Then Jesus said to them, Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’ Then the one inside answers, Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Luke 11:5-8)
This parable bothered me when I was younger. It seemed to paint a rather terse picture, and I remember thinking to myself, Why doesn’t the neighbor just give him the bread? Is this really the way prayer works?
If the emphasis of this passage is our own persistence, then we must be willing to keep asking until finally we’ve pounded enough and God answers our prayers! Really?
Let’s consider the text. In the first century, parables were commonly used by orators, sages and teachers to clarify a given truth through illustration of a negative or positive example. Jesus was a master of the parable.
In this instance, Jesus tells an animated, rather humorous story that the crowd could relate to with ease. In that day, if visitors came to your home, it was customary to welcome them with your very best food and drink for their refreshment.
Since people couldn’t pick up the phone to give a heads-up that they were on their way, it was common for the arrival of guests to catch their hosts by surprise. The mere mention of this scenario would have inspired head-nodding amusement among the listening crowd, for everyone knew of inconvenient experiences portrayed in the teacher’s story.
Jesus continued by saying that the surprise visitor showed up at midnight, which would have incited even more laughter. Again, listeners would have easily empathized, because travelers usually planned their walking time during the cool of evening rather than the heat of the day.
Most homes were very small, one-room structures. When a family rose in the morning, they opened the door, and it remained open until evening when the entire family, pets and sometimes even livestock were herded into the house to retire.
Even though this part of the world is hot, it is noted for its chilly evenings. Before the sun completely set, everyone – and thing – crowded into the house and crammed onto floor mats to share body heat.
With that in mind, let’s consider this parable again. Imagine, you look out the window and see your long-lost aunt and uncle with their three kids coming toward the door, and you have already eaten the day’s supply of bread (it was customary for a family to bake just enough bread for that day because of spoilage).
Without the means to satisfy the religious and social obligations of a host, potential shame would send you running to a nearby house. The listeners, too, could easily see themselves frantically pounding on their neighbor’s door to escape impending embarrassment.
We can only imagine the commotion inside that small house as the inhabitants were abruptly awakened. They naturally shouted, Go away! We are sleeping! But this doesn’t stop the distressed neighbor. In this parable, Jesus paints a sitcom-worthy picture. Reluctantly, the neighbor gives our main character some food – just so they can go back to sleep.
When Jesus finished the story, he expressed the point of the parable – by changing the tone and offering this application, So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
Now, contrary to most cursory assumptions, Jesus is not inferring that perseverance, persistence or being a nuisance is the key to effectual prayer.
In the original language, the action words are written in the tense that depicts continual action – not as in keep knocking the door down, but rather be in the habit of knocking! In other words, don’t come to God only in your midnight emergencies, but rather, keep in constant communion with your father.
You see, it is with our heart that we communicate with God, not with our knuckles.