The effectual fervent prayer… of an obnoxious person.

God expects us to get in his face sometimes.

Luke 11.5-8, 18.1-8

Right after teaching the Lord’s prayer, Jesus told the Friend at Midnight Story. Yeah, he meant it in context of prayer. Yeah, it’s an odd little story. Odd because the protagonist is so annoying. And Jesus presents this as if it’s a good thing.

Luke 11.5-8 KWL
5 Jesus told them, “Any of you will have a friend,
and go to him at midnight and tell him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves,
6 because a friend of mine came off the road to visit me,
and I have nothing I’ll give him to eat.’
7 At this point, he’d say from within in reply, ‘Don’t put your trouble on me.
The door was shut already. My kids are with me. We’re in bed. I can’t get up to give you a thing.’
8 But I tell you, if he’ll not give it, nor get up for the sake of being your friend…
actually, he’ll get up for the sake of your rudeness, and will give you as much as you need.”

Now use this story as an analogy for prayer. You’re the person beating on the door. You have a friend in need; for once you’re not praying for yourself, but interceding for someone else. You’re short on resources, but you’ve gone to someone with greater resources. Like God, who has unlimited resources.

But the “friend” in this story isn’t actually God. As is made obvious by his behavior. It’s a little hard to imagine God asleep in the middle of the night. Or that he doesn’t wanna be bothered. Or that he’s latched the door for the night; he’s bundled up in bed with his kids; he’s done, and we’ve come to him too late. If we understand God’s unlimited grace, we know better. (If we don’t, we may not, which is why we might not pray as often as we ought. Might need to get to know his unlimited grace first.) The “friend” isn’t meant to be God, but to be compared to God. If this is how friends behave, isn’t God a better friend? Won’t he do way better for you?

And likewise the friend’s motivation, versus God’s. The friend doesn’t wanna do anything for you. In Jesus’s culture bedtime was after sundown, so midnight was right in the middle of the sleep cycle, where people really don’t wanna be woken up. Jesus has kinda arranged the story so you’ve come to the door at a really inconvenient time, where any good friend would be very unmotivated to do anything. Jesus’s audience would’ve experienced something like this, so they could relate.

They’d also relate to Jesus’s idea: No matter how close you may be, he may not care to help you out whatsoever. But he’ll help out just the same, because you’re just rude enough. Because he’ll want you to leave him alone. And again: If this is how friends behave, isn’t God a better friend? He doesn’t help us just to get us to shut up. He helps us out of his abundant love.

Hospitality and importunity.

Jesus’s audience knew all about unexpected guests at night. Unlike our culture, it wasn’t at all easy to send word ahead. Of course there were no phones, texts, emails, or telegrams; but there was no postal service either. If someone sent a letter, it meant they sent someone with the letter, to deliver it. And that person might be the one to unexpectedly show up at your house in the middle of the night… and need a place to sleep, and maybe bread.

In Jesus’s culture hospitality was considered extremely important. If a friend, acquaintance, or friend’s slave showed up at your house, you gave ’em water, washed their feet, fed them or otherwise provided for them, and if it was late you offered them a place to sleep. If you didn’t, it was treated as an insult. Almost like you called ’em an enemy.

It’s why Jesus pointing out a host hadn’t offered him water for his feet Lk 7.44 exposed a serious faux pas on that guy’s part. Since middle eastern hospitality tends to run on reciprocity rather than grace, if anyone slighted you this way, it gave you license to slight ’em back. If they don’t treat you as a friend, they’re not your friend, and you needn’t be a friend in return. In contrast Jesus expects way better of his followers than reciprocity. But let’s not take that tangent today.

So under hospitality’s customs, all your hypothetical friend’s excuses—Your problem’s not my problem, I’m done for the evening, family comes first—don’t matter. If your neighbor’s in a jam, you do for your neighbor. The only reason you wouldn’t would have to be because this is an enemy, and you want them to suffer.

Here’s the ironic part of the story: In order to be hospitable to one friend, Jesus describes you as being inhospitable to another friend. Waking him at midnight—and in your average poor person’s one-room house, waking his whole family at midnight—was a major disruption. Friend or enemy, in both cases you were kinda making him suffer.

Jesus stated this put-upon person’s motives for helping you out weren’t actually friendship, but because of your anaídeian/“inappropriateness,” KJV “importunity”: Instead of doing what you could for your guest with what resources you had, you decided to throw your neighbor’s life into your turmoil. That’s obnoxious. It happens, but it’s still rude. But in order to get you to shut up and go away, your neighbor will actually respond to your rudeness, and help you.

So what’s the takeaway for us Christians who wanna understand prayer better? Get rude.

Wait, is that what Jesus is teaching? Well, kinda, yeah.

The persistent widow and the reluctant judge.

Same gospel, different story, similar idea: The Unjust Judge Story.

Luke 18.1-8 KWL
1 Jesus gave his students a parable
about the necessity of them always praying, and not quitting,
2 saying, “Some judge was in some city. He had no fear of God, no compassion for people.
3 A widow was in that city, and came to him to say, ‘Prosecute my opponent!’
4 At the time, he didn’t want to.
He told himself about this, ‘I may neither fear God nor have compassion for people,
5 yet because this widow’s causing me trouble, I’ll prosecute on her behalf
otherwise, in the end, she may come give me a black eye!’”
6 The Master said, “Listen to what this unjust judge said.
7 ‘God may never bring prosecution on his chosen people’s behalf’?—
those shouting out to him day and night, and he’s patient with them?
8 I tell you he’ll bring prosecution on their behalf swiftly.
Still, at the Son of Man’s coming, will he find any faith on earth?”

Hope he will.

Usually those who were griping, “God may never bring prosecution on his chosen people’s behalf” were those Jews who doubted the scriptures. They looked at the might of the Romans and imagined God would never fix their situation; that anyone who claimed Messiah could conquer the Romans was a pipe dream. (And of course they expected Messiah to conquer the Romans with war; not by getting ’em to become Christian. But let’s not get into all their mistaken interpretations just now.)

Again, Jesus compared God with a human, and God’s motives with human motives. He presents us with an unjust judge. The guy had “no fear of God,” meaning he didn’t care what the Law taught, and might bend the commands whichever way it suited him. And he had “no compassion for people,” KJV “neither regarded man”—people couldn’t sway him once he had his mind made up.

The Law instructed judges to have a special care for widows and orphans; that they’d be cursed otherwise. Ex 22.22, Dt 10.18, 27.19 This judge didn’t give a crap. So when someone tried to exploit this widow, and the judge ignored her case, she rightly started badgering him. Ekdíkisón me apó tu antidíku mu!/“Prosecute for me against the plaintiff/defendant of me!”—or as the KJV puts it, “Avenge me of mine adversary.” Judges in our culture are supposed to be unbiased, but in Jesus’s they were meant to be totally biased in widows’ favor, and the widow demanded the customary favoritism she should receive as God’s daughter.

As Jesus said, the judge didn’t wanna, but at some point he realized ignoring her would get him nowhere. “In the end, she may come give me a black eye!” That’s the literal translation of ypopiádzi, but translators tend to treat that as a metaphor and go with “lest… she weary me.” Obviously they’ve no experience with really angry women.

Now yeah, there’s no way we’re gonna punch God in the face. But again Jesus wants us to contrast God’s attitude with this judge’s. He won’t ignore a plaintiff when she pesters him enough—and God won’t ignore us when we pester him either. If our cause is truly righteous, if we’re actually being exploited, if he considers us his chosen people and really did promise to be there for us: Do you expect he’ll never come to our rescue?

If not, what kind of faith is that? What kind of welcome will that be when the Son of Man returns to answer these very prayers?

Our takeaway? Again: Get in God’s face.

Boldly approaching God’s throne.

God adopted you when you believed in him. You’re his kid. Act like it.

Some of us have sucky parents, who never did anything for us when we asked. My dad always expects a quid pro quo: He’ll do for me, but then I owe him. I suppose his goal is to make it so we’ll never ask him for anything. Problem is, it works too well: Every visit turns into a negotiation, and we’d rather not go through that, so as a result he never sees his kids. Or grandkids.

If Christians have a similar mindset about God, we won’t pray, nor ask God for stuff. We won’t wanna get any further in debt to God. As if saving us from sin and death doesn’t infinitely put us in his debt already—and as if doing as he wants isn’t a joy. Well, to be fair, it’s not a joy when we’re still unrepentant selfish bastards. But we’re not meant to be bastards. We’re his kids! And he’s a generous Father, not a stingy one. He’s giving us his kingdom.

If we can get other people to give us stuff by being rude, difficult, irritating, and persistent, shouldn’t it be easier to get our petitions heard and granted by our loving Father? In fact it is. So why don’t we get what we ask for? The usual: We’re either asking for the wrong stuff, or we give up too easily and never ask.

That’s not how we’re to pray. Try it again. Approach God boldly. He’s given us access. He 4.16 It makes no sense to give up so easily when we’re guaranteed to have God’s ear. It makes no sense to expect nothing when he wants to give us everything. So when we pray, we need to get in there and pray. Be insistent about it. Be stubborn. Keep at it. Pray without stopping.

It’s okay; Jesus taught us to.