A Parable on Prayer

Praying Together
May 1, 2021
Keith Phillips

Prayer, though natural to Christians, must be learned. This is why Jesus’s disciples insisted, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11:1). In Luke 11, Jesus teaches the equally important matters of why and how we should pray. And by way of a parable that follows His ‘Model Prayer’, Jesus subsequently aims to instill in every disciple an eagerness and confidence in prayer.

5Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; 6for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’;

In the Ancient Near East, few values were more highly esteemed than that of hospitality. In this honor-shame culture, one was wholly obliged to feed and provide rest to a traveler. This is the context for the parable as Jesus introduces a host who does not have food on hand for an unexpected visitor. With no 24-hour Walmart to run to, Jesus pictures the man going to the house of a neighbor to ask for bread, which was the staple of one’s diet in this day.

With the dilemma stated, Jesus now shifts the focus of the parable to the man who is awakened at night.

7and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’

This brief reply contains a number of excuses, many of which we are likely sympathetic too. First, the hour is late and the door is already locked. Further, the man and his family likely shared a single room. So, to arise and prepare a meal for this guest meant waking up the entire household. But despite our modern sensitivity, it is not Jesus’s intention that we be sympathetic to the plight of this disturbed neighbor.

Rather, Jesus presents this scene rhetorically; it is a situation calculated to produce a reaction of incredulity. We might rephrase Jesus’s meaning in this way, ‘Can you imagine someone receiving such a reasonable request and giving an excuse like this man?’ Despite the unwelcoming circumstances, the request was completely legit, even at that hour, because of the vital demands of hospitality. Again, hospitality was a sacred duty throughout the Mediterranean world, even when the visitor was a complete stranger. The honor of this man, his namesake, as well as the reputation of the entire village was at stake.

Jesus therefore concludes,

8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence [literally, “shamelessness”; “shameless audacity” (NIV)] he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

This verse is notoriously difficult to translate and scholars are divided over the meaning of the Greek word, anaideia. Many render it as meaning boldness or persistence. In this sense, the man opens the door because of the persistence of the one making the request. However, the parable does not read or stress the man’s persistence, nor is boldness implied in the tone and language of the parable. More than this, anaideia is nowhere else translated as persistence in Scripture nor anywhere else in Greek literature.

This is not to say that Jesus does not want his disciples to be bold, persistent in prayer. Luke 18:1-5 certainly teaches this. However, the thrust of this parable is not upon the importunity of the one making the request, but in the readiness of our Heavenly Father to answer our requests. On what basis is the request ultimately granted in this parable? Out of the generosity and graciousness of the giver? Or, because of the bold insistence of the one who asks? I would submit to you the former. This parable, then, stands not as a comparison but a contrast. This becomes increasingly evident in light of the parallel story that follows (Luke 11:11-13).

Unquestionably, Jesus is not teaching that God is like this neighbor who can be awakened from slumber through bold, persistent prayer. Jesus’s point is not that we get answers to our prayers by bothering God. God is not to be compared to the man who begrudgingly gets up to answer the door, though even the man complied because his honor was at stake. Simply put, our problem in prayer is not God’s unwillingness.

Rather, the point of this parable is that if even a reluctant, human neighbor will grant such a request as this, how much more will your gracious heavenly Father grant your prayerful requests. To be sure, if we pray as Jesus taught us, “hallowed be Thy name…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…give us our daily bread…forgive us our trespasses”, then we can rest assured that God will surely answer because the honor of His name is at stake.

So many of us don’t pray because we think it makes no difference. We wrongly view prayer as some dreary spiritual exercise. But far from this, our parable reveals to us that God promises to answer when we call upon Him, on the basis of His name, His character, and His honor. He is sure to listen, sure to care, and sure to do good. May the knowledge of God’s character, goodness, and fatherly love transform our attitude toward prayer and motivate us to pray.
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