A few weeks ago, I began reading a book entitled “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.” The premise of the book is this: that our relationship with God can be significantly impacted by our experiences in our relationships with others. This morning’s gospel reading is a clear example that earthly relationships can serve as metaphors for our relationship with God. You’ll notice in your bulletin that the scripture listed only goes through verse 10. But I presented two additional verses; a decision I went back and forth on through the course of the week because they are verses that cast God in the image of a father figure… which, if you had a good father who provided for you and encouraged you and helped you develop a sound faith and ethics; well, if that was your experience, than “father” is an awesome image to represent God. If, however, you had a father who neglected you, or abused you or shamed you, “father” becomes a horrible image to represent God. And, although in our minds we can comprehend that a disappointing earthly father is not an accurate image or metaphor for God, our hearts do not always line up with our heads.
Author Brennan Manning writes: “It is always true to some extent that we make our images of God. It is even truer that our image of God makes us. Eventually we become like the God we image…” Eventually, we become like the God we image. Keep that thought, that statement, in mind, alright?
The parable I shared with you this morning is a parable Jesus tells in response to his disciples’ question about prayer. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus responds by teaching them about the nature or character of the one to whom they pray. You’ve heard me say before that the word disciple means “one who learns” and that disciples of Jesus learn from Jesus how to know God, how to love God, and how to serve God. Now, one of the primary ways we develop and nurture our love for God is through the practice of prayer; prayer matures our relationship with God.
Now, first of all, since parables are not something we hear every day, let me present just the parable itself one more time.
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 is already locked, and my children are with me 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 avoidance of shame, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
So, this parable presents us with another metaphor – another earthly relationship between two neighbors. But, in this case, it is not about similarity; it is a study in contrast. In other words, the relationship between these two friends in NOT representative of our relationship with God.
Now there is a great cultural divide between a 1st century Palestinian and a 21st century Hoosier. And, if we’re going to understand what Jesus is trying to teach through this little parable, we do need to know some things about the culture of 1st century Palestine. Before we can apply this parable to our lives – specifically our prayer lives – we need to unpack some of those cultural details.
· The first detail is this: Hospitality is of extreme importance, even today, in eastern and Middle Eastern cultures. I have friends in Dayton that I visit with from time to time. When I spend the night with them, I usually need to get up pretty early. So, before we hit they hay, they generally ask me what I want for breakfast. They remind me where the cereal boxes and the coffee are. And that is plenty of hospitality for me. I don’t expect them to roll out of bed with the chickens to whip me up some fancy breakfast. But, life is very different in hospitality-driven cultures.
A few years ago I traveled to Jordan and went to see the ancient city of Petra. Now, when I think Middle East, I think deserts and when I think deserts, I think heat. That morning when I woke up in Amman, it was snowing. I had not packed for that. As we walked through Petra, my guide noticed me shivering. He took off his shawl and tied it around me. At the bottom of the gorge, some locals were sitting by a fire. With one subtle glance from our guide, they all cleared a spot for me closest to the fire. Later, when we got back on the bus, I tried to give the scarf back to our guide. But I wasn’t at all surprised that he refused to take it back. It was his gift to me. So, that’s our first cultural distinction: hospitality is of extreme importance in the Middle East.
· But, I wonder if you noticed something else in that illustration I just gave. Did you notice that hospitality is not an individual or private kind of thing? I had never before seen those men at the bottom of the gorge huddled around the fire and I can’t imagine I will ever see them again. We didn’t know one another from Adam. But, because I was under the care of our Jordanian guide, they had no less responsibility for me than our guide did. So, that’s our second detail: hospitality is the job of everyone in the village. So, hospitality is of extreme importance AND it’s the job of everyone.
· And that leads us to the next detail: in Middle Eastern culture, people do not think of themselves as individuals. They think of themselves as part of a group – their family, their clan, their village. As 21st century Westerners, we think in terms of the individual. We want our children to grow up and live their lives independently. We praise our children for their unique gifts and skills. We encourage them to pursue their individual goals and dreams. And we are a culture riddled with clichés focused on individualism: “every man for himself,” and “look out for number one” – those are negative clichés. But there are plenty of positive clichés. Here are a few: “be true to yourself,” “don’t follow the herd,” “do your own thing,” “blaze your own trail,” right? I mean, we could go on all morning rattling off clichés to support American individualism. And all of it would sound like a bunch of crazy talk to people in eastern or Middle Eastern culture because in that culture, people define themselves in relation to their group. So, there’s a third cultural distinction: In the Middle East people define themselves in relation to their group. So, hospitality is of extreme importance; it is everyone’s job AND it is everyone’s job because people don’t think of themselves as individuals. They think of themselves in relationship to their group.
· And that brings us to the final cultural distinction of the morning: Nothing is as important as ones reputation, their honor. Again, there some significant cultural differences. We try to teach our children to not worry about what their peers think of them. It doesn’t matter what other people think. But, in Middle Eastern culture, it matters a great deal what others thinks of me – especially those who are part of my group. So, the final distinction is this: Nothing is as important as ones reputation.
So now, if we come back to the parable, we can better understand it. It makes perfect sense that a traveler, even late at night, could knock on someone’s door and expect to be taken in. It’s all about hospitality. And it makes perfect sense that the host goes and bangs on his neighbor’s door to get bread for his guest because hospitality is the job of everyone in the village. And the very suggestion that this man would risk the reputation of himself and his village by not helping his neighbor would be completely unthinkable. It would be crazy because he would never want to risk his own reputation by bringing humiliation to everyone in his village. Sure he’s fast asleep and sure he finally managed to get the kids down for the night and sure he doesn’t feel like getting dressed and turning on the lights and waking up the whole house. But you better believe he’s gonna do it because even if he’s not motivated by a personal fondness for his neighbor, at the very least, he will not want everyone talking trash about him around the water cooler at work in the morning. He doesn’t want to be that guy. This man knows what his culture expects of him and he knows he’ll look like a smuck if he denies his neighbor’s request. He knows what’s expected of him and so he behaves true to form.
And, my friends, if a tired, grumpy neighbor can still be counted on to get us what we need, how much more can we count on God to respond to our needs; how much more can our heavenly Father be trusted to take good care of us? Even a grumpy neighbor does what she needs to in order to stay out of trouble. And even an earthly Father, flawed though he may be, doesn’t hand his kids a snake when they ask for fish.
Friends, you better believe we can count on God to be God. It is in God’s nature to be merciful and compassionate. That’s how Jesus behaves as he represents his father and acts on his father’s behalf. Jesus’ ministry teaches us and reveals to us the nature or character of God. Jesus tells his disciples to “be merciful just as your heavenly Father is merciful.” Jesus tells us not to worry or be anxious about God’s care for us. He points out that God cares for all of his creation. He provides for the birds and the flowers and he most certainly will take care of us. Jesus heals the sick; he feeds the hungry; he blesses the people society kicks to the curb. And, in all of that, he demonstrates the character, the nature, of the heavenly Father. Friends, God responds to our needs not begrudgingly like a neighbor awakened in the middle of the night. God is not that guy. God responds to our needs gladly – eagerly and earnestly.
Friends, it makes all the difference in the world how we image God. It matters a great deal to us and to the people around us because how we image God and how we image ourselves in God’s presence has an enormous impact not only on our prayer life, but also on the way we live. If we believe God’s love for us is dependable and reliable, we can live free from fear; we can live cooperatively with others, instead of competitively; we can be generous with our resources instead of hoarding them.
Friends, Jesus tells us straight up that we ought not to be afraid to ask, to seek and to knock on heaven’s door. When Britt and I were in seminary, we had a friend from the young adults group in our church. During a bible study, he commented that he never prayed for himself. There were so many people with so many problems and sorrows; his concerns seemed like nothing by comparison. But brothers and sisters, God doesn’t have a quota and he doesn’t use some kind of scale to measure misery. Prayer is about building our relationship with God and God wants a relationship with each one of us.
“It is always true to some extent that we make our images of God. It is even truer that our image of God makes us. Eventually we become like the God we image…” So, may we image the God that Jesus reveals to us. Amen.
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