This is a longer blog posting, so before diving in, grab your coffee, a blanket, and your Bible.
And he said to them, “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’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.”
– Luke 11:5-8, ESV
If we take this story at face value, we are the midnight visitor who goes to a friend or neighbor asking for bread. The reply from inside is, “No. The door is shut, the kids are in bed, and I cannot get up to give you anything.” We, however, do not like that answer, so we continue to irritate the man who is trying to sleep. We pester him to a point of agitation wherein he gets up, against his will, and gives us everything we need.
If we accept that as Jesus’ theology regarding prayer, then the lesson is that we ask God for something we want or think we need, and if he says, “No,” we are to continue to pester God the point that he changes his mind, against his will, and gives us what we are asking for. Surprisingly, even respected scholars and commentators present this as the intended lesson of the parable,1 but this is a theological framework I find nowhere else in the New Testament. Indeed, we are taught to be persistent in prayer. The apostle Paul says to pray without ceasing;2 but it seems that once the answer is given, we are to take the posture of Jesus in the garden, saying, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”3
A Closer Look at Jesus’ Story
Jesus opens this story with a phrase that he often uses in storytelling, and it runs something like this: “Which of you…,” or “Suppose one of you…” This is a phrase that is spoken to elicit an unequivocally negative response. “Oh, that would never happen!” Which of you, having hit the baseball over the fence, would run the bases backward? “Oh, that would never happen!” When we apply this concept to the story Jesus is relating, our task becomes identifying the point at which the question ends, the point in the story at which Jesus has finished presenting his absurdity. I believe the absurdity does not end until the close of verse eight, that point at which the man reluctantly gets out of bed, unlocks the door, and gives us the bread for which we have asked.
The common home in this village setting is a one-room home,4 and this single room served as kitchen, workspace, bedroom, and even shelter for the livestock at times.5 In our story, we have come to a friend’s house at an unreasonably late hour and called out to our friend to awaken him. Many have analyzed this parable and noted that the friend asking for bread knocked and beat on the door relentlessly in order to retrieve his bread. The parable does not say anything of the sort, and it is highly unlikely that the visitor did so. A knock on the door at midnight can be an unsettling thing. A friend, rather, will call out, thereby identifying who it is.
In the middle-east, to refuse a call for help in a matter of hospitality is unthinkable. In saying he had nothing to set before his guest, the petitioner has stated something that was a matter of honor to Middle Eastern culture6,7 particularly when the request is merely for three loaves.
Bread is essential to the meal, not that the bread is the meal itself, but rather it is the instrument with which one eats. There are no plates, knives, forks, and spoons. Instead, the diner tears off a piece of the bread and dips it into a common dish situated in such a way that everyone can reach it.8 Essentially one eats his spoon with every bite. You may recall how during the last supper Jesus identified Judas as the traitor by saying the one who dips with him is the one who will betray him.9 Without bread, a meal cannot be served. Thus the absurdity in the story is that the man would refuse to help.
Once the man was awakened, if he is quiet enough, he can retrieve the loaves, unlock the door, hand the loaves to the petitioner, and return to bed. In the unlikely event that the children do awaken at such a late hour, they will simply groan, roll over, and go back to sleep. There is no scenario under which this man will violate his own honor, the honor of his friend, or the honor of his village by refusing to provide the requested loaves. The visiting traveler is not only our friend and guest, he is the guest of the sleeping man and the guest of our entire village.
The tricky part of Jesus’ story lies in the statement, “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.” This sounds very much like our original analysis – that we are to persistently pester God until he changes his mind and gives us what we want. The term translated persistence is ἀναίδειαν (anaideian), and persistence is certainly an acceptable translation for this term. The challenge is that such a translation presents us with a theological conundrum – the theology of pestering God into relenting.
The term ἀναίδειαν, derives from αἰδώς (aidos), and when we understand that the primary meaning of αἰδώς is “shame,” this story suddenly makes sense. A handful of translations make use of the shame angle when translating this passage. The most recent revision of the New International Version has changed their previous translation “because of the man’s persistence” to read, “because of your shameless audacity.” The New Living Translation says, “because of your shameless persistence.” Both translations opt for the concept of shamelessness, and both apply it to the man asking for bread. But the text is not clear about that. Shamelessness, yes, but whose?
Consider the Darby Bible Translation:
I say to you, Although he will not get up and give [them] to him because he is his friend, because of his shamelessness, at any rate, he will rise and give him as many as he wants.
– Luke 11:8, Darby
Darby seems to understand that the sense of shame is not being applied to the petitioner, but to the man inside the home. Darby knows that the reason the man arises from bed to provide bread has nothing to do with friendship. It is because the man in the house has a sense of shame and honor as it concerns his village. Because of his sense of civic honor, he will rise and give whatever is required. Thayer agrees, noting that αἰδώς is that which precedes and prevents a shameful act, and it would always restrain a good man from performing an unworthy act, and even at times restrain a bad one.10
Consider Wiersbe’s take on it:
[ἀναίδειαν] can refer to the man at the door who was not ashamed to wake up his friend, but it can also refer to the friend in the house. Hospitality to strangers is a basic law in the East. If a person refused to entertain a guest, he brought disgrace on the whole village and the neighbors would have nothing to do with him. The man in the house knew this and did not want to embarrass himself, his family, or his village; so he got up and met the need.11
To recap Jesus’ story, we have a need and in our need, we go to a friend in the middle of the night to ask for bread. We have awakened him, his children are sleeping, and the door is locked. This is unpleasant and he would rather we hadn’t bothered him, but because he is a man of honor with a sense of shame, he will get up and offer us what we need.
And here is the point that Jesus is driving home:
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
– Luke 11:9-10, ESV
God never closes and locks his door. It is never night in his house, and no one sleeps. We can come to God in the long night of our souls and expect good answers to our petitions. He is faithful and loving, not giving us snakes when we ask for fish, or scorpions when we ask for eggs.12 Our Father will honor his own name and will not violate his blamelessness. He will meet our need and more, being “abounding in riches to all who call upon him.”13
If a tired and selfish neighbor finally meets the needs of a bothersome friend, how much more will a loving Heavenly Father meet the needs of His own dear children! … We have already seen that prayer is based on sonship (“Our Father”), not on friendship; but Jesus used friendship to illustrate persistence in prayer. God the Father is not like this neighbor, for He never sleeps, never gets impatient or irritable, is always generous, and delights in meeting the needs of His children.11
1. Lange, J. P., & van Oosterzee, J. J. (2008). A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Luke. (P. Schaff & C. C. Starbuck, Trans.) (p. 180). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. (also) Martin, J. A. (1985). Luke. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 235). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books. (also) Poole, M. (1853). Annotations upon the Holy Bible. (Vol. 3, p. 229). New York: Robert Carter and Brothers.
2. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 – Trivia Note: This is actually the shortest verse in the Bible. In the Greek text, this vers is one letter shorter than the famed “Jesus wept” verse.
3. Luke 22:42
4. Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (1998). Manners & Customs of the Bible. (p. 507). North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.
5. Morris, L. (1974) The Gospel According to Luke. (p. 195). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
6. Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes. (Lk 11:6). Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press.
7. Genesis 18:1-8
8. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 1, p. 138). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
9. Matthew 26:23
10. Thayer, J. H., (1979). The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. (p. 14). Lafayette, IN: The Book Factory.
11. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 215). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
12. Luke 11:11-13
13. Romans 10:12b