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|Contents|||||Friendship and conscience: Luke 11:1¬13|
I gather that here at North Baddesley you are part-way through a series of sermons looking at different parables that Jesus told. Tonight’s address is one of these, looking at a parable that is usually called “The Parable of the Friend at Midnight”. Of course there is a lot else in these few verses, not least being the shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer, but for this evening I am going to focus our attention on the parable found in verses 5-8, and the summary that Jesus concludes it with in verses 9 and 10. I don’t often do book adverts, but when looking at the parables of Jesus, especially those recorded in the gospel according to Luke, I have found books by Kenneth Bailey to be very helpful. Bailey spent over 40 years living and working in the Middle East, at a time when many of the rural village customs had remained, as it were, frozen in time for many years. In many ways the villages, and the villagers, he knew, lived a lifestyle not far removed from that in which Jesus lived and taught. So his books are full of profound insights into the details of the parables, the ways in which Jesus could convey a whole world of meaning to his listeners with just a few well-chosen words. This way of life was still available to Kenneth Bailey about 50 years ago, but is increasingly hard to find alive anywhere now, so we are in his debt for recording what he learned and being able to describe it so clearly.
I suppose it is common knowledge that the duty of hospitality is a very weighty one throughout the Middle East, both now and in the past. Offering and accepting hospitality, sharing a meal, is a deep and sacred act by both host and guest. As a matter of principle, the host should be able to offer the guest more than he or she actually wants, and as a matter of principle, the guest should receive the food gladly even if not actually in need. It is also not appropriate to offer a guest something left over from before – the guest should feel that they are receiving the best that there is to be had, not just the remnants of someone else’s meal. There was a whole ritual relating to shared meals, which still exists to some extent today. It is particularly good that we are looking at this parable – which relates among other things to the duty of hospitality – on an evening where we are to share our own fellowship meal. God Himself is to be our host and we the guests at this meal; as host He takes His obligations seriously, and He asks us to take our responsibilities seriously as guests.
The first reading we heard, from the book of Deuteronomy, is one of the several places where Moses pauses in the development of his teaching, and summarises it in brief. Love and serve the LORD, he says, and goes on to root these ideas in the character and revealed actions of God Himself. God shows no partiality or favouritism… so you should not, says Moses. God defends the orphan and the widow… and so should you, says Moses. God loves the alien and the stranger… and so should you, says Moses. Moreover this was exactly your own condition in Egypt, he continues, so there should be good reason to understand the plight of the stranger and strive to lighten his darkness, lighten his load, ease the conditions of his life. Of course Israel as a nation has not always lived up to this calling, and neither has the Christian Church, but nevertheless the foundation stone is that God cares for those who find themselves outside the community… and so should we. Several times, among the various requirements of the Law passed on by Moses, we find the commandment repeated that aliens and strangers are to be treated no differently to community members. There was to be no discrimination, no unfair treatment, no double standards. Not only that, but Moses went further and insisted that the aliens and strangers amongst them were to enjoy the benefits of the Land just as much as the Israelite citizens. Churches up and down the land have just read another Deuteronomy passage in Harvest Festival celebrations – chapter 26, where we read among other things “you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and to your household”.
But it is not just in the Law we find this – we find it elsewhere in the Old Testament too. Proverbs 25 contains the command “if your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink”, words which the apostle Paul quotes in his letter to the Romans. It is one of the common threads running through the three portions of the Old Testament – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. So when we arrive at this parable of Jesus, where the person who is asking for food is no enemy, but a friend and neighbour, we have no doubt what the response ought to be. If we are supposed to give food to enemies, how much more should we do so to friends and members of the same community?
So here we have the background to Jesus’ parable. It is as though he is saying to his listeners – “can you imagine one of you, here in this village, one of your own neighbours, refusing to meet the duty of hospitality to one another?” and we can see his listeners looking at one another, shaking their heads, and a chorus of “no, no, that would never happen” following. Jesus goes out of his way here to emphasise the ridiculousness in that culture of the person refusing the request. Not much was being asked for – just three loaves of bread, not a leg of meat or a complete meal – remember that these would be flat round loaves, more like pitta bread or pancakes than English loaves. Not only that, but it was not for the other’s personal use – the honour of the whole village was at stake, since the hungry person was on a journey from somewhere else. The expected reaction was that the traveller should go away with a good report of generosity, a favourable impression of the community. I don’t know if anyone here has bought anything from traders on the Internet, but nowadays when you buy through Amazon or E-Bay or whoever, you are expected to leave feedback about the deal so that others can learn from your experience. What people want is to have positive feedback left – this person was a reliable and honest dealer, the thing I bought was as described and arrived promptly, and so forth. They don’t want negative feedback – unreliable, slow to pay or deliver, dishonest about the thing in question. Well, the sleeper in Jesus’ parable should have been worried about the negative feedback that his whole community would receive as the traveller went on his way – “that village would not give me food, the man there would not get up to help a friend”. But in the parable, and no doubt to the disgust of Jesus’ audience, this man apparently didn’t care! He hears the voice of his friend outside the door, he hears about the situation… but he can’t be bothered. He’s in bed, the door is locked, the children are asleep. The excuses are laughable! Notice that he does not say that he has nothing to give! It is all to do with his willingness to give, not his ability to give.
So we come to the point that Jesus wants to make, and sadly it is a point that is slightly lost in translation. Jesus often employs puns and word-plays as he speaks – following in the great tradition of the Old Testament writers and speakers under the inspiration of the Spirit of God – and this is one such occasion. He uses a word which as He used it can have two quite different meanings, and by the time we have translated it into English there is no equivalent double-meaninged word. So translators, quite understandably, choose the more common meaning and we have the explanation given “because of his boldness he will get up” – other translators’ choices are persistence, or the rather old-fashioned word importunity which carries the idea of being slightly impudent in one’s request. So we can easily go on from there into the wider context of Jesus teaching about prayer, that when we pray we should be bold and determined, persistent and resolute.
But the other sense of the word Jesus used conveys the idea of having a sense of shame. We have two people here, the friend outside and the friend inside. When Jesus speaks of boldness and persistence we understand that the friend outside is in view. When he speaks of being motivated by a sense of shame then we understand that the friend inside is in view. So we can understand Jesus’ explanation to mean that even if motives of friendship would not motivate the man to get up, in the end his sense of shame, of duty, of upholding the honour of the community would do this. We cam imagine Jesus’ listeners settling back in relief – although this man couldn’t be drawn out for friendship’s sake, after all he did understand the duty of hospitality.
Now, this aspect of Jesus’ words finds an echo in the rhetorical questions he asks at the end of our passage for tonight – if your child asks for a fish or an egg, will you give him a snake or a scorpion? Of course not! If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father do so? That same idea lies behind Jesus’ choice of words here – if even one of you who are evil will meet the demands of human hospitality, even if only through a sense of shame, how much more will God Himself respond to prayers, out of His immense kindness? We find in Jesus’ choice of word the two ends of the communication that is prayer – the human part is to be persistent and bold, and the divine part will respond not simply out of community obligation but out of love, out of friendship. In passing, Jesus underlines the fact that community hospitality is not just a quaint Middle Eastern custom, but it is a quality of relationship of which God approves and affirms. Our Christian faith is not just a personal thing between us and God, it is a community thing that extends to our fellow humans, whether within our church fellowships or outside them. The friend may come at midnight to your door, or to mine, and if feelings of friendship do not motivate us to get up then feelings of community duty should do so.
To sum up the theological content of these verses, there are two main parts – one pointing towards God and one towards mankind. The part that points towards God highlights His quality of giving. In the parable everything is against the asker – it is night, the giver is in bed and so forth – and yet even in such a case the human giver will respond out of duty and provide whatever is needed. How much more will God give out of His own sense of integrity and loving-kindness? The part that points towards man has to do with assurance. If the asker can be confident of getting what he needs even in this situation, how much more can we be confident of getting our needs met by a loving heavenly Father? Of course, there is a whole area of teaching that our verses for tonight do not cover, concerning what kinds of prayer requests are good to be asking for, what kinds of response God may give to prayer and why things do not always turn out the way we long for. These things are most important if we are not to try to greedily exploit God’s good and giving nature – but since they are not in the verses for tonight I am not going to explore those are.
I want to spend a few minutes thinking about the few verses immediately after the end of the parable, in which Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”. As I read it, the parable itself is directed primarily at those who are already publicly, openly in the community – the church, if you like. It is those people – us, perhaps – who ought to feel most strongly the obligation of hospitality, of giving loaves of bread at midnight, But Jesus makes sure that his hearers and readers understand that prayer itself is not just for the in-crowd, but for everyone. Why do I say that? Well, he gives three examples one after the other – those who can ask, those who have to seek, and those who have to knock. These three groups of people are, if you like, at increasing distances from being in the community. Let me explain what I mean.
Those who can ask are like the friend in the parable. They are already known to the One who can answer the request, their voice is familiar. They already feel they can turn up at midnight and be confident of getting a good response. Jesus goes on to assure them that whoever asks will receive.
Those who have to seek are, perhaps, newcomers. They are not quite sure which way to go in order to find a response, but they are confident that a response is to be found somewhere. They don’t quite know which house to approach, maybe they don’t know the right protocol, they are uncertain – but they do know there is a house to look for, a house with many rooms. Jesus assures people in this situation that their seeking is not in vain – they will, after all, find what they are seeking.
Those who knock are strangers. They are not sure even if there is a welcome for them here. This is one of the points Kenneth Bailey makes most strongly – the person who is a friend in such a village will call out, and will know that his voice will be recognised. Only a stranger knocks, because his voice is unknown and might cause fear and rejection. One of the great Egyptian descriptions of times of peace and quietness says “noone calls out in a stranger’s voice” – the voice of a stranger might bring anything, and was often linked to turmoil and difficulty. That was Egypt, but the underlying feelings in that description are common across the Middle East. So here we see Jesus’ compassion for those who know that their voice is that of the stranger. Will I be allowed in? What will they say when they hear me? Why should they listen to me? All these questions, and more besides, run through the minds of people who are on a spiritual journey towards God but don’t see themselves as having arrived. To them, to each person authentically seeking God in prayer but with a stranger’s voice, Jesus says “knock, and the door will be opened”. If we are talking to people in this position, let’s make sure our answer is the same as Jesus.
So these words of Jesus are directed at these concentric circles of people, spreading out like ripples from the original focus of the parable. I suspect that he wanted to add this balance in to the telling of the parable itself, to make sure that his audience were not left with the impression that prayer is only permitted to those who are already friends. The parable speaks of people who only need to ask, but Jesus’ invitation to seek Him in prayer goes out to those who are, at present, much more remote.
I would like, finally, to turn our thoughts towards the communion meal we are to share in a few minutes. Luke takes up about half of his gospel with the trip towards Jerusalem, starting in chapter 9 with the words, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem”. Along the way we find a carefully-chosen set of episodes and parables related. Tonight’s verses on prayer – some teaching, and a parable – are mirrored by the teaching and parable in chapter 18, in which Jesus emphasises persistence in prayer and a right attitude of heart. But of course the destination to which He was heading was the crucifixion, and the Last Supper, and it is those things that we are going to remember not just in word but in shared actions tonight. I talked earlier about the obligation on the host to provide for the guest, and I want to say again that in our communion time, God Himself is the host. He has provided abundantly more in the person of Jesus than we could ever consume. He is not giving us some left-over remnant of a previous meal He constructed, but He has given us the best possible out of all that He has and is. And He has given this not grudgingly or with reservations, but liberally and without holding back. So what is our obligation as guests at this His table? Well, first and foremost, our obligation is to receive with thankfulness what is put before us.
This can mean several different things, depending on the circumstances. There are times when any of us can feel unworthy to receive welcome at this table – unclean, if you like. There may be reasons for those feelings rooted in actual thoughts or deeds, but those feelings can also arise out of recognition of our own human nature. But the provision of this heavenly food is not made according to our own wisdom or ability to do good, but as a generous offer from a generous host. Our duty is to receive it, even if we do not feel worthy to sit at the table. But there are other situations where, in the wider picture of our lives, the things our Lord is offering do not seem very pleasant. The cup seems bitter to the taste and not sweet, the meal is rather meagre instead of being abundant. In times like these, I believe this particular meal affords a splendid place of sanctuary. The elements are always the same, and they are the same for each of us. In the wider span of life, we are all in different situations. For some here, life is good and the Lord’s presence feels very close. For others, life is difficult and He seems remote. The cup and the meal we each have in life at large can be so different one from another – but at this table, we share one meal, one kind of food, one kind of drink. It is one of the great things that brings each and every believer together – we step aside from the everyday varied tasks of life into a room where each of us is offered the same bread and the same wine.
Towards the end of Luke’s gospel we find the following description of the Last Supper:
So they prepared the Passover. When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God." After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him."
Let us pray together…