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Friday, March 26, 2010

He's Just a God Who Can't Say No

The second segment of Jesus' four-part teaching on prayer in Luke 11:1-13 goes like this in the New English Translation (NET):
Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine has stopped here while on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him." Then he will reply from inside, "Do not bother me. The door is already shut, and my children and I are in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything." I tell you, even though the man inside will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of the first man’s sheer persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
Believe it or not, in the original Greek most of this story is a single run-on sentence.  More precisely it's a question.  The reason that English translations break this question into separate sentences is because a literal translation looks like a train wreck in our language.  But actually, in casual spoken English it's not that unfamiliar.  Imagine not reading but hearing your friend ask you,
Who here would have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, "Buddy, let me borrow three loaves of bread, because my friend showed up at my house from a trip and I don't have anything to feed him," and he answers from inside, "Stop bothering me!—the door's already shut, my kids and I are already in bed; I can't get up to give it to you"?
Does Jesus want to know the disciples' answer to this question?  No, because it's a hypothetical, point-proving question whose answer is obvious to all of them: no one.  None of them would have a friend who would refuse them that way in that situation.

That's because of what this scenario would look like in a typical Middle Eastern village.  The people wouldn't be living in multi-story houses with thick, well-insulated walls and yards in between.  They would be in small, totally un-sound-proofed houses jammed against each other on a tiny parcel of real estate with narrow streets.  If a guy starts banging on someone else's door in the middle of the night and shouting in to be sure he's heard, pretty soon everyone in town wakes up and hears all of it.

Once everyone wakes up, the guy's problem becomes everyone's problem.  Hospitality was a huge virtue in Jesus' traditional society, so the guy with the visiting friend is really in trouble.  However, the communal nature of a typical village meant that everyone was responsible for the treatment of this visitor.  Again, if we think about the towns that we live in it doesn't follow that my neighbor's failure of hospitality makes me look bad.  But imagine that someone brings a guest to your church and then leaves him alone in a room and ignores him, and the guest is standing around clearly not knowing what to do.  In a small church like mine, any one of us would immediately feel responsible.  If we don't take care of him, it's not just the member who invited him who looks bad, but we all look bad.  This is the same situation that the residents of this hypothetical town are in—let's get this guy some loaves of bread!

But of course, the fellow whose door is being banged at is the one imposed upon, and therefore the shame of not showing hospitality has been transferred from the person with the visitor to him.  That makes it an even larger imposition.  Not only is he being asked to roll out of bed, not only is he about to lose three loaves of bread out of his own family's mouths, but if he doesn't comply he looks like a complete jerk to the entire town.  The NET says that he will get up because of his friend's "sheer persistence."  A better translation (which you find in the marginal notes in some Bibles) is "shamelessness."  This friend knocking on the door is way out of line.  He is rudely putting his friend in bed in a painfully awkward position.  He's making a scene.  The whole town is probably torn between the shame of not providing for this visitor and the sympathetic discomfort of seeing this guy's audacious behavior, like when you hear (but pretend not to hear) two people getting into a shouting match in a grocery store and you quickly find another aisle to shop in.  The man inside won't stay under the covers—he'll get up to end this embarrassing moment as soon as possible.

So why does Jesus tell this story to urge us to pray?  Because when we pray, we, like the man whose friend as just shown up at midnight, are admitting our poverty.  We admit that we don't have the resources to do what we ought to do.  We're basically embarrassing ourselves by admitting our weakness.

But when we pray, God is even more embarrassed.  His promises are written in Scripture after Scripture, his faithfulness is displayed in every sunrise and sunset and at the turning of every season, and as a Father he has placed his own Name on his children.  His children's want is an embarrassment to the King of glory.  The loud, obnoxious prayers of the saints draw the attention of all the world to disparity between the glory, riches, and claims to faithfulness of God and the hung-out-to-dry destitution of his children and servants.

Will God allow this disparity to continue?  Will he be humiliated and allow his great Name to be sullied before the entire watching world?  Certainly not!  Even if he did not love us one bit—and we know that he loves us more than we can conceive—he would still grant our requests for the sake of his glorious reputation.  His own prestige is on the line, and he will not let it drag through the mud.

So when you are pinched by life in any direction, when you have needs that make you groan, go to prayer with shameless boldness, knowing that God potentially has even more egg on his face than you do.  Will he let you down?  Of course not!  He has a reputation to uphold, and that reputation includes satisfying you beyond what you can ask or imagine.

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