The outrageous grace of God...
One of my favourite experiences is being drawn forward on a path of study in the scriptures and discovering thoughts and ideas which are fresh and stimulate thinking and faith. And it's even better if it presents a different way of viewing things, possibly contrary to conventional interpretation. Well, I have been drawn down such a pathway this week.
Reading on in Luke's gospel, we came to chapter 11 where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray as John the Baptist taught his disciples. Jesus' response is initially to offer the 'Lord's Prayer' framework which seems very 'lean' in this gospel. Sometimes we can stop here, but his answer moves on and he offers a parable, an exhortation and an insight into the Father's heart by suggesting a comparison with theirs.
I've always read the parable with a smile, thinking of the neighbour tucked up in bed for the night with his children, reluctant to come and unlock the door. You'll remember the man has called on his neighbour at midnight because a friend on a journey has presumably just arrived and he has no bread to offer. In the end, the rather grumpy neighbour finally opens his door and gives him the bread he needs, not because, as Jesus says, he is his friend but because of the man's persistence or boldness. It was this latter word which drew me initially: 'persistence' in one NIV version, 'boldness in another, and even 'outrageous shamelessness' in another! With this translation Jesus appears to be suggesting a determined persistence or boldness will be rewarded with the Father's response to our prayers - which is the conventional interpretation of this parable.
But this is where it starts to get interesting. I had to look up the Greek original and discovered the word anaideia. It is used only once in the whole new testament and the simplest translation would be 'no-shame'. Fascinatingly, in greek mythology Anaideia is the name of a Greek goddess or spirit of ruthlessness, shamelessness and unforgiveness. She was said to be the companion of Hybris, from whom we derive the word hubris meaning excessive pride or self-confidence - often in combination with or synonymous with arrogance. In its ancient Greek context, I understand that it typically describes behaviour that defies the norms of behaviour or challenges the gods which, in turn, brings about the downfall or nemesis of the perpetrator of hubris. The goddess Hybris has been described as being guilty of 'insolent encroachment upon the rights of others' and in ancient Athens, hubris was defined as the use of violence to shame the victim. Anaideis' opposite partner was Eleos, the goddess of mercy. It seems rather difficult to understand how Jesus would be encouraging this kind of spirit and approach when it comes to prayer. Furthermore, the whole context of Jesus' teaching here on prayer focusses on the willingness of the Father to respond: Ask and it WILL be given to you; HOW MUCH MORE will your heavenly Father give... The notion that God somehow is reluctant to answer and requires us to keep banging on the door in an 'outrageously shameless' manner appears to contradict the tone of the rest of his teaching here.
Is it possible that we have been misinterpreting the core of this parable?
The man comes to his neighbour at midnight. The only reason for disturbing him at this unearthly hour can only be that his friend has just arrived, weary and hungry from the journey. Understanding the cultural context here is important. This isn't just a case of demonstrating friendship; middle-eastern codes of hospitality and propriety would demand that the man properly provide for his visitor - it would be a matter of honour, a case of avoiding shame. So when the man calls on his neighbour, who is understandably in the circumstances initially unwilling to disturb his household and unlock the door, it is with the objective of fulfilling his obligation and avoiding reproach. The neighbour recognises this as well as his own obligation to respond in like manner to his caller to ensure that honour is maintained. So Jesus says that even though the neighbour may be reluctant - even though he's a friend - his motivation is to avoid 'no-shame' and so ensure his own name and reputation - as well as his friend's - are maintained. For me, this fits in far more closely with the 'HOW MUCH MORE' revelation of the Father's heart in this discourse. If YOU would know how to respond to the midnight caller, how much more would your heavenly Father act in accordance with his own gracious name, character and reputation when you call on Him. The focus is surely not on the caller's persistence but rather on the Father's gracious inclination to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. His ways are above our ways. God is no man's debtor and He would never be 'shamed'.
In my opinion this turns the parable around. Persistence in prayer is a good thing but not what Jesus is emphasising here; he would have us rather focus on the 'outrageously generous' Father-heart of God. Be encouraged, then, to come to the God of the 'how much more'!
[In researching this I have discovered that there are scholars who have analysed the text and lean towards the conventional interpretation. For further reading I offer links to three articles on this topic - two of which follow the reading above - which are worth considering: