The Importunate Neighbor, William Holman Hunt (1895)
Luke 11:5-8: (Jesus) said to them, “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; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”
Luke 11 begins with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. In response, Jesus does two things. First, he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer, and then he tells this strange parable about a persistent midnight intruder. Jesus calls him a friend, but anyone, friend or not, who bangs on your door in the middle of the night for no good reason will seem like an unwelcome intruder. The man banging on the door says that he is in a desperate situation. Someone has arrived at his house, perhaps hungry after a long trip, and the man says, “I have nothing to set before him.”
“Well, too bad!,” the sleepy friend is probably thinking. “The grocery store will open in a few hours and he isn’t going to starve to death in that amount of time. Besides, what kind of friend is this? He’s not acting like much of a friend, showing up unannounced out of nowhere expecting to be fed in the middle of the night. Why bother me,” thinks the sleeping man, “for the sake of that other guy’s rudeness? Why not be a friend to me and leave me alone?”
Who can blame this man, so rudely awakened, for telling his inconsiderate friend to get lost?
But this midnight intruder is not so easily put off. He keeps banging on the door, calling out, making an all around nuisance of himself, until finally, the man trying to sleep gets up and goes to the door to let the man in. He says to himself, “Though I care nothing for this man’s predicament, and though I think this man is a pain in the neck to be bothering me this way in the middle of the night, I will get up and give him what he wants to get him out of here so that my kids and I can get back to sleep.”
Jesus says we ought to be like that in our prayers.
Like what? In prayer, we are doing the asking so we must be the rude man, and does that mean it is rude to bother God with prayer? Does that then make God the irritated friend, unwilling to help, requiring constant banging on his door in order to get his attention. Is that what God is like?
We get into trouble if we read too much into the parables. Parables are not precise and comprehensive theological expositions of everything. Parables are simple illustrations with a focused purpose. The purpose of this little parable is not to give a full description of God, but rather, to say something about our spiritual life. And the point Jesus is making is not that we should be rude, and not that God is unwilling to hear our prayers; but simply, that we must be persistent in prayer– like the man at the door in the middle of the night was persistent. In our prayers, in our worship, and in all aspects of our spiritual life, we should be persistent in coming to God. Persistence, says verse eight, is the key.
The Bible not only tells us about God, but it also tells us that God wants to have a relationship with us. God is our Father, says Jesus. We are his children. Christ, the Bible says, is the bridegroom of the church. This is the language of family, the closest of all human relationships. God has already done everything that needs to be done to fulfill that side of the relationship. God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, who taught, healed, lived among us, suffered for us, and died; and then rose from the dead. Risen from the grave, Jesus came back to us and he forgave us and he offers us eternal life. That is what we call grace, and that is God’s part of the relationship.
But a relationship needs two interested and involved parties. And so the Bible is always reminding us of our part of the relationship, always inviting our response, our faith, and our attention. God expects that we will not ignore him, but that we will keep in touch. One of the ways we do that is in prayer, and another way is in worship. This parable is about being persistent in our part of the relationship. Yes, we are saved by grace, but what happens if someone does not ever respond in any way to such an ‘amazing grace,’ not even with an occasional word of thanks?
Here is how Methodist pastor William Willimon described this in a parable of his own. A man and a woman were married. They promised, as people do in a marriage, to live together forever, no matter what. Shortly after their honeymoon, the man went on a long trip. He left town and did not tell his wife or anyone else where he was going. He just left, and his young wife did not hear from him for a very long time.
Ten years later, he showed up again, unannounced. He went into the house, walked up to his wife, put his arm around her, and said, “Hi honey, what’s for supper?” He planned to resume married life just as it was ten years before.
The woman shrieked. To the man’s great surprise his wife hardly recognized him. Not only that, but she had already officially ended their marriage by divorce due to abandonment, and she was now married to another man.
The man was upset and objected to her behavior. “Why don’t you love me anymore?” he said. “Why have you forsaken me? Do our marriage vows mean nothing to you?”
It was, of course, the husband who had forsaken his wife, the husband who had paid no attention to his wife for such a very long time; and then, after a while, there was no more relationship. He should not have been surprised.
God does not forget us. But when someone stays away long enough, they themselves will begin to feel the death of that relationship. To them, God will begin to seem distant or not there at all. It may seem to them like God has abandoned them, but they might need to ask themselves who has been absent from who, just like the young husband should have been asking. If one makes no effort to keep in touch with God, then, when that person does turn to God in a time of need, it should come as no surprise that God does not seem very close. But when someone does stay close to God, and is persistent in prayer and worship, they will find that greater blessings do come with the closer relationship. (continued…)
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust…
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation.