By Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 11: 1-13
Decades ago, when I was in seminary and a student pastor, a little girl in the church’s pre-school asked me what Jesus looked like. I paused and began to carefully explain that we didn’t really know because there weren’t cameras in Jesus’ time. But another little girl interrupted our exchange, confidently announcing, “Well, I know what he looks like ‘cause there’s a picture in my Bible.”
How do you imagine Jesus? Oh, I don’t mean “does he look like a first-century Palestinian Jew in your mind’s eye?” But rather, what is your image of God?
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. This morning’s scripture, while appearing to be a lesson in prayer, is really much deeper. It gets at our image of God. How we relate to anyone is dependent upon who we consider them to be. This morning’s scripture is about the character of God and how who we consider God to be shapes our communication and our relationship with God.
This morning’s parable is one Jesus tells in response to a question from his disciples. At the beginning of chapter 11, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. It’s not an unreasonable or unusual request for disciples of a Jewish rabbi to make. He is their teacher and they are his students and prayer is one of the three pillars of ancient Judaism.
This morning I’d like to focus, specifically, on this parable which is often misunderstood because it is often mistranslated AND because we are not adept in ancient Mediterranean cultural practices and values. So, let me read the parable itself, again, 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.
Now, if you read along in the pew Bible this morning, you may have noticed that, in verse 8, what I read was likely different from what your Bible said. Your Bible probably used the word “persistence.” But that’s a bad English translation. The word used here in Greek is only used once in our Bible; right here in this verse. It is, however, used in other non-biblical texts of this time period. And, if we examine those texts, we learn that a far more accurate translation would be shamelessness or a sense of shame. An English word for this is impudence; someone who is arrogant, disrespectful and has no sense of shame.
And that makes sense because, if the message of this parable were that you had to wear down God’s defenses, cajole and persuade, that kind of message would be in conflict with the verses that precede and follow. In fact, in the verse that immediately follows this parable, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” That is the message of the parable.
But the message of this parable may still be hard for us to grasp without better knowledge of ancient Mediterranean culture. After all, in our culture it would be very reasonable to not answer your door if someone came knocking at midnight. We’d advise against it. In fact, in our culture, one ought best text before they even phone to request a favor of someone.
So, allow me to illuminate some of the cultural distinctions that impact our ability to understand what Jesus is teaching through this parable.
First: Hospitality is of extreme importance, even today, in eastern and Middle Eastern 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 story. 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 at all. 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 Mediterranean 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. And we are a culture abundant with clichés that reveal this focus on individualism: “every man for himself,” and “look out for number one,” “don’t follow the herd,” “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 Mediterranean folks because in their culture, people define themselves in relation to their group. And that’s a third distinction: In Jesus’ culture, people defined 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 one’s reputation, one’s honor. And the opposite of honor is shame. In Mediterranean culture, shame is to be avoided at all costs. So again, there are 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 Mediterranean culture, it matters a great deal what others think of me – especially those who are part of my group. So, the final distinction is this: Nothing is as important as one’s reputation. One’s reputation was like currency in the ancient eastern world.
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. That’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. They’re in this together. 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 fondness for his neighbor, at the very least, he will not want everyone talking trash about him in the break room at work in the morning. He doesn’t want to be that guy. He does not want to be dishonorable. This man knows what his culture expects of him and behaves according to those expectations in order to avoid being shamed.
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’re hungry and ask for fish sticks.
Friends, we can count on God to be gracious and generous. It is in God’s nature to be merciful and compassionate. That’s how Jesus behaves as he represents his heavenly Father and acts on his Father’s behalf. Jesus’ ministry teaches us and reveals to us the nature or character of God. 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. God responds to our needs not begrudgingly like a neighbor awakened in the middle of the night. God is not that guy. God is never annoyed to hear from us. God responds to us – eagerly and earnestly.
You know, 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. Prayer is about building our relationship with God and God wants a relationship with each one of us. God always acts in our best interest.
“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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