The doorbell rang. We were all upstairs and tucked away, asleep. The street we live on was quiet as usual at these times, so, to say the least, this “ding…..dong” was unexpected. Then the bell rang a few more times. “What in the world!? Who could it possibly be at this hour demanding we answer?” It was our friends from Florida. They arrived early. We knew they were coming but we thought the plan was for them to arrive the following afternoon. Apparently, they decided to save some money on their way to Canada rather than spending extra money on hotels… Now, all of us are up. Down the stairs we go… in pajamas, to greet our friends and help them settle in for the night.
The parable of the Friend At Midnight follows the teaching of the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11. We see two friends. One has come to the village as a visitor and the other looks reluctant to greet him. Are we supposed to see God as a friend who is disturbed by our attempts to visit him? And, are we risking being rude and unwelcomed by being a persistent doorbell ringer?
Let’s first think about the man who was asleep. Many studies tell us that Jesus has in mind a typical peasant man who will be asleep with his entire family right next to him. If he gets out of bed, it’s very likely everyone will be woken. The family’s front door was quite large and wasn’t the most convenient for a tired man to open at this hour, either. So, when the knock comes the entire family will be inconvenienced, right?. However, the knocking friend isn’t doing something he believes is rude or imposing. He knows how this works. He knows that it would be shameful for his friend not to greet him and welcome him properly, with food if he was hungry, with bedding, etc. It’s well documented that Middle Eastern cultural mores dictate the hospitality of the village in these situations. Shame would come upon the village if a visiting friend were to be rejected in such a circumstance, and the village would be very unhappy with anyone who did the rejecting. Think of Joseph and Mary arriving at an inconvenient time in Bethlehem. They would have been welcomed into a relative’s home. Jesus would have been laid in the manger where it was warmest in the house, where the animals would have been after being brought in for the night. It would have been unthinkable for the town to turn them away, let alone send them off to find a cave. Bethlehem would never have recovered its honor for turning away one of David’s offspring, Joseph. So, the man that was asleep in the parable is a caricature of a man who would not be the norm. It appears Jesus is creating a hyperbole in order to get across a point for the disciples in regard to the kingdom of God. Let’s think more about this in just a bit.
Now, is Jesus saying we’re supposed to see God as a friend who is reluctant to get out of bed if we show up in the middle of the night, ringing His doorbell? Is God to be thought of as a man debating whether or not he might bring shame upon his village and damage their reputation as well as his? I don’t think so. Here’s why: The parable Jesus uses is meant to portray the fact that even though the sleeping friend doesn’t want to get up, because of the village’s integrity and his own…he will get up, even waking his family in order to take care of his visiting friend. The larger point that will be emphasized is this, though: God isn’t reluctant at all, nor is He motivated by fear of dishonoring Himself or His community, Israel. God is eager and would be as one extremely delighted to greet his friend visiting at midnight. But, we’re not finished painting this picture.
Next, we need to think about why Jesus is portraying the visiting friend as persistent. Does Jesus want us to think that we should be persistent about something? Yes. However, this answer will require an explanation concerning the visiting friend and the remaining context. Remember, this parable in Luke 11:1-13 is sandwiched in between the teachings of the Lord’s prayer and Jesus’ exhortations to seek the will of God concerning the kingdom (11:9-13), along with Jesus’ reminder of the typical nature of fathers. For certain, we are to see the parable of the Friend At Midnight in connection with the Lord’s prayer. So, let’s address this. We are to be persistent in prayer. That’s for sure. We are to expect God to be eager and extremely delighted to answer. That’s for sure also. However, are we to understand this parable of the Friend At Midnight as a lesson about being disciplined to pray in general? Let’s think this through.
Luke tells us that one of Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus to teach the other disciples to pray like John taught his disciples to pray. What kind of prayer was John the Baptist teaching his disciples? All of the disciples would have grown up praying and would continue to have a discipline of prayer. Prayer wasn’t a new and unusual thing for the Jews, including the disciples. John must have been teaching his disciples a new kind of prayer. This is the same kind of prayer Jesus will teach and he uses the Parable of the Friend At Midnight and other teachings to attempt to provide clarity.
We must include another man in our discussion. His name is John the Baptist. John the Baptist had a distinct role as one of Israel’s prophets (Luke 1:76). John was preparing Israel for the climax of its lengthy national story. John was introducing the nation’s final and most incredible King. This king would be greater than David and Solomon combined. This king would also be a prophet like Moses, but even more significant. Descriptions like these are reserved for God, aren’t they? Exactly! John was preparing Israel to meet her God. This is why John, though esteemed as the greatest born of women, is recorded as preaching that Jesus is more powerful and greater than he. The roles of John and Jesus are being revealed at the end of Israel’s story, which is very important to the meaning of the Lord’s prayer. “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us of our sins for we ourselves forgive those who are indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation,” (Luke 11:2b-4).
This prayer is no common prayer. This prayer is revolutionary, especially for Israel at this time. Israel is God’s firstborn “son” (Exodus 4:22). Naturally, God is Israel’s Father. When Israel, God’s firstborn son, was in Egypt, they were enslaved and in need of deliverance. God, Israel’s Father, demonstrates himself as more powerful than mighty Egypt and Egypt’s revered and mighty Pharaoh. In other words, Israel’s Father was exercising his sovereign right and power in order to set Israel free to become the nation he desired. Their destiny wasn’t to remain enslaved by any empire (Deuteronomy 28:1ff). Jesus is teaching the disciples how to pray John the Baptist’s unique prayer. He’s teaching them something that is unique to their era. Israel’s Father (God) is going to act once again in a revolutionary way, more revolutionary than the disciples are able to imagine at this point. This is part of why Jesus seems to include the necessity for God’s name to hallowed or made extremely unique. The Jews have had a history where they’ve made God’s name unique, exalted and revered, but Jesus seems to be saying something new. Again, this is no common prayer.
God’s kingdom is coming to Israel in a very unique way. It is not coming in the way the disciples and most of Israel imagines. A messianic figure is coming and there are expectations of deliverance (cf. Luke 24:21) from the mighty empire they are currently enslaved by, Rome. Naturally, Israel is anticipating a kind of Moses on steroids when they imagine this Messiah. They expect God to act in another miraculous way, just as he did in Egypt long ago. They expected signs similar to those Moses performed, even greater signs. Israel is looking for this kind of ruler and Jesus has been showing promise but hasn’t exactly swept the nation off its feet like Moses did. Having said all of this, Israel and the disciples were expecting national redemption. They expected God to act overtly when he would deliver them. No wonder there was tension and hype, especially when Herod and the Temple elite found themselves in opposition. The kingdom of God coming was tangible. It was imagined to be a political revolution by the majority. This is what the disciples had in mind when they were thinking of the kingdom of God coming and God’s will being executed on earth. [Matthew’s Gospel account includes the concept of the kingdom coming and adds that God’s will be done on earth as it done in heaven.]
There is much more to this prayer that illuminates the Parable of the Friend at Midnight. Briefly, daily bread for the journey out of Egypt and daily bread for Israel’s journey out from under slavery to the real slavemaster of the world, the devil. God will provide everything needed to complete the journey for Israel. Israel must forgive its enemies because God is forgiving their sins. Israel is “in sin.” Moses covenant (Deuteronomy 28-30) spoke of Israel’s disobedience and consequent slavery to pagan empires. Israel has not been ruling the nations as God determined and did once through David. Israel had a covenant right with God to rule the nations in righteousness. After failing and sinking into idolatry, Israel was warned that if they wouldn’t repent they’d be enslaved again. As Jesus speaks, Israel has not yet been redeemed. Unless they trust Jesus, they will die in their sins (John 8:24-32). Jesus understands that few in Israel will trust him. He is forming a new community, a new nation. This new nation must understand it’s origins just as Israel understood theirs in Egypt. This new nation must trust God for provisions as Jesus rules the earthly from a heavenly throne. This new nation must forgive others nations because they have been forgiven. And lastly, for Luke, this new nation must fight the temptation to rebel against the people of earth. In order for the kingdom of God to come and for God’s will to be done on earth as it’s done in heaven, this new nation must PRAY, understanding it’s identity in the new King of the world, Jesus, and understanding it’s mission to assist Jesus in redeeming the world God so loves.
Now we return to the parable. Not Israel, nor a disciple, was supposed to envision God as unwilling to attend to their late night knocking. Just the opposite. God was eager and ready to answer. In other words, God was eager to deliver Israel, IF, they came knocking! It was plausible in the minds and hearts of the Jews that God had forsaken them as His chosen nation. They were under oppression from pagan empires for centuries. Yet, it was unthinkable in the heart and mind of God that he would not redeem Israel (and the world with them). It would be shameful if God forsook Israel, choosing to forget his promises to them. Jesus wants the disciples to know that it is now midnight! It is the nearing the last hour! If they are going to receive the hospitality they need during their journey they must persist, not because God is unwilling, but because Israel is blind and weak! They must develop faith in Jesus! Israel had their doubts about Moses ability to deliver just as they will have their doubts about Jesus’ ability to deliver, but Jesus isn’t a servant in God’s house like Moses was. Jesus is the Owner of God’s house! All the more reason to trust Jesus!
“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
Are we to learn a new prayer? I tend to think so. Do we think God doesn’t want to get out of bed to help us if we came knocking late at night? Of course, not. Do we think that we are rude if we are persistent with God? We shouldn’t. Yet, we aren’t supposed to see this as a common prayer are we? So, why has it been reduced into such a thing so often?
With all that’s constantly being taught about Jesus, it can be quite difficult to listen to Gospel writers like Luke. Also, it is much easier to imagine Jesus wanting us to pray more. Jesus didn’t only redeem Israel through his death and resurrection. He redeemed the entire world. He began something entirely new. He created a new nation just as God created a new nation through Abraham. He provided us all with an awareness that he holds the power of new life in his hands. He proved that even though the disciples were blind to his teachings and had little faith, he can create new eyes that see and give us hearts and minds that can possess enormous faith. The kingdom was established even though relatively no one knew they were witnessing it first hand. But, this doesn’t mean we should rest on our morals. We still need to pray AS Jesus taught his disciples, that’s God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We still need to remember what a great Father we have and that He is still capable of delivering humanity from its slavery to idolatry and sin. We still need to need to remember that God will provide the ‘food’ necessary for the journey. We need to remember that we have been forgiven and that we need to forgive. Can you imagine what it would be like if the leaders of the world declared that all world debt will be forgiven today? The real leader of the world did exactly that when he died on that cross. So, if our job is to communicate such great mercy from such a righteous and gracious king, we must fight the temptation to form rebellions against the world. All of this requires persistent and contemplative prayer. This is not easy by any means.
That means that we can’t take for granted that we already have all the tools and knowledge necessary to get Christ’s message out to our communities. What are our congregation’s priorities? We can’t assume that crafting a message just happens. We can’t assume hiring an individual to do that “kind of work” is working, whether it be a minister or a marketing expert. Some congregations have plenty of people in them but the congregation itself has no cohesive message for their community or their own members. Sure, there are mission statements and vision statements, but there are few people taking care of the ‘ship.’ If we want to live out the Lord’s prayer its going to take a concentrated effort. Congregations are going to have to find ways to join forces instead of acting like they’re not responsible for the communities they serve. Mere orthodoxy plagues our communities. We all have checklists of things we believe to be true but don’t all have plans to secure future generations with our best work. Praying the Lord’s prayer sobers us to see how dependent we are on the Lord and each other.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s keep knocking harder and harder!