Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19) – Continue to live your lives in Christ. In him the fullness of deity dwells. You were buried with him in baptism, and raised with him by faith.
Luke 11:1-13 – The Lord’s Prayer. Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Be persistent. The friend at midnight.
Prayer: A Friend at Midnight
Have you ever felt that justice was so long delayed that perhaps God had fallen asleep? This may be the question with which to start reflecting on this week’s gospel reading from Luke 11.
Let’s begin with a reflection on the first reading from the Hebrew Bible.
The first option for the Old Testament lesson is Hosea 1, in which Hosea marries a prostitute named Gomer, and they have three children named Jezreel (a valley where a massacre took place), Lo-ruhamah (no-pity, rejected, or abused) and Lo-ammi (not-my-people.) These are symbolic, not actual names. Israel was not restored by Assyria, as Judah was by Babylon. They felt rejected and no longer God’s people. Those who cannot see the Scriptures as allegory will struggle with this one. The text says, “…the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’”
J. Clinton McCann, professor at Eden Seminary in St. Louis, warns us not to apply this passage to 21st century marriages. The historical Hosea is an enigma. What we have here is an interpretive retelling, not a biography.
If you are preaching on the Gospel lesson, Luke 11, you’re probably better off using the Genesis 18 passage for the Old Testament lesson. Abraham persistently begs God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. The theme of persistence in prayer is helpful when considering Luke 11.
Sara Koenig, professor at Seattle Pacific University, suggests we start the text a few verses earlier. Our pericope begins with verse 20 in which Abraham asks God if sweeping away the righteous along with the unrighteousness makes sense. In verse 17, God is talking to himself, something God does in Genesis. Keep in mind the plural of God in Genesis 1: “Let us make humankind in our image.” God: “Should I hide what I am about to do from Abe?” God “Nah. After all, I chose him so that his descendants will do justice and righteousness.”
The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
God is just and righteous, so destroying a city with righteous people in it isn’t right. Abraham models one way to pray: Arguing with God. Even Jesus pushed back: “Lord, let this cup pass from me.”
God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. Again, a complicated God, perhaps monotheistic (or becoming so in Israel’s evolving theology) but nevertheless multifaceted.
By the way, your congregation thinks it knows what Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin is, though it is not ever spelled out here. Koenig points out neither Genesis 19 nor Ezekiel 16 are in our lectionary. We need to study them. The theme of Genesis 19 is the city’s mistreatment of its divine visitors. As we will discuss below when we tackle the gospel reading, hospitality is sacred duty in antiquity. One must provide food and shelter to travelers (who are possibly divine visitors) or God will allow calamity to come upon the community. When an earthquake or volcano destroys a city, it is assumed they had a divine visitation and rejected the visitor. Likewise, failure to care for the poor, the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow, could incur divine wrath.
Ezekiel 16:49 spells out Sodom’s sin quite clearly,
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
Jaqueline E. Lapsey says Abraham appeals to God’s better nature. “The better angels of our nature,” another Abraham once said in an inaugural address. Abraham pleads/prays, and God responds in Genesis 18:25-26:
Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?
And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake…’
Notice he does not say he will spare the city. Just forgive it. They may be one and the same; they may not.
Then Abraham bargains God down. Fifty? How about 45? 40? 30? 20? Bargaining with God is often maligned, but perhaps it is an important part of life. Perhaps it is a legitimate form of prayer. Persistence is the theme.
On, then, to the gospel text.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he 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 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 persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
I will rely heavily upon two phenomenal, and quite different commentaries on this text, Mikeal C. Parsons (Luke: Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament) and David Lyle Jeffrey (Luke: Brazos Theological commentary on the Bible).
Jesus talks a lot about prayer in Luke and is also found praying frequently. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, just as John has taught his disciples to pray. A teacher might give his followers a common prayer to pray together and in their daily prayer as well. Jesus responds with what was most likely already a formulaic and liturgical prayer by the time the gospel are written.
This prayer appears in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. There are few differences as the comparison in two columns below shows. This text does not appear in Mark or John, so it is part of what scholars often call Q (from quelle, meaning “source”), a collection of the sayings of Jesus, from which both Matthew and Luke draw, but which has been lost to history.
What strikes me about Jesus’ prayer is its brevity. This is in line with what Jesus teaches in Matthew about not heaping up empty words.
The version of the prayer in Protestant Churches, includes a doxology from 1 Chronicles 29:11:
Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.”
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Jeffrey helpfully points out that almost all of this prayer is drawn from prayers that would be familiar to the Jewish community of Jesus’ day. Indeed, the Kaddish calls for God’s name to be made holy, and for God’s kingdom to be established. The sixth of the “Eighteen Benedictions,” says:
Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, our King, for we have transgressed… for You do pardon and forgive. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who is gracious, and does abundantly forgive.
The only phrase which does not appear in Jewish literature, Jeffrey tells us, is “forgive us our sins, for we also forgive all who sin against us.” Luke uses “sins,” which Matthew uses “debts.” It is fascinating that this prayer is not a request for God to bless us alone, it is a prayer which calls us to bless God, to pray for God’s reign to break into our world, through us, to forgive and love our neighbor, and to stay out of trouble. This is an outwardly-focused prayer.
God’s name is already holy, by itself. We pray that it might be holy among us. God’s reign will break in whether we pray for it or not. We pray that it will break in through us and among us. These are points that Luther makes poignantly in his short commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, which is in many ways just a reflection of St. Augustine’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in Sermon IX.
The Lord’s prayer in Luke is then followed by the story of the friend at midnight. In this story, a man goes to a friend at midnight as pleads. He has visitor, but he has no bread. This ties back to the sacred rules of hospitality. When one has a visitor, one must provide food and shelter. The person in the story has no bread, so there is a big problem. The entire community is at risk if he fails at his duty of hospitality.
The friend, however, is settled. The door is locked. The kids are in bed. “Go away.” This is horrific behavior by the first century standards of this society. Today, in our society, it is perfectly acceptable to not answer the door. This community would find the “friend’s” behavior reprehensible. Why would Jesus compare God to such a rude friend, asleep when there is a pressing need?
The word “friend” (philos) is used four times in this story (vv. 5, 6, 8). Parsons points out that Luke has, in succession dealt with three Greek virtues: philanthropy, hospitality and friendship. Philanthropy was dealt with in the story of the Good Samaritan. Hospitality was dealt with in the story of Mary and Martha. Now, in the story of the friend at midnight, we hear about friendship.
Friendship, he explains, is a set of unlimited duties to a limited number of people, your friends. Antiquity is filled with stories on good friends, and bad friends. Philanthropy, by contrast, is a limited number of duties to an unlimited number of people, the needy.
What does the story mean? Fortunately, Luke explains it to us.
Imagine you are asleep and a neighbor comes knocking. You may resolve to not answer the door. The neighbor, however, keeps knocking and knocking, persistently. After a while, you realize you aren’t going to be able to go back to sleep until the knocking stops. The only way to stop the knocking is to get up, even though you don’t feel like it and help your neighbor.
So is God like this? Is Jesus saying that God is asleep? Is this the reason that injustice seems to keep cropping up? This week we saw video of the shooting of two black men, one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and one in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. Black men get shot by police much more often than anyone else. A study in New York showed that black men were three times as likely to get stopped as white men. Even black police officers out of uniform report getting harassed by police. Why this injustice? Is God asleep? Five police officers got gunned down in cold blood in Dallas. Their families and their children are left to weep. Are you watching God?
This cry is nothing new. It is not heretical. In fact, it is the cry of many of the psalms. Psalm 44:23-24:
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Wake up! Do not reject us forever! Why do you look the other way, and ignore the oppressed and mistreated?
This is the lament that we hear in Job. Even the cry of Jesus from the cross, taken from Psalm 22 echoes this lament: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The answer here seems to be that we should demand justice. We must be persistent, like story of widow that is coming up in Luke 18. She demands justice from a corrupt judge. The judge is not inclined to help her, but she wears him down until finally with exasperation; he gives her what she wants. Is God like an unrighteous judge?
Then there is the story of the unjust steward in Luke 16. He’s about to be fired, so he cuts his clients debts, so that they will help him when he is jobless. The master praises him for being so shrewd. The gospels are filled with these kinds of stories.
There may be clue for us at the end of this passage. If your child asks for a fish, would you give a snake? If you who are evil know how to treat your children, then don’t you think God does too? The point is not that God is evil, asleep, or indifferent. The point is, if you can get justice from a lazy neighbor or a corrupt judge, by persistence, then certainly you can get justice from God if you are likewise persistent.
So the point is, keep at it until you are blue in the face. Never, never, never give up. Keep shouting from the rooftops, like Isaiah 58. Sound a trumpet. Justice cries aloud in the streets!
I believe this is what we must do. We must keep shedding light on the darkness. We must keep calling out what we see. We must announce it from the rooftops and call for justice. We must insist. Knock until your knuckles bleed. Seek until you are exhausted. Ask and ask and ask, and keep asking. This will open doors. In fact, be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.
This is what it means to have the faith of a child. It is to wish upon a star and even more. It is to repeatedly wish our deepest wishes before God, even the impossible ones. And hopefully our wishes will mature as we grow.
I leave you with this thought from Frederick Buechner’s “The Magnificent Defeat.”
“If that is really the question, if we are really seeking this power, then I have one thing to say–perhaps it is not the only thing, but it is enormously important: ask for it. There is something in me that recoils a little at speaking so directly and childishly, but I speak this way anyway because it is the most important thing I have in me to say. Ask, and you will receive. And there is the other side to it too: if you have never known the power of God’s love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it-I mean really asked, expecting an answer.
I am saying just this: go to him the way the father of the sick boy did and ask him. Pray to him, is what I am saying. In whatever words you have. And if the little voice that is inside all of us as the inheritance of generations of unfaith, if this little voice inside says, “But I don’t believe. I don’t believe,” don’t worry too much. Just keep on anyway. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.”