Jesus' parable about the friend who begs bread from his neighbor at midnight, is it really about persistence? Or is it about something else? To think fresh thoughts about this story, it helps to know five bits of background information. First, in the Ancient Near East, it was taken for granted that one offered a meal to a visiting traveler. Second, bread (think pita) was essential to any meal in that culture; grain in the form of bread was a major part of the diet and it also served as a utensil (you broke off pieces to dip into common serving bowls). Third, since baking occurred out of doors, in an oven shared by several families, everyone knew who baked bread on a given day. Fourth, the reputation, of a village for hospitality was a matter of community honor. And fifth, there is a fascinating question regarding the proper translation of the word commonly rendered as “persistence.”
Note that this brief similitude (the kind of parable that makes a comparison with a common occurrence in daily life) comes in the form of a complex question which can be rendered this way: “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine who is on a journey has just come to me and I have nothing to put before him,’ and he from within will answer, ‘Do not disturb me; the door is now closed, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and supply you’?” The implied answer to that question is, “None of us would receive such a response; even the grouchiest of neighbors would help out in a situation like that.”
Even if the guy next door is a grouch, you know he will come through with the bread to avoid dishonoring the village's reputation for hospitality Indeed, Jesus' next comment confirms this interpretation. He says, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his [anaideia].” Before we translate the word I left in Greek, ask yourself if it seems to be a quality of a would-be host or of a sleepy neighbor. Does the anaideia not belong to the sleeper? And what does it mean? The root aideia means shame; and the an- prefix is the negative indicator, what they call the alpha-privative. This has led some scholars to conclude that the sentence should be translated something like this, "He will get up and give him whatever he needs because of his avoidance-of-shame." And that does indeed spell out what was implied in the situation sketched in Jesus' question. Even if the guy next door is a grouch, you know he will come through with the bread to avoid dishonoring the village's reputation for hospitality.
On this interpretation, the point of the parable is not persistence but assurance. And this is precisely the point made in the sayings that follow (Lk 11:9-13), e.g., “Ask and you will receive. … If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” There are other parables that do teach persistence in prayer, notably “The Importunate Widow” (Lk 18:1-8). But everything in the context of our present reading, from Luke 11, points to the assurance that the Father to whom we say “Give us each day our daily bread” will indeed do so. What's more, he will even give us the ultimate Gift, the Holy Spirit.
In an age when some would denigrate prayer of petition as somehow symptomatic of immaturity, we do well to recall Jesus' basic teaching on prayer: even grown-ups are supposed to deal with God like they are a hungry child asking a parent for food, or a neighbor requesting a necessity.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
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