Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 11:1-13
August 26, 2012
This is a strange little parable. It’s the Parable of the Visitor in the Night. And often when we read this, we see this man who’s asleep as being reluctant to answer the request of the other man. We see this as a matter of “persistence in prayer.” In fact, that’s what my “Gospel Parallels” says. That’s a section in the back of my old Bible that lines up all the parallel passages in the Gospels. And in the “subject” column for this parable it says that – “Persistence in prayer.”
Now certainly there is a little bit of that here. There’s this word Jesus uses, which is translated “importunity.” “Because of his “importunity,” the friend will give him what he needs.” Some of the other versions say “persistence.” But even so, I’m not so sure that was the main point of this parable. This man actually didn’t “keep on asking.” And I’m not sure that’s the message Jesus was trying to get across.
I also think the message here gets confused with that of a similar parable in Luke 18. There the widow does “keep on asking” the judge to “vindicate her.” And it says there, “because of her persistence he will do so.” Luke even introduces the parable by saying that Jesus told it to them “so that they might always pray and not lose heart.” But I think the emphasis is different there. Read that other story sometime and see if that isn’t the case. The more I think about this story, the more it seems to me that Jesus is focusing in on the nature of prayer, and the relationship we have with God in prayer.
Even the set-up is different. In this chapter, the disciples have just asked Jesus to teach them to pray “as John taught his disciples.” And he began by giving them the words of the Lord’s prayer – or some of them, anyway. (This is a much shorter version.) Then he tells them this parable. And in it he starts it with a question. In fact, almost the whole parable is a question. “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at night and say, ‘I need food, because I have some unexpected visitors,’ and that friend will say, ‘No, our doors are locked and we’re already asleep’?”
Now, I looked at this in a number of versions, (including the Greek New Testament – which is really confusing!) and the more I read it, the more this sounded like a rhetorical question. Jesus was making a statement here. Maybe it will help you to see what I mean if I shorten it, and read it this way. “Which of you having a need would go to a friend and expect him to say ‘No’?” Jesus is saying, “Of course a friend wouldn’t do that to you. A friend would help! In fact, anybody would! So how much more will your Heavenly Father respond.” Do you see how that sounds?
That’s what Jesus is emphasizing here. And it all leads into these wonderful and familiar words, “Ask and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.” “For what father among you, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a serpent.” By the way, there’s that same kind of rhetorical question, asked in the negative, by which Jesus makes a positive point – just like in the parable!
Then, Jesus masterfully uses that example of the “earthly father” to bring this back to God, casting him in the role of “Heavenly Father.” He says, “How much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit – the greatest of gifts, in other words – to those who ask!” That’s a great statement! The version of the Bible I was using doesn’t even end that with a question mark. It’s an exclamation point! God, the Heavenly Father, wants to give us good things.
That’s what Jesus wanted the people see. God wants us to ask. And God wants us to interact with him. Do you agree? God doesn’t want us to be oblivious to him “unless we have a need,” and even then just “send up a request or two.” That’s how a lot of people treat God, isn’t it?! Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that prayer should be about our relationship with God. He wanted them to see God in this “father role.” But that was something they weren’t used to. And maybe we aren’t always sure about that, either.
I also wonder if these people even knew how to ask. And you know that prayer should not only be about asking. But that was important to Jesus. And I wonder if those people were even used to asking? Maybe not. Maybe they went about their day, thinking about God, but not bothering to ask because they don’t think he could do much in their lives anyway? I wonder if it ever occurred to them to think of God as a close friend with whom they could share all of life?
Are we ever like that? I know for me it’s easy to get so focused in on what I’m doing that I’m not giving God much of a thought. I have a list of things I’m doing throughout the day, and sometimes God’s not very much a part of that. I’m sure you do the same. That’s the human thing! Besides that, we people want to be in control of things in our lives. We don’t like anybody directing us or telling us what to do. And we’re not very comfortable with the idea of subjecting ourselves to the sovereignty of God. That’s scary! That’s intrusive! I think that’s the vision of God Jesus was trying to break down that day. Not that God isn’t sovereign. He is. But he is also the father. He’s the father who wants to give good things to us.
That’s a different image of God, isn’t it? God wants to give us good things! And if you think about it, he does! Doesn’t he? And sometimes he does and we don’t acknowledge it or act as though we’re grateful. I wonder how that must feel to God. We don’t like it when that happens to us, do we? We do something nice for someone and there’s nothing. No thanks, no recognition, no reaction! I think God has to deal with that all the time! Sometimes I think if we actually heard god’s voice audibly, we would hear him say, “I gave you a beautiful morning, and you didn’t even notice!” (In a Jewish accent, of course!)
God wants us to notice He wants us to see when he gives us good things. He wants us to ask. He wants that kind of interaction with us. Because God isn’t just how one man once described this. He’s not just a “big mail order catalogue in the sky.” It’s not a matter of “You can ask for anything at all, and as long as you ask properly, boom, you get it!” And then it’s only about asking.
That’s not what’s happening here. Notice here that Jesus began with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. All this about asking comes after the part about praising God, and asking for his kingdom to come and his will to be done. We can hardly start from that point and then ask for something selfishly, can we? We can hardly start with those words, “thy will be done” and then start asking for things in a way that portrays us as the one “in charge.”
Many people forget that, don’t they? They forget who’s really in charge. Their prayers tend to be prayers that come from their desire to have things go their way. “Thy will be done” (as opposed to our will!) is the hardest part of the Lord’s Prayer, and many people who say those words aren’t sure they really mean them. What about us? Do we really want God’s will? Or do we secretly harbor the desire that our own will be done?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you ask anything in my name I will do it.” That sounds great, but it also gives us the proper perspective. Prayer is not about having the right “formula” for getting what we want. It’s about getting the whole picture. Because Jesus finishes that thought by saying, “…so that the Father may be glorified.” When that is the purpose for asking, it makes what we ask for different, doesn’t it? When we “ask for anything in Jesus name so that the Father may be glorified, we don’t ask for the same things, do we?!
So God wants us to ask. He wants us to interact with him. He wants to give us good things. And he wants us to believe his power. But do we? Maybe we are good at asking. Maybe we are good at interacting with God. Maybe we do believe he gives us good things. But do we trust him? That’s the hard part, isn’t it? We can do all those other things, but in the end, it’s hard to trust God!
So how do we do that? How do we learn to trust God? Well, Father William of Ockham once said in the 14th-century, “Other things being equal, the simpler explanation tends to be the correct one.” So I’ll give you the simpler explanation. We learn to trust God by trusting God. That sounds circular, I know. But isn’t that the case? Either we’re told we can trust God (by somebody we trust!) or we see somebody trusting God, and we believe we can, too. So we do it. We try it. That is often the hardest step, but it’s the way to start. Or it’s the way to start trusting God again.
So let me suggest that you try that this week. Start with something small – something easy. Ask God for something that will give him glory. Step out in faith in some small way. Share your life with God more cordially and more intimately. Ask him to give you glimpses of his kingdom and his glory. See yourself trusting God. Try that and see what happens.
Eternal God, we are amazed that you, the creator of all things, want to share this life with us. We know that we can trust you, but it’s not always easy to do so. Help us, Lord, to seek you each day, and to know your presence with us. Help us to draw closer to you and to feel you drawing closer to us. Help us to learn to seek your will and your kingdom. For these things we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.