Genesis 18; 20-32; Luke 11: 1-13 / Norman B. Bendroth
Let me tell you how I learned to play the guitar. When my brother was thirteen he bought this crappy used guitar where the distance between the fret board and the strings seemed like a couple of inches. You had to lift weights to play it. He also bought this Mel Bay “Teach Yourself to Play Guitar” books. After about two weeks he got bored with it and quit. I picked it up and began learning chords. A number of my friends played guitar and we’d get together to jam. I’d always ask them: “Teach me that song.” “What’s the fingering for that chord?” “Show me how to do that lick.” And that’s how I learned. Guitarists are pickpockets, we’re always borrowing tricks and ideas and chords from someone else. That’s how we learn in part, by imitating someone else or asking them to teach us.
You’ve probably done that yourself. Show me how you do that crochet hook. How did you install that new window? How do your pie crusts always come out so flaky? Can you show me how to change my oil?
I think that’s what we see happening in this Gospel story we just heard. All throughout his ministry the disciples had observed Jesus praying. He prayed before meals. He prayed before he performed a healing. He left them at night and went up to the mountains to pray. His disciples obviously saw the powerful impact that this kind of experience had on Jesus. So they said to him, “Would you show us how to do that? We want that same energy and tranquility in our lives.”
And in response to their request, Jesus did two things. First of all, he gave them an actual model of a prayer that they could begin to follow directly. He said, “When you pray, here is how to do it,” and what follows is a shortened form of what is usually called The Lord’s Prayer. This is simply a basic outline of the kind of concerns that make up authentic prayer. This is just like a piano teacher giving a set of scales to a beginning pupil and saying, “If you will practice this daily, it will establish a foundation for you to become a musician.” And I would suggest that one of the finest ways to deepen one’s capacity for prayer is to take the famous words of the prayer that our Lord gave us and make those words our own. In other words, we can begin to learn to pray by letting the Master Teacher direct us into how this should be done.
However, Jesus was trying to teach them a deeper truth than just having a formula to use when praying. And to get at this deeper dimension, Jesus invited his disciples to use their imagination and tells them a story.
He says, “Think of yourself asleep one night and there’s a knock on your door and you go and find a friend, or perhaps even a relative, who is on a journey and is asking that they could spend the rest of the night in your house.” This is the kind of experience that could have happened to anyone of the disciples, because in that day and in that part of the world, the heat was so great that people would not begin a walking journey until late in the afternoon and many times would continue on into the first part of the night. We also need to realize that in those days there were so few public accommodations that the only way peasants could have a place to sleep was to go to some relative or friend and ask for hospitality.
And so Jesus says, you suddenly find yourself with relatives standing at the door. You can’t send these people to bed without any supper. So you go to your cupboard; and, lo and behold, you discover all the Cheerios and Campbell’s soup are gone. Remember, low-income folks in that day lived pretty much hour-to-hour and hand-to-mouth. They couldn’t go down to the 24-hour Shaw’s and pick up a few things. So, instead of being rude, Jesus says you excuse yourself and go next door and knock on your neighbor’s and say in hushed tones, “Could you lend me three loaves? I have an unexpected guest, and I have nothing to set before him.” And the response that you’re likely to get is probably going to get is “What! Are you nuts! It’s three in the morning.” The groggy voice inside the neighbor’s house said, “I can’t get up and give you anything. Didn’t you see the door was already closed? Don’t you realize my children are here around me asleep? If I get up to get you some food, I’ll wake up everybody. I simply cannot help you out. Now let me get back to sleep.”
Back in that day, a peasant’s cottage was little more than a one-room enclosure and everyone would sleep on the floor. Jesus says even though this turkey is being a jerk, if you keep pounding and pleading your case the guy will relent. It’s not because your neighbor wants to help you but because you’re being a pain in the butt. Now the children are awake and fussing, so he gets up, gets some bread and sticks his hand with it out the door. “Please take it, anything, just get out of my hair.” And he slams the door.
When my kids were young, and I’m sure this has only happened to me, they would run around my legs and pester me, “Papa, Papa, Papa can we get some ice cream!” “No it’s too close to dinner.” “But I really want some. I’m really hungry. It’s so hot.” “No, you’ve already had too many sweets today.” “But Papa, Papa, Papa the ice cream truck won’t be here tomorrow because it’s Sunday. Pleeeeeeez.” “No, I don’t have any cash.” “But Papa, Papa, Papa, they take MC, Visa, American Express, and checks.” And finally, to get them out of your hair, you say, “OK, let’s get some ice cream, but don’t tell your mother.”
You kind of get the impression from this story that this is what Jesus’ is telling us to do with God. “Father, Father, Father, I’m going to lose my job, what am I going to do, please help me out, how will I pay the bills, my kids will be on the streets, I don’t want to live on my Pension.” Or, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, my mom has cancer and I’m so freaked out and please won’t you heal her, she means so much to me and I’d miss her so and I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday, work at the hot dog table at the Fair and double my pledge.”
I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of troubling that we have to bug God with our prayers in order to get them answered. Is God really that bad-tempered that we have to pound on heaven’s door until the Almighty finally relents and gives us what we want? Is Jesus suggesting that God really is indifferent and that we have to wear down the Holy One until finally out of exasperation, God gives us what we’re requesting even though this is not in God’s heart of hearts?
There are some nuances and subtleties in the original language, Greek, that help us better understand this story. There is a tiny conjunction pronounced kai. We usually translate it “and” or we can translate it as “but,” depending upon the situation. For instance, if it’s linking together two things that are similar, then it can be translated and. For example, it began to rain and I opened an umbrella. However, if this conjunction is connecting things that are in contrast or dissimilar to each other, it is appropriate to translate it as but. I was going to see a friend, but he didn’t show up.
So, the whole hinge of meaning in this passage lies in translating the conjunction after the story of the neighbor with a but instead of an and. Learning that I realized this image of an indifferent, reluctant neighbor is not the true image of God that Jesus came to show us.
So instead, the reading would go like this. First, at the end of the story Jesus tells: “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.” And here’s the transition: ‘ But I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
You see? It changes the whole meaning of the passage depending upon how we translate that little word kai whether as “and” or “but.” What the passage is teaching us is in contrast to that crabby man who will only give you bread reluctantly because you’re bugging him, God will gladly hear and respond to your prayers.
Jesus gives the spot on picture of God that should shape our understanding of who God is. God is a caring, loving parent, who when a child asks for something sincerely, the response is not “Stop buggin’ me kid,” but “Of course I’ll help you.” Listen to what Jesus says:
“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!” God is good all the time.
If I were the disciples, I would be scratching my head again. “Uh, Jesus, it wasn’t the Holy Spirit we were asking for it was a cure for my mother’s cancer, it was a job for me.” But that’s how we often think about prayer, don’t we. We think of God as a divine bellhop who will jump at our beck and call. When we come with our laundry list of wishes and wants, we’d like God to hop to and get right on it.
But this passage seems to be telling us that God will not always give us exactly what we ask for, because many times we’re not wise enough to understand what we really need. By saying God will give the Holy Spirit in response to our requests, what Jesus is telling us is that the wisdom and goodness of our heavenly parent is going to determine how God answers to our prayers.
There’s a story about St. Augustine’s life found in his famous autobiography Confession. Augustine was a Bishop in Africa in the 4th century who was quite a rebel before he came to faith. In this chapter Augustine talks about how his mother, Monica, a thoughtful Christian, had so wanted him to come to faith in Christ; but as a young man, he had followed the example of his profligate father. He was living a life of great sensuality. He seemed to have no interest whatsoever in the things that were dear to his mother’s heart. He was a very gifted, young scholar. He was raised in North Africa, and he realized that Italy held artistic promises that North Africa did not possess, and so he resolved to go to Italy that he might study more fully his chosen discipline of rhetoric.
Monica, his mother, felt if he ever left home, he would never come to a Christian conversion. And so one night she was praying earnestly in a chapel on the coast of North Africa that Augustine not leave her when, in fact, he was boarding a ship and setting across the Mediterranean to Italy. He went to Milan, which was the cultural capital at that time of Italy; and once he got there he was told that if he wanted to hear rhetoric in its finest form, he ought to go down to the cathedral every Sunday because Bishop Ambrose was recognized as the greatest practitioner of rhetoric in all of Italy at that time. The person said you don’t have to listen to what he says, but how he says it is absolutely masterful. Well, as it turned out, the young pagan began to do that, and lo and behold, through Ambrose’s rhetoric, the wonder of the Gospel began to break in on the consciousness of young Augustine.
It was through his human weakness that God eventually brought Augustine to a profound conversion, which led to his becoming one of the great shapers of our Western Christian culture. The interesting thing is that Monica had no idea that of all the people in the world Ambrose was better equipped to bear witness to her son than she herself. And years later as Augustine looked back on that experience, he said of that night when she was praying so earnestly that he not leave her side, God denied her the exact answer of her request that God might eventually give her the substance of it.
The whole point of this story is to invite us to trust, to believe that at the bottom of the river of reality there is nothing but unambiguous goodness; that in back of this bewildering universe is a smiling Providence. God is light and in God is no darkness at all and, therefore, when we pray, we make our requests known unto a wisdom and goodness greater than our own. Then we trust that the way God will respond is not like the indifference of a neighbor we wake from his midnight slumbers; but the response will come from the heart of a heavenly parent who loves us better than we love ourselves and knows in the most profound sense what is best for us.