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Parable of the Friend at Midnight
William Holman Hunt’s The Importunate Neighbour (1895)

On Sunday we will all read

Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Luke 11:5-10

Jesus starts the story, “Who among you will have a friend, and come to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves.'” In Greek, Jesus starts his story with “Τίς ἐξ ὑμῶν” – literally, “who among you”. This actually is idiomatically used for “imagine the unthinkable”. Jesus starts his story, “Imagine the unthinkable” – and his peasant listeners are all nodding.

Imagine the unthinkable, a friend comes at midnight asking, “Friend lend me three loaves because a friend of mine has arrived from a journey to me, and I do not have anything to set before him.” And the person inside says, “Do not trouble me, already the door has been shut and my children and I are in the bed; I am not able to get up and give you anything.”

This is what Jesus’ listeners couldn’t imagine happening. They couldn’t imagine anyone not getting up, and they couldn’t imagine anyone not helping with such a request.

Hospitality is top value in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Someone arrives from a journey – they must be fed. Even if they are not hungry. They must be fed, more than they can eat. So those listening to Jesus’ story know what’s going on. They lived an incredibly precarious, hand to mouth existence. A little change in circumstances, and they just don’t have daily food to eat. The village in the story has fallen on just such hard times. He doesn’t have any food at home. What do you do? Well, first you would go to your extended family to get food to share from them. He’s clearly done that – they don’t have any food, because he’s now arrived at his friend’s house.

If you don’t welcome the guest with food, and good food, and lots of it – you will be shamed. And shame is one of the strongest motivators in this culture. And if you are shamed, your whole village shares in the shame.

Now there’s a mistranslation. The translation says: ‘I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.’

What is translated as “persistence” is ἀναίδειαν and actually means “shamelessness”. There is no persistence in the story. There is no nagging. The person in the story only asks once. So the story is unimaginable to Jesus’ hearers – even if he didn’t get up because he was a friend, he would at least get up because of the shame to him and his village if he didn’t.

So this friend inside, who is struggling economically with the rest of the village is going to share and risk that he too has nothing to eat.

God is a friend who will give extravagantly, sacrificially. And we are to be friends to each other in the same way.

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