Commentary on Luke 11:1-13
This passage begins with what is surely one of the most familiar parts of the New Testament, though perhaps in its less familiar form: Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.
Though the preacher might be tempted to make a frontal assault on that monumental portion of the text, there may be wisdom in approaching the prayer itself by exploring more directly the teachings about prayer which follow it. Those verses provide a path both less traveled and less defended against challenge and surprise.
The parable that follows the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11 is humorous, and potentially problematic. In an ancient culture without instantaneous communication and without all-night grocery stores, is it not difficult to imagine being surprised by the arrival of an unexpected guest and caught without the supplies needed for even basic hospitality. More surprising, however, is the picture of abandoning all concern for decorum and personal dignity and trying to rouse the sleeping neighbor to help. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
But just what is this parable supposed to communicate about God, and us, and prayer? A crucial element in answering this is how to understand verse 8, which contains two particular points of ambiguity. The first is the meaning of the Greek word anaideia, and the second is whether “his” refers to the petitioner or the sleeper in the parable. The Greek word in question is not common, used only here and in Sirach 25:22 within the Greek Bible. The word does not actually mean “persistence,” and it seems that the translators have imported that idea from verses 9-10, and under the influence of Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). Serious theological problems arise from the NRSV translation, and by addressing this parable the preacher can explore some common and problematic understandings of prayer.
First, the “persistence” reading of the parable may imply that God is reluctant, unaware, and needing to be roused by our prayers before God will do anything. It may imply that prayer is the means by which we harass God until God finally submits to doing what we want. “But the notion that, repeatedly, we must bang on the doors of heaven if we are to catch God’s attention is hardly an appropriate theology of prayer.”1
The better option for translating the Greek word anaideia would be “shamelessness,” or a lack of sensitivity to what is proper, a willful lack of concern about acquiring public shame. This is clearly the meaning of the term in Sirach 25:22, where it is placed in parallel with “disgrace.”
The question then becomes whose “shamelessness” is the reason for the sleeper to get up and give what is requested. Is the petitioner shameless for begging in the middle of the night, or would the sleeper be shameless for not getting up to help? Either is possible, and either still seems fraught with theological trouble. If the former, then the parable calls us to be “shameless” in our approach to God, which hardly seems better than treating the parable as a lesson about our persistence. In the end, do we really want to trust in the character of our prayers, whether persistent or shameless?
If the shamelessness is, instead, attached to the sleeper, what does that say about God? Is this what “hallowed be your name” really means — that God will act only out of potential shame if the prayer is ignored?
Walter Liefeld makes a helpful suggestion about this parable and its dynamic of shame.2 The petitioner indeed acts with shameless disregard of his neighbor (and perhaps of the other neighbors who will witness this midnight disturbance), but the focus quickly shifts to the one in bed. Though the petitioner acts in a shameful way, his neighbor deals with the shame in a way that will bring honor to them both. Perhaps this is a better way to view what “hallowed by your name” means: God will act to honor God’s name even when we act in dishonorable ways.
As Jesus’ parables have a way of doing, this one will force the hearer to make some decisions about how to understand it, and thus how to imagine God’s activity. How we understand verse 8 in particular will determine (or perhaps be determined by) whether we think our actions and attitudes are the key to prayer, or whether prayer is based instead on God’s goodness. The latter is where verses 11-13 point us. Notice that this day’s reading begins and ends with talking about God as “Father.” For all the difficulties this gendered language carries, it is a term of intimate care. Any viable theology of prayer must begin with the God who in loving relationship with us prompts our prayers from the start.
It will not do to think that prayer works either because we continue to hound God about something or because we are so shameless in our asking. We are not the key that makes prayer “work.” If we keep asking, seeking, and knocking, it is only because God has done so first, and continues to do so. We need to hear this parable in concert with verses 9-13, which make clear that God is good, and that God is eager to give not simply the good things that we might ask for. The closing promise of the Spirit is a shock to any assumptions that we can use prayer to get the material prosperity that our culture idolizes. This is what the petition that “your kingdom come” leads to — a people who receive the Spirit, and are sent out as agents of the coming kingdom. Here, what they receive is not all their wishes (thanks be to God!), or even “good things” (as in Matthew 7:11), but the Spirit of the kingdom.
- David Buttrick, Speaking Parables (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 186.
- Walter Liefeld, “Parables on Prayer (Luke 11:5-13, 18:1-14),” in The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 251.