Tuesday, August 27, 2013

John 15:1-6 – The Parable of the Vine and Branches

Topic: Abiding in him (in his love)
Intended Audience: Jesus’ fearful disciples

          1.    Is it a parable?
          2.    The larger context
          3.    The immediate context
          4.    The parable: fruit, pruned, burned, abide
          5.    The meaning

1.     Is it a parable?

An “analogy” is a comparison to show similarity. Jesus uses three kinds of analogies:

  • A Parable is an analogy with a storyline. It’s a brief fictional narrative with characters and a plot told to teach a truth about something in real life. It’s a symbolic mini-drama. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, is a very short story with characters who think and speak and act.

  • A Simile is an analogy comparing explicitly how one thing is like (or as) another. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.” “She’s as sweet as candy.” “He’s stubborn as a mule.”

  • A Metaphor is an analogy that does not use narrative (like a parable) and does not use the words “like” and “as a” (like a simile). For example, “He is a diamond in the rough,” or “You are the wind beneath my wings.” Shakespeare was a master of metaphor: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”

Jesus loved analogies, whether in the form of parables, similes, or metaphors:

  • He told parables, the two most beloved perhaps being The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son, though he told many others.

  • He used similes, one of his most familiar being, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” And another: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.” (emphases mine)

  • He used metaphors: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” “No one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Strictly speaking, John’s Gospel lacks parables, has a few similes, but abounds in metaphors. John 15:1-7 is such a metaphor, though a long one, and there is a twist at the end. In verse 6, the final verse, the metaphor becomes a simile when Jesus uses the word “like”:

NRS John 15:1-6  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes {the same Greek root refers to pruning and cleansing} to make it bear more fruit.  3 You have already been cleansed {the same Greek root refers to pruning and cleansing} by the word that I have spoken to you.  4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (emphasis mine)

Can I get away with calling this extended metaphor/simile a parable?

Look at Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed:
Mark 4:31-33   31 “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.  32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade."  33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them . . .” (emphases mine)

We call this analogy a parable. Mark calls this analogy a parable. But is it? There are no characters who think and speak and act. In fact, there are no characters at all. And there is no plot. Again, strictly speaking, this is not a parable. No doubt you can see that it is a simile due to the use of the word “like.” The kingdom is like a mustard seed.

My point? If we can call the mustard seed simile a parable—yea verily, if Mark can call the mustard seed simile a parable in 4:33—, then why not feel free to call The Metaphor/Simile of the Vine and Branches a parable, The Parable of the Vine and Branches.

2.     The larger context

Our featured parable is in the middle of Jesus’ very lengthy “Farewell Discourse,” John 13:31-17:26. He’s saying goodbye on the night of his arrest, the night associated with the Last Supper, though John, unlike the Synoptic Gospels does not include a eucharistic formula at a Passover meal (perhaps because in John’s Gospel Jesus is the Passover). John gives us foot washing instead (13:1-30).

Following Judas’ departure into the night, Jesus begins his longest single “speech” in the Bible. It’s interrupted occasionally by questions from the disciples, but it’s non-stop Jesus otherwise. He’s telling them that he’s leaving, but he’s cushioning the blow by promising to send the Holy Spirit, by giving them a new commandment to love one another as he has loved them, by foretelling what they must do and endure, by praying for them in their presence, and, perhaps most importantly, by telling them to abide in him to bear fruit until they join him in his Father’s abode.

3.     The immediate context

Immediately preceding – The section immediately preceding our featured parable places Jesus’ announcement that he is “going away” in the context of these words of promise, comfort, and peace.

John 14:25-31  25 "All this I have spoken while still with you.  26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  28 "You heard me say, 'I am going away and I am coming back to you.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.  29 I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.  30 I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me,  31 but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me. "Come now; let us leave.”

I may be going away, he says, but the Counselor is coming from the Father to teach you. And to still your fearful, troubled hearts, I give you my peace. (Remarkable that Jesus is the one about to die, yet he gives his disciples peace.)

The script of the movie The Gospel of John is the actual Gospel of John word for word. Philip Saville, the director, spoke of the difficulty of filming this long Farewell Discourse without losing the audience’s attention while Jesus just stands there talking for 20+ minutes. Saville addressed this in two ways.

One, he used black and white flashbacks to earlier relevant points in the film. These not only broke up the speech effectively, but added to the drama of what he was saying to them in his goodbye.

Two, he changed locations between Chapters 14 and 15. When Jesus says, “Come now, let us leave,” (14:31) the camera shows them leaving the “upper room” and walking toward Gethsemane. On the way they walk through a vineyard, and as they do so, the words of 15:1 begin:

John 15:1  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.”

By the light of a Passover full moon, passing through a Jerusalem vineyard, Saville’s Jesus (Henry Ian Cusik) tells The Parable of the Vine and Branches. It is a most effective scene in what I think is the best movie about Jesus made to date.

Immediately following – Immediately following our parable, Jesus explains that the purpose the branch abiding in the vine is joy. On the eve of his death he’s talking about joy? Yes.

John 15:7-11   7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.  8 This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.  9 "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.  11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

Jesus’ instructions following our featured parable are explained in terms of glory, fruit, love, and joy. The occasion is sad because he’s leaving. No one is trying to get around that with sugary joy talk. The sheer volume of his “Farewell Discourse” acknowledges the presence of grief at his departure, especially considering the tragic way in which he would leave. Their pain is precisely what Jesus goes to great lengths to address. It’s going to hurt them badly and he knows it. Yet, he is assuring them (at length) that it’s all for joy.

You might complain, Can he be serious? Is this not Pollyannaism? Where’d he get those rose colored glasses?

No. That’s not it. Jesus is the one who is choosing to endure agony to accomplish this departure, and he knows the hell of it is coming for him and for them. But he sees a bigger picture, and he’s trying to help them see it, too, so that they may, if not now then later, understand and believe. He’s telling them from inside of their fear and sorrow that the only way their joy can be complete in the end is if he goes. The pain now is serving a greater joy to come, not the least of which will be the joy of his resurrection. So they are to remain in him and his love no matter what, bear the fruit of that love no matter what, so that his joy will be in them completing their joy eternally. This is a glorious hope promised to them from within the belly of betrayal and heartbreak.

4.     The Parable: Fruit, Pruned, Burned, Abide

Fruit – The focus on bearing fruit grounds the parable in loving relationships of service in the here and now. The “abiding” analogized by the branch and the vine is no pie-in-the-sky future promise, but a present-in-this-world mission of love. This fruit, of course, is love, and it’s also those things that are loving toward others. His new commandment at the outset of the “Farewell Discourse” is to love one another as he has loved them (13:32-35). This abiding he is speaking about is a present reality that produces the power to bear the fruit of love. His point is that the branches cannot do this apart from the vine. In order to love, they have to be in love in him. And to be in love in him produces love.

Pruned – Fred Craddock’s paragraph on this is extraordinary:

“Be a branch and feel the knife of the vinedresser. Both dead branches and live branches are severely cut, in the one case in order to be tossed away, in the other for the purpose of increased fruitfulness. Experientially, what is the difference? Interestingly, the Greek words translated “to take away” and “to prune” have the same stem. “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, airei (he takes away), and every branch that does bear fruit, athairei (he prunes) that it may bear more fruit.” (v. 2) The play on words stirs the readers to realize how similar and yet how different are the two experiences of the vinedresser’s cutting. Pruning can be so painful (removal of the debilitating baggage of things, relationships, activities, meaningless pursuits). Who among us has not interpreted the experience as being cut away from God, hurt, angry, and confused?”

John, Fred Craddock, Knox Preaching Guides, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982, p. 114.

With all due respect to Dr. Craddock, he is only partially right. I say this with respect because he was my favorite professor in seminary. With any luck, he won’t read this!

I agree with Dr. Craddock that it hurts when the vinedresser prunes the “debilitating baggage of things, relationships, activities, and meaningless pursuits” from our lives. It hurts because we cling to them, we believe we need them, or we are addicted to them. When we are pruned of them, even though in the divine scope of things they are bad for us, we still have withdrawal pains. Real grief. Real loss. They were our crutches. But God prunes the crutches from our lives because, despite what we believe, we don’t need them and they are keeping us from walking, from running, from being free. Fruitful productivity then is often born of the pain of pruning. I agree with Dr. Craddock. But there is another side to this when we look at it in context.

Where I must disagree with Dr. Craddock is that Jesus is preparing his beloved friends and followers for a pruning of another kind. Within hours they will be cut. It will likely be the worst cutting of their lives. Yet this pruning is not the removal of something debilitating, but the pain of Jesus’ removal from their lives via the cross. They are about to lose their friend, their teacher, and their Lord. What more painful pruning can one imagine?

The cuts were so deep. Judas’ betrayed him. They all forsook him and fled. Peter denied him three times and disavowed discipleship. None but John was brave enough to attend the crucifixion. This pruning, Jesus knew, would feel like being cut off from God. If anything was going to feel like being cut off by God, this would be it.

You might protest, But wait, Bert, Jesus is the vine and the disciples are the branches. How can Jesus be pruned from them? They aren’t the vine. He’s not a branch.

That’s true. But their relationship with the man, the earthly man with whom they have face-to-face partnership in ministry, is nevertheless about to be pruned from them. Apart from who he is parabolically and who they are parabolically, his earthly life with them will be pruned. But, Jesus insists, it’s a pruning for fruitfulness that will yield joy!

John 12:24   “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

That’s his point for the evening as they walk to Gethsemane. He’s acknowledging the painful pruning they are moments away from experiencing. Yet at the same time he is assuring them that this will not be a cutting off, but it will be instead a pruning for greater fruitfulness. I hear Jesus telling his fearful disciples:

  1. The pruning of our earthly relationship due to my death is real and it will hurt.
  2. It will feel like you’re being cut off, but you’re not.
  3. This is a pruning for fruitfulness, and the vinedresser’s hand is in this for your good.
  4. Fruitfulness will result from this because you are my branch in the pruning.
  5. You will be able to abide in my love despite my departure; my love will not leave you.

But wait, there’s more, and it’s mind-blowing. Yes, the pruning of Jesus will be painful for them. But look at what this means in light of the parable. It means that the living vine is willingly taking the place of the fruitless, spiritually dead branches and allowing itself to be pruned in their place. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Burned How typical of us to think we see Dante’s burning hell even in a parable meant to comfort disciples on the night of Jesus’ arrest and execution! It’s a horrible projection:

If you don’t love me, I shall cut you off and burn you forever and ever in a devil’s hell.

Come on! Let’s not do this. Let’s take our afterlife glasses off, please. This abiding thing is a here and now thing, right? The point of abiding is bearing fruit in the here and now, right? So let’s look faithfully at verse 6 without presumption or projection as much as is possible.

John 15:6  “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”

First, let’s remember the context. Jesus is helping his disciple to understand his coming departure and how to go on without him toward fullness of joy. This is instruction purposed for comfort and for going on living. Why on the eve of his death—a death that will hurt them beyond all imagining—would he say, “Love me or I’ll torture you when you die.” It’s abominable to think like that, and it makes me crazy that the majority of modern evangelicals in America today, I dare say, look at our featured parable and see a threat of hell-fire. It sickens me with sadness.

Second, in the first phrase of the verse he says, “If anyone does not remain in me.” Remain means to stay. So we can’t be talking about “non-believers” getting themselves “saved” from God’s hell-fire. Since remain means stay, we are talking about believers remaining in him and his love no matter what to bear fruit and complete his and their joy.

Third, the one who doesn't stay in his love is like a branch. It’s a metaphor, is it not? If the disciple who stops loving is like a branch, then he’s not a literal branch, is he? Is Jesus threatening to turn someone into a stick? No, it’s a metaphor. L-I-K-E, like. So if the stick is a metaphor, then the fire is too. How is it that we have turned Jesus’ passionate metaphorical love-plea to his disciples into a grim, literal afterlife-threat to unbelievers? It’s insane. No, it’s evil. There! I said it.

What, then, is Jesus saying in verse 6? This is what I hear:

Though I’m leaving, and that will be hard, if you don’t continue abiding in my love, you’ll become a fruitless branch sapping energy and nutrients from the producing branches. For you to become a mere leach will be no good for you and no good for your friends here. Parasites bear no fruit and drain the fruitful branches. A fruitless drain on the vine has to be cut away. Every sane vinedresser knows that. Peter, you don’t want to go there, no matter how bad you’re hurting. John, if you stop loving, where will you be? You’ll be a withering and dying stick in a pile with other withering and dying sticks, of no use to a vinedresser but as kindling for the home-fires. Don’t let that happen. No matter what, abide in my love and bear the fruits of love. Don’t stop loving, and do it with every beat of your broken heart.

This is not a threat of hell to unbelievers, you see? It’s Jesus showing his fearful disciples love’s way forward through their pain. He’s showing them what they probably already knew, that if one responds to life’s wounds by withdrawing, by withholding love, then one dies spiritually here and now. Jesus wants to nix that eventuality for his beloved disciples with a little love-education from God’s vineyard.

Abide Abide in me as I abide in you.” (John 15:4) This is the heart of our parable. To get at its meaning, let’s have a look at the glamorous world of televangelism.

Abode and abide: He’s not talking about mansions in the sky

Have you noticed that the “Christian” studio sets that you see on TV are often opulent to the point of gaudiness? They look like the parlors of antebellum mansions. Why, you may ask? Boy, do I have a theory for you! It has to do with heaven, or a certain conception of the heavenly afterlife. You are no doubt familiar with this verse:

John 14:2 “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places (or rooms). If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

In the English version of the Bible most revered by those who watch these television prosperity preachers—the King James Version—the verse reads like this:

KJV John 14:2 “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (emphasis mine)

I suspect that this verse has created in believers’ minds the expectation that when one dies and “goes to heaven” that one lives in a lavish mansion! So what do the sets of television evangelists often look like? They are decorated to look like the parlors of gold embroidered, circular staircased, Persian rugged mansions! The televangelists are more than happy to give the believing viewer a glimpse of the antebellum paradise awaiting him in the sky by and by.

Forced to live in less than palatial dwellings during their earthly lives, supporters of TV prosperity preachers are presented with an eye-popping preview of the sumptuous heavenly estates awaiting them on the other side. Supporters see these “ministers” in their flashy attire as heavenly mansion-dwellers granting them a sneak peek at what’s in store for them upon the moment of crossing over. All the fineries of the rich and famous one day will be theirs too. This is the bizarre promise of television’s prosperity palaces.

Back to our parable and the word “abide”: The word for rooms (mansions) in Greek is monh, mone {pronounced mon-ay'}. To understand this word it might be best to translate it “abode,” since mone is related to its cognate verb me,nw meno {pronounced men'-o}, which means “abide.” In my Father’s house are many abodes. There is an emphasis in John’s Gospel on the Father abiding in the Son and the Son in the Father. They abide in one another, making one another their abode.

14:10  “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells (meno, abides) in me does his works.”

In our featured parable, in John 15:9, and in 1 John 2:24 is the claim that we can participate in this relationship by making our home (abode) in Jesus even as he has made his home (abode) in us.

John 15:4  Abide (meno) in me as I abide (meno) in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides (meno) in the vine, neither can you unless you abide (meno) in me.

John 15:9  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide (meno) in my love.

1 John 2:24  Let what you heard from the beginning abide (meno) in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides (meno) in you, then you will abide (meno) in the Son and in the Father.

The New English Translation Notes affirm that John’s use of abode and abide “refer to the permanence of relationship between Jesus and the Father and/or Jesus and the believer.” The Holy Spirit is in this relationship too.

John 14:16-17 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you (meno, abide) forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides (meno) with you, and he will be in you.

To abide (meno) in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is to make your abode (mone) in them. They are your abode (mone). Therefore, abide equals abode, because Jesus equals the place.

What Jesus had in mind by saying that in his Father’s house are many rooms (mone, abodes) is that there is not only a place in God for you now, but always. This is a poetic/metaphoric expression of being in relationship with God. Jesus is speaking of being “at home” in his Father. It probably has to do with something far more profound than a heavenly Tara, the plantation in “Gone with the Wind.”

In John 14:2 Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you.” (emphasis mine) He goes (via death, resurrection, and ascension) to prepare a “room” (mone = abode) for you in his Father’s “house.” He goes to prepare a place, yet he is the place, he is the abode, and he promises to bring you to himself.

John 14:3  “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

To bring you to himself is to bring you to the Father, because he is in the Father:

John 1:18  No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart (literally “in the bosom of the Father”) who has made him known. (emphasis mine)

The closeness of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is expressed biblically by speaking of close proximity in space. They are in a place together, yet they are the place.

When Jesus spoke of an afterlife place he painted it symbolically by picturing a house with guest rooms. By preparing a place for you in the house of God, Jesus is preparing a place for you in the Father’s heart. He’s speaking of something much more heavy duty than lodging. He’s talking about moving into the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and their relationship of mutual love, admiration, and respect. He’s talking about utter union with God. God is our home.

Abode and abide: He’s talking about a marriage

In the archaeological excavations of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and other New Testament Jewish villages, we have learned that rooms were often added onto houses. It’s believed that when a son married, his father added a room on the house for the son and his bride. The new wife thus joined the household of her father-in-law.

Among Palestinians in modern Israel there is a similar practice. The Quran prohibits borrowing even to build a home, and Palestinians, even if they aren't particularly religious, might nevertheless avoid borrowing. So they build the first floor only when they have the money saved. But, they put very tall rebar in place to support another floor that they plan to build later when funds again are available. The purpose of such a building project is often a marriage.

A friend of mine who lives in a village on the Mount of Olives completed the third floor of his home on the occasion of his son’s marriage. But rather than give the third floor to his son and new daughter-in-law, my friend moved up to the third floor with his wife. Two older sons (already married) moved from the first to the second floor. The newlyweds got the first floor.

So when Jesus said that he goes to his Father to prepare a room for you in his father’s house, he’s likely referring to exactly what would happen in his culture when a son goes to his father to prepare a room for him and his new bride. Jesus is implying that his followers are “brides.” The bride lives in a new room prepared by the Son in the Father’s house. It’s a beautiful metaphor of relationship.

The relationship the believer has with Jesus is likened to a marriage relationship, arguably the most intimate human union possible. The two become one flesh. (Genesis 2:21; Matthew 19:5-6; Mark 10:8; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 5:31) This bride and groom analogy matches the verses in the Bible that refer to the church as Jesus’ bride.

Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

Revelation 19:7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready;

Revelation 21:2 And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Revelation 21:9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb."

On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, records John, the same night that he spoke of the vine and the branches, Jesus comforted his disciples by telling them that after his and their deaths that they will be in a union not unlike a marriage. Their union will be like when a groom moves with his new bride into a new room in his father’s house. Abide in me, he said. You can’t get much closer than marital union. And you can’t get much closer than the relationship between a vine and a branch. Jesus again says it’s all about relationship in this age and in the age to come.

5.     The meaning

My father was a hospital chaplain in Atlanta for about 25 years. Terminally ill patients spoke with him about death and the afterlife. He says that almost everyone he listened to over the years expressed not a hope for afterlife accommodations, but a hope for continuing relationship. They were more interested in “whom” than “where.” Those facing death in the hospital were yearning not for fancy accommodations, but for a person.

Likewise, Jesus, rather than focusing on the vistas of afterlife acreage, focused on the very personal relationships with God that people yearn for even in the facing of their own deaths. The Bible describes that personal relationship as a place: a home, a paradise like Eden, a New Jerusalem, and a marriage. But as far as the Bible is concerned, the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are that place.

Revelation 21:22   I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. (emphasis mine)

We yearn for this “place” because the scriptures say that we are wired for relationship with persons (the persons of the Trinity and the persons all around us). This place is about persons, not upholstery.

For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.

Luke 16:1-8 – The Crooked Manager (often called “The Unjust Steward”)

Topic: Being spiritually shrewd by gambling on God’s grace
Intended Audience: Jesus’ disciples (and the overhearing Pharisees)

NRS Luke 16:1-8  Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  2 So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'  3 Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'  5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'  6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'  7 Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'  8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly . . .”

NAB Luke 16:14  The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him.

Not a popular parable

While The Parable of the Crooked Manager is neither familiar nor popular, it’s one of my favorites. Why is it little-known and little-liked? Here are some reasons that come to mind:

  1. The Crooked Manager immediately follows The Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel. How do you follow the most popular parable Jesus ever told? This parable stands in the shadow of a giant.
  2. The “hero” of the parable is a crook, which is confusing, if not off-putting.
  3. Even more troubling is that the crook, when he gets caught, tries to worm his way out of it by doing something even more crooked. Some hero!
  4. The crook gets off Scott free, not only getting away with his original offense but with numerous subsequent offenses.
  5. Not only does he get away with it, but this dishonest fellow is praised by his boss for being shrewd! Are we supposed to be cunning liars? What kind of lesson is this?

So, are you telling me that The Prodigal Son is followed by a parable about a terminated crook who gets praised by his boss for doing something even more crooked than what got him fired in the first place? You’re kidding, right? When this one comes up in the New Common Lectionary or the International Lesson Series, I imagine most people skip it.

The Genre

This analogy is a parable. It is a brief drama with characters and a plot.

Our “play” begins and ends with a meeting between the boss and the manager. It has four mini-scenes:

  1. Rich man fires crooked manager for wastefulness
  2. Crooked manager steps aside and talks to himself until he comes up with a scheme
  3. Crooked manager meets with the boss’ debtors one-by-one to reduce their debts
  4. Rich man praises crooked manager for shrewdness

The Characters

There are two main characters:

  1. A rich man
  2. The rich man’s crooked/wasteful household manager

There are supporting cast members:

  1. Other household members who bring a charge of wastefulness against the manager
  2. The rich man’s debtors (we don’t know how many, but two have lines in the drama)
  3. Townspeople whose favor the manager seeks


In New Testament Greek word is oikonomos (from oíkos, "house, household" and nemō, "to allot, apportion"). It means household manager. Such a person could be called a steward, overseer, administrator, or treasurer.

The Plot

A rich man discovers that his household manager is being wasteful and he fires him. The manager comes up with a quick scheme involving reducing what his boss’ debtors owe (making them happy and making him and his boss very popular) before they can find out that he’s been fired. The boss commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.

What’s the crime and punishment?

“Wasteful” is a vague term, but that is the charge brought against the manager. At the end of the parable, Jesus calls him a “dishonest manager,” so we wonder whether the man is stealing. Though wastefulness may not be outright theft, it nevertheless means that he’s costing his boss money. Technically, then, he’s robbing, though it may be theft by white-collar mismanagement.

The expected response of the rich man would be to have the man arrested and prosecuted. If the manager were a slave, he might have done more than that. Slaves managed money for their masters in other of Jesus’ parables (Matt 18:23-35, 24:45-51, 25:14-30; Lk 19:12-27). A beating of a wasteful slave would have been in order, perhaps more.

Strangely, the rich man only made the manager surrender the books. That’s it. It’s an unusually lenient response by an unusually generous man. The boss is neither interested in recouping his losses nor punishing the “criminal.” Caught red handed, the manager gets little more than a tap on the wrist. The mercy that this man shows his manager will prove essential to the manager’s shrewd scheme.

He talks to himself about himself

We learn six things about the manager from his self-talk in verse three:

  1. “What shall I do?” he asks. His perspective is, “It’s all about me, and getting out of this is all up to me.” There’s a self-centeredness here. A selfishness. And he sees no alternative to fixing this than to continue in his free-wheeling, conniving pattern by devising a dishonest self-salvation scheme. We now know without a doubt that he’s a self-serving schemer.
  2. He doesn’t seem to be sorry for what he did. He offers no explanation, he expresses no remorse, and he makes no offer of restitution. The easiest thing to do would be to come clean, show everything he’d done wrong, apologize, and set up a schedule of payments that would reimburse his master with interest. But no. Clean and easy and honest are not options. Either he can’t face the truth (about what he’d done and about himself) or being honest just never occurs to him. Instead, every neuron in his cerebral cortex is firing.
  3. At least he has the facts straight. He knows he’s guilty, he knows that his boss knows he’s guilty, he knows he deserves to be fired, and he knows he can’t get his job back by making excuses. He’s not stupid.
  4. But he’s self-deceived. As he put it, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” What does he mean, “taking”? It’s already “took”! He was fired. There are no shades of gray here. There’s no wiggle room. It’s a done deal. But not in his mind! No one knows he’s been fired yet except the master, and he still has the books, so “his brain is squirming like a toad.” Maybe there’s some book cooking he can do yet. There must be something brilliant and underhanded that he can come up with to pull this out of the fire. Strategically, to his way of thinking, this thing isn’t over, his job hasn’t been taken until he turns in the books, and he is just the rascally rabbit who can presto-chango un-take the take.
  5. “I’m not strong enough to farm,” he says. In an agrarian society, with farmers in the audience, no doubt, this line is a hoot. What kind of 98-pound, conniving, lazy weakling do we have here? What kind of pampered, manicured, spoiled sissy are we talking about? The plowboys among Jesus’ listeners had to be loving this.
  6. “I’m ashamed to beg,” he says. What a blind hypocrite (not unlike the Pharisees – Matt 15:12-14, 23:15-16, 23:23-24)! The manager is not too ashamed to waste his boss’ money, but he’s too proud to panhandle? What a crock! He won’t work and he won’t beg. What’s left? Let’s see. Oh, yeah! He can scheme, lie, cheat, and steal. What’s to be ashamed of in that?

I’ve mentioned this repeatedly in these exegesis papers, but just in case you missed it before: Jesus was funny.

What’s the manager’s goal? Popularity. If the people of the town were given a reason to actually like him (and given what we know about him, this may be a challenge!), maybe they will feed and house him when he finally turns in the books.

My hypothesis, however, is that he has an unspoken hope: to get his job back. He’s got a plan that will result in the restoration of his position or, if not, enough popularity to be housed and fed by the townsfolk. It could go either way, and he’ll take either one. But both results depend on one thing: the rich man being a softy.

The crooked manager’s scheme

“I know what I’ll do,” he says. Oh, Lord, there is no telling what this bamboozler has cooked up. Given the brevity of this parable, Jesus has given us a remarkably colorful character, hasn’t he? This manager is quite the weasel. So what’s the weasel gonna do?

His primary job, it seems, as oikonomos was to collect the rent. As the financial steward of a landed estate, his master’s debtors would pay their rent in produce. In return for living on the rich man’s land, they gave him a percentage cut of the goods. So the renters know the manager all too well. They know the drill. Summoning them concerning the rent would not seem suspect.

The key to the success of his daring plan is that none of the renters know he has been fired. Word is not out yet. As far as they know, the manager is (as he has been) the legal representative of the landlord. If the manager pulls this off, he could be the toast of New Orleans whether he gets his job back or not. Here’s the plan:

  1. Get the books quickly and summon the debtors immediately to a discrete location so that no one will see what he’s doing and turn him in.
  2. Keep them thinking he’s still the manager by asking them, “How much do you owe my master?” He’s lying, obviously. Thus Jesus can call him “the dishonest manager.”
  3. See them one-by-one so they can’t talk. As far as each debtor knows, the manager is doing him a special hush-hush favor. And if he can keep them from talking to one another, it will keep word from getting out before he can finish. He hurries them in and out discreetly.
  4. He gets them to write out a legal bill in their own handwriting to make it legally binding. He tells them to write fast! “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.”
  5. He significantly reduces the debt of every renter, making himself quite the celebrity in the process. He basks in his sudden popularity, and thus insures that no renter will treat him badly if the master, in the end, doesn’t return him to office.
  6. He delivers the books with the new figures to his master.

Crazy or courageous, brainless or brilliant, it’s a gutsy move. He has everything to lose. The boss may not have thrown the book at him before, but he might throw it at him now, aiming for right between the eyes.

The rich man’s choice

The manager has forced the boss’ hand. He only has two options.

  1. Go to the renters and explain the mistake.
  2. Do nothing.

Explaining the mistake is a problem, however. Once the debts had been reduced, the manager was a popular guy. The renters and other townsfolk likely saw him as a hero, and they might not take kindly to his being fired. Moreover, the boss was no doubt suddenly a popular guy, too. Everyone would have assumed that the boss had authorized the cuts. For him to turn around and take it all back would go over like a lead balloon. He would become the villain. If he cares anything about popularity, he can’t select this option.

The only other option is to do nothing. Doing nothing, of course, means that the new reduced rates illegally obtained must stand, the renters must never know that the manager had been fired, they must never know that the debts were reduced without authorization, and the manager must keep his job. For the sake of popularity, this is what the boss decided to do.

The boss did more than that, however. He praised the dishonest manager for his cunning. He was impressed and expressed admiration. What a parable!

I believe that this outcome was foreseen by the crooked, scheming manager. I believe he planned for this, the best of all possible outcomes. It was a gamble, yes. But he bet it all and believed it to be a good bet.

What made him so sure that the master would do nothing? Simple. The boss let him off easy before, so he bet the farm that the boss would let him off again. It was the boss’ generous mercy in the beginning of the parable that the manager banked on. When he could have and should have thrown the book at him, he didn’t.

The Mishna contains the oral traditions followed in Jesus’ day by the Pharisees. They were written down finally in 200 A.D. And the Mishna is clear about what should have happened to the wasteful, dishonest manager: 1) he should have paid back the losses; 2) he should have been tried; 3) and if convicted, he should have gone to jail. But Jesus—ever the challenger of Pharisaic legalism—tells a parable in their presence about a rich man who ignores the legal, religious traditions, and let’s an offender of the law go his way without remuneration, trial, sentencing, or punishment. The word that most aptly applies here is grace.

The meaning: from light to heavy

As with The Parable of the Friend at Midnight and The Parable of the Unjust Judge, our featured parable uses the ancient teaching technique of “from light to heavy.” If THIS is true, how much more then is THIS true! If something is true in a lighter everyday situation, then how much more true it must be in application to a much weightier matter.

This can be put a couple of ways:

  1. If a dishonest manager can bank it all on getting grace a second time from a pushover boss, how much more then can you, a sinner, bank it all on the mercy of your loving and gracious heavenly Father?
  2. If a boss forgives the crimes of a crooked manager all for the selfish sake of his own vain popularity, how much more then can you count on the forgiveness of your heavenly Father whose sacrificial mercy is willing to pay the full price for your salvation, even if it means he comes off looking like a weak fool?

The meaning in light of the immediate context: Pharisaical opposition

The Pharisees responded to Jesus’ parable with a sneer. And no wonder! They held the oral laws recorded in the Mishna in equal esteem and authority with the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. The oral law is clear about what to do with the manager, as surely the meticulous Pharisees knew. And Jesus throws a parable in their faces in which “the God character” lets the manager off the hook demonstrating a blatant disregard for the law. How can God disobey God’s law? Ekmukterizo means to deride by turning up the nose, to sneer at, to scoff at. Sneers are smiles of utter contempt.

Soon they would do more than sneer. Soon they would do to Jesus what they felt the rich man should have done to the manager. They would have him arrested, tried, and convicted. Grace is more terrifying than anything to the graceless.

For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Luke 11:5-8 – The Friend at Midnight

Jesus Treated the Subject of Prayer with Humor
A Badly Mistranslated Parable
Anaideia: The Avoidance of Shame

The God-character is sleepy and annoyed by a prayerful request? Exactly!

While The Parable of the Prodigal Son and The Parable of the Good Samaritan—Jesus’ most familiar parables—have multiple scenes within a longer drama, The Friend at Midnight is one scant scene, a mere four verses.

Luke 11:5-8   5 Then he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,  6 because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'  7 "Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.'  8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness {8 Or persistence} he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

Characters and plot

The two main characters:
  1. a suddenly-awakened father
  2. his neighbor outside the door requesting bread for his unexpected midnight guests

The supporting cast with no speaking parts includes:
  1. the father’s sleeping family
  2. the hungry travelers at the neighbor’s house
  3. and we can presume the presence of sleeping villagers

Jesus’ analogy about prayer takes place at a house in a Jewish village in the middle of the night. A father (representing God) and his family are asleep in their home when a neighbor (representing one who prays) comes to call asking for bread for travelers who have shown up unexpectedly. The shock introduced by Jesus is that the drowsy father says in reply, “Don’t bother me,” and he makes weak excuses for why he can’t help. It’s inexcusably bad behavior on the part of “the God-character.” Jesus knows how to grab your attention.

Jesus used two ancient literary techniques in one parable

Technique #1: “Who among you . . .” – Jesus employs an ancient Middle Eastern teaching technique by asking a question that can only be answered with an emphatic No. The technique uses the phrase “who among you.” Can anyone of you imagine a friend refusing you bread at midnight when you have unexpected guests from out of town? No, this is unimaginable, both in Jesus’ day and today in the Middle East. Such a refusal would be shameful, especially in light of the rude words and ridiculous excuses that the friend made. This refusal, these rude words, and these flimsy excuses are so unthinkable that it is humorous.

Here, as is often the case, we see Jesus’ sense of humor in high gear. We’ve often heard this parable somberly intoned from lofty pulpits, but it is impossible to tell this tale—given a first century Jewish perspective—without a twinkle in the eye and a tongue planted firmly in the cheek. If Jesus were asking for a show of hands (when he asked, Who among you can imagine this?), he would have gotten zero hands and a room full of chuckles.

Do you have a hard time imagining Jesus laughing? Kidding around? Poking fun? Using sarcasm and irony? Using funny voices when he dramatizes his characters’ lines? Making faces when he dramatizes a scene? Our near inability to see and hear Jesus telling a good story well, with humor and drama and maybe even sound effects, is tragic. I think it’s due to at least two factors.

  • One, 2,000 years have gone by and Jesus was from another culture that used a different language. We can often recapture Jesus’ humor, however, by putting on first century ears, to the extent that that is possible.
  • Two, religion tends to take itself super seriously. Could we be victims of generations of teachers and preachers who have de-humor-ized (and therefore dehumanized) Jesus and his teachings? I think so. In an attempt to stress the urgency of belief and the gravity of our “all-important afterlife choice,” they have ignored or suppressed any creative playfulness they may have accidentally found in Jesus’ teaching. Moreover, as in the case in our featured parable, if Jesus can tell a humorous parable about prayer, then maybe our approach to prayer could be a little less grim than we tend to make it.
Jesus employs the technique of “who among you” often; the only possible response is a negative one; to respond in the positive is ludicrous and laughable. And this is Jesus’ humorous intent:

NAB Luke 11:11-12  “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?  12 Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?”

(See also Luke 14:5, 15:4, 17:7)

In our featured parable Jesus asks his listeners to “suppose.” This is another way of saying, “Who among you can imagine this?”

Luke 11:5-7  “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,  6 because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'  7 "Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.'”

The answer to the implied question—who among you can suppose this?—is “No one can suppose this. Such a response to this request is un-supposable.”

Technique #2: “How much more . . .” – Jesus employs another ancient Middle Eastern teaching technique in this parable, an argument “from light to heavy.” If THIS is true, how much more then is THIS true. If something is true in a lighter everyday situation, then how much more true it must be in application to a much weightier matter. Sometimes Jesus identifies this technique with the very words “how much more.”

Matthew 7:11   11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Matthew 10:25   25 It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, {25 Greek Beezeboul or Beelzeboul} how much more the members of his household!

Matthew 12:12   12How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

(See also Luke 11:13, 12:24, 12:27-28)

Sometimes, however, Jesus employs the technique of “how much more” without using those words, as in the Parable of the Unjust Judge, for example.

Luke 18:2-8   2 He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men.  3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'  4 "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men,  5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"  6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says.  7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?  8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.

While in the telling of this parable Jesus did not use the phrase “how much more,” he nevertheless employed the technique. One could insert the phrase in verse seven by changing his question into a sentence. “How much more then will God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night!” I consider The Unjust Judge a sister parable to The Friend at Midnight. They both are designed with the technique of “how much more,” and they are both about prayer.

The Apostle Paul also used this technique, including four times in Romans 5.

Romans 5:17   17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

(See also Roman 5:9, 10, and 15)

The writer of Hebrews was fond of this technique as well.

Hebrews 12:9   9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!

(See also Hebrews 9:13-14 and 10:28-29)

Jesus employs three metaphors to support the parable

Luke records Jesus telling his disciples our featured parable (Luke 11:5-8) and then following that parable with three helpful metaphors:

1) asking, seeking, and knocking
2) fish or snake
3) egg or scorpion

Luke 11:9-13   9 "So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.  11 "Which of you fathers, if your son asks for {11 Some manuscripts for bread, will give him a stone; or if he asks for} a fish, will give him a snake instead?  12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

The closing verse (13) interprets the fish-or-snake and egg-or-scorpion metaphors, and it gives us a strong hint of how to interpret our featured parable. We are to interpret it as a “how much more” saying. This is where the translation and application of the word anaideia comes into play as the key to understanding The Parable of the Friend at Midnight. It’s a “how much more” parable, best interpreted by verse 13.

Luke 11:13   If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

Note also that Jesus concludes not with asking for a new car, but asking for the Holy Spirit. Prayer begins with this because the Spirit is God’s personal presence and power. By asking for the Spirit, you are not asking for specific needs, thus you are trusting the Spirit to know what you need, what you really need, rather than what you think you need. It’s a way of exercising faith. You prayerfully trust God to know what you need and what he already desires deeply to give you. It’s opening yourself to God’s agenda by putting your agenda aside. It would be like a child sitting on Santa’s knee and saying, “You know what I need and I trust you to give it to me. Thanks in advance.”

Three ways archaeology and history help with this scene

  1. Nighttime travel – Contemporary literature to the New Testament in the Middle East refers to people traveling at night on purpose because of the desert heat during the day. Traveling by the relative cool of the evening on moonlit roads was logical and common. So travelers arriving in the middle of the night in need of bread would have likely surprised no one among Jesus’ listeners. This probably happened all the time.
  1. Bread – There are three things about bread in first century Palestine that you should know.
a.       It may be that village bread-baking was put on a rotation schedule by the women. They may have coordinated the chore so that they all didn’t have to bake every day, and they didn’t have to bake just one or two loaves at a time. One woman (or a few designated women) would bake a lot of bread for the day’s consumption by the whole village. You took your turn. You worked in shifts. This being the case, it explains why a neighbor would have to go to another house for bread. The bread was baked by a certain woman that day, and she had the daily stash of leftover loaves from that day. If you had an unexpected need for bread in the middle of the night, you could discover who baked that day simply by asking your wife. Then you would go to that house and ask for some.
b.      This is not just a matter of the travelers being hungry. As we might offer an unexpected visitor to come in, have a seat, have something to eat, or have something to drink, even more so in Middle Eastern culture, you offer (among other things) bread. It’s a matter of hospitality. It would be shameful not to offer bread.
c.       Also remember that in the Middle East, then as sometimes today, the bread is more than a meal. It is your eating utensil. You use it as a fork or spoon to eat other dishes provided. You pick up meats or vegetables from a common plate or bowl with a piece of bread. You dip bread in dishes of sauce or cups of wine. Bread dipped into something is called “sop.” It’s like dunking your donut in coffee. The most famous biblical sop is this:

NIV Matthew 26:23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”

ASV John 13:26 Jesus therefore answereth, He it is, for whom I shall dip the sop, and give it him. So when he had dipped the sop, he taketh and giveth it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27 And after the sop, then entered Satan into him. Jesus therefore saith unto him, What thou doest, do quickly. 28 Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him.

To sop is to use bread to soak up a liquid for eating. Today this is most frequently done (perhaps more so in the southern US) by using biscuits to sop up gravy. In this case, no fork or spoon is required. The bread is your “utensil.” Today in Palestine this is everywhere an everyday occurrence. Go to almost any restaurant. Plates of various salads and hummus are brought to the table with pita bread as an appetizer. No silverware required. Just dip and eat.

  1. Kataluma – Imagine a small living space with mats spread on the floor for the entire family to sleep on. At the back of the room is the brick oven where coals warm the bread and the room. At the other end is the door to the modest first century home. The father and mother sleep next to the oven so that they can reach and provide food or water for the children should they need them in the night. Therefore there are sleeping children between the father and the door. This being the case, then, it is true that the father would have to disturb his children by climbing over them to make his way to the door to hand the neighbor some bread. Yes, it’s a flimsy excuse, but it is nonetheless true. This fact fits both the parable and the layout of excavated first century homes in typical Jewish villages like Nazareth and Bethlehem.
That main living room where people gathered, ate, and slept is called in the Bible the kataluma. Now perhaps it is clearer what Luke meant in the verse describing Jesus’ birth.

NJB Luke 2:7 and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room (topos – spot, space, or place, not a hotel room) for them in the living-space (kataluma – not pandochieon which means inn).

The manger (phante – animal feed trough) would have likely been in a room or cave beneath or behind the house—a stable or sheepfold of sorts for the family animals. Such a place would have given the privacy and isolation needed for childbirth. People would be sleeping in the main room, and childbirth renders the mother and others involved ritually impure. Childbirth would defile the living room and its occupants. Therefore, since the occupied living quarters (kataluma) was no place (topos) for labor and delivery, Mary went to a private place, the stable or sheepfold beneath or in the back of the house, as probably did any mother in that day giving birth at home, and she used a manger there for Jesus’ crib as is logical for any mother of the day.

While in The Parable of the Friend at Midnight, neither childbirth nor defilement was the issue, there are still the issues of privacy and inconvenience. The friend in need is causing a midnight disturbance.

Key translation problem: the Greek word anaideia

avnai,deia anaideia {an-ah'-ee-die-ah'} – it means shamelessness

Most English translations of the Bible translate anaideia as boldness or persistence.

NIV Luke 11:8   “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness {8 Or persistence} he will get up and give him as much as he needs.” (emphasis mine)

But there are two major problems with translating anaideia as boldness or persistence:

  1. Anaideia does not and cannot mean boldness or persistence. It means shamelessness.
  1. It is the sleeping man, not the man at the door asking for bread, who possesses the trait of anaideia – shamelessness.
Darby’s Translation comes closer to the original Greek meaning:

DBY Luke 11:8   I say to you, Although he will not get up and give them to him because he is his friend, because of his shamelessness (anaideia), at any rate, he will rise and give him as many as he wants. (emphasis mine)

The man at the door is not identified by Jesus as shameless. The man in bed is.

Why is this word consistently mistranslated and then incorrectly applied to the man at the door? Simple. The sleeping man is the “God character,” and Jesus can’t possibly be calling him shameless, it is assumed. So to make this “make sense,” translators have consistently changed shamelessness to persistence or boldness—making the message parallel to another parable where a bold woman annoyed an unjust judge with persistent pleading to hear her case (Luke 18:1-8 – another “how much more” parable)—and apply the trait of bold persistence to the man at the door. By doing this, almost all English translations have missed Jesus’ point completely.

What persistence or boldness did the man needing bread demonstrate in Jesus’ parable? None. As Jesus describes it, the neighbor came and asked for bread. That’s it. He asked once. What’s bold about that? What’s persistent about that? Only if we imagine him asking again and again, louder and louder, creating a ruckus and waking the house, can we call him bold or persistent. But he did none of those things.

Look carefully at verse 8. It’s all about the sleeping man. Because of his (the sleeping man’s) shamelessness, he (the sleeping man) will get up, and he (the sleeping man) will provide bread. It’s all about the sleeping man.

But this raises the key question about the key word anaideia: What is this shamelessness that motivates the sleeping man?

Anaideia = avoidance of shame

The reason that the unjust judge finally hears the case of the pestering woman is not because he cares about her or even about justice. He finally hears her case because she’s wearing him out. She’s a pain in the neck. She won’t shut up or go away. He hears her case just to get rid of her! Jesus’ point then, in that parable, is that if this unjust judge who cares nothing for her, who “fears neither God nor man,” and who cares little for justice, will in the end hear her case, how much more then will God who cares both for you and justice hear your prayers.

In our featured parable, however, the sleeping fellow doesn’t change his mind and provide the bread because of the persistence/boldness of the man at the door. And he doesn’t give bread to him just to shut him up and get rid of him. There is another reason: anaideia.

If the sleeper refuses to provide the bread, it will create a chain reaction of negative results. The man at the door will go back to his family and his out-of-town guests empty handed, complaining that the guy with the bread said, “Go away!” His lame excuses about the door being locked and the children asleep will be met with incredulity. By morning the whole village will be abuzz.

What we may fail to realize because of our western mindset is that this bread issue is a village hospitality issue. How a family treats visitors reflects directly on the village. If one family mistreats a visitor, the whole village has mistreated a visitor. Such inhospitality is the height of shame for the village.

And here’s what’s important. The sleeping guy knows this! If it were merely a personal matter between him and the guy asking for bread, he wouldn’t have gotten up because, clearly, he just didn’t want to be bothered. But more was at stake. The hospitality of the village was at stake, and if he didn’t get up, the village would have come down on his head. He would have brought shame not just on himself (which he didn’t care about at all), but his refusal would have brought shame on the village. Now maybe he didn’t care about that either, but what he did care about was the long-term anger and ostracization his negligence would bring on him.

So the closest word in English for anaideia is shamelessness, but what is intended is the avoidance of the shame to the village that would result from his refusal to provide bread for visitors, and, of course the avoidance of the resulting probable sustained ire of the village toward him. “Shame on you!” would be the cry on the streets for years to come. Anaideia in this context means a desired shame-less state, a state minus (less) the shame, a state where shame has been avoided, thus anaideia in the context of this parable means the avoidance of shame.

“I tell you though he will not give him anything having arisen because of being his friend but because of his avoidance of shame he will get up and give him whatever he wants.” (Translation of Luke 11:8 by Kenneth E. Bailey, “Poet and Peasant”)

The unjust judge might have had no integrity, and the sleeping guy might have had no integrity, but God does. That’s Jesus’ point, and he makes it with a heaping helping of humor. God has integrity because he loves you. God acts because he cares about you. He doesn’t act just to shut you up and get rid of you, as the judge did to the widow. And he doesn’t act because everybody will call him shameful if he doesn’t, as the sleeping man did to the neighbor at the door at midnight. Unlike Jesus’ “God-characters” without integrity, you can trust God who acts out of the integrity of love and care. Unjust and shameful are not attributes of God, says Jesus.

Example: Eating on the Mount of Olives with a Palestinian family

I was in for a shock the first time I was invited to a Palestinian friend’s home for dinner. His son picked me up at my hotel and drove me to their three-story home on the Mount of Olives. The son, his third, was about to be married, and the top floor had just been completed in preparation. My friend and his wife had moved to the top floor, his two oldest sons had moved up to the second floor with their families, leaving the bottom floor available for the youngest (third) son and his new wife-to-be the bottom floor. He drove like a madman. But that wasn’t the shock. Everyone drives like a madman in Jerusalem.

When I reached the top floor, the bedroom was not yet furnished. It was a large room with windows overlooking the Judean Wilderness, Jericho, the Jordan River and Dead Sea, and the mountains of Trans-Jordan on the horizon. A full moon was rising above the red jagged peaks.

Carpets covered with a plastic table cloth were on the floor surrounded by cushions and pillows. I was directed to sit or recline with my friend. The two of us were treated to hot tea, pita bread, hummus, and a variety of salads, all served by his wife and daughters. We dipped sop from common dishes while the sons and grandsons stood against the wall talking and observing. Then, to my surprise, people from the village began to arrive, and they also stood around against the walls talking and observing. Soon there were thirty or more people watching me eat!

Yes, the villagers were welcome, and they would eventually share in the feast of lamb, chicken, and beef, all served on large platters with attention to presentation. But not before they watched me eat till I was sick. They put enough food for an army in front of little ol’ me. It was an impressive spread, as was intended. I was to be impressed, even overwhelmed, by their generous hospitality. And I pigged out. In the southern US there is a saying about “putting on the whole hog.” No pork was actually served, but my friend went all out just for me.

The village came for another purpose, however. They were witnesses. When a special guest is invited to the home of a Palestinian, it is not just a family invitation. It is a village invitation. They were there to insure that the village was represented properly. For if my friend had failed to duly impress and overwhelm me with hospitality, it would not have merely reflected on him and his family; it would have reflected on the village. They were there to make sure that the village avoided shame—anaideia.

Meaning in light of the immediate context

It’s about trust.

Luke 11:1-4 is the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer of trust in God.

Luke 11:5-8 is a parable (The Friend at Midnight) about trusting God in prayer.

Luke 11:9-12 offers three metaphors about trusting God in prayer.

Luke 11:13 sums up these teachings about prayer by saying that God is trustworthy to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask for him in prayer.

Jesus follows his own personal prayer with instructions on how to pray, with a humorous parable, and with three humorous analogies about God’s trustworthiness when we pray. Can he be saying that the depth and sincerity of prayer is in no way canceled out by lightening up when we approach him? What’s all the seriousness about, all the crying, and all the groveling? Do we really believe that posturing, posing, and pleading will make God care and love more? We act as though we do, even today. Maybe Jesus is saying simply this:

When you pray, you need not worry that God is asleep