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

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