And Jesus – in responding to his disciples’ request that he teach them to pray – continued saying: Which of you, having a friend, shall go to him at midnight and say to him,
“My friend, lend me three loaves, for another friend of mine has just arrived after a long journey and I have nothing to set before him.” And the one inside might answer, “Oh please don’t ask me. The door is shut. My children and all the household are all tucked up in bed, just like me. I really cannot get up to give you what you require.” But I am telling you that though he will not rise to give him what he asks merely for friendship’s sake, yet he will, because of the shamelessness [ANAIDEIAN] of his request, rise and give him what he needs.
“And so that is why I say to you: Put your requests and they will be met; go looking and you will find; knock and it shall be opened to you. For everyone asking receives, and the one seeking finds and to the one who [boldly] knocks, it shall be opened.
“What [kind of] father of yours, would give a son a serpent when he asks for a fish? Or if he asks for an egg will hand him a scorpion? If you then, as those who [consider yourselves to] be sinners know full well how to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
Often this parable is interpreted like this: if the inconvenience of a request can be overlooked by a friend, then surely we should expect God to do better than that if we are persistent in our prayers. This is not completely wrong – after all Jesus makes such comparisons further on (in what I have put in the third paragraph above). Yet the term “shamelessness” or “importunity” helps us to note that it is the inner quality of the friendship between supplicant and he-who-has-just-dozed-off is indeed being tested by that importune request. It is this that is central to the story rather than an ethic of persistence. In other words, Jesus seems to be assuming the persistence of the friendship.
Jesus’ prayer had instructed his disciples to pray that they would not be subjected to trial and his counter-point to Satan affirmed that it was written:
You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
So here in this parable Jesus describes a situation in which one friend indeed puts his friendship with another to the test. The “thought experiment” that Jesus enjoins upon his disciples is presumably so they will consider what is going on here when friend responds positively to a thoroughly importune request. Jesus tells his disciples how to develop an interpretation of this: it is not so much friendship that gets the sleepy-head out of bed, into the larder, unlocking the front door and passing over the loaves. It is something arising from the quality of the friendship, which has a public side to it, that gets the once sleeping fellow moving.
This kind of importunity reminds us of the shameless request of Moses in the midst of Israel’s emancipated rebellion.
Of course, you would be quite within your rights, Lord, to end it here and now with this stubborn lot who do not know how to be thankful for what you have done for them. But what then, eh? What will Egypt and the other peoples roundabout have to say about the emancipation you oversaw in bringing this people, your people are they not, out? (Numbers 14)
One commentator says it is obvious that by telling this parable about a request made in a village at midnight, Jesus is implying that the disciples will imagine the situation in which not only the ousel but the entire neighbourhood is disturbed. Banging on the door. “Hey, mate, open up!” So it might seem that Jesus is presuming that those attending to this teaching will be asking:
What kind of friendship is it that interrupts the sleep of one’s friend’s entire household, let alone puts his friend on the spot the next day when neighbours come to him and complain about his lack of civic good manners?
Jesus’ point is one about trust: ask and you shall receive. In other words:
What kind of friendship is it that cannot get out of bed to assist a friend?
And in this way, Jesus encouraged a view of mutual formation of social life, just as he had done with his response to Martha – recorded a chapter earlier in Luke’s Gospel. Yes, here he is talking about prayer, and how it must be part of the life of any disciple. But this teaching is drawing attention to the context in which our “friendship with God” is cultivated and to put it in those terms involves seeing everyday friendships in the light of his teaching, in the context of the Creator’s willing friendship with his “village”.
Was it friendship that got sleepy-head out of bed? Or was it that for friendship to be maintained it should not be put to the test in the eyes of the village?
Or to put it another way: being an hospitable host is such a God-given and integral part of daily life – which by God’s grace is also characterised by our friendships – that it might well be worth the risk of waking an entire household, let alone an entire village, to enable a visitor to arrive at our house without shame.
Jesus’ parables are given to us to also appreciated the depths of our many social responsibilities, plumbed for us by his coming amongst us as a friend, as our friend.