The Midnight Friend Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 June 2022

Luke 11.5-8.

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

Luke 11.5-8 KWL
5 Jesus tells them, “Who among you has a friend like this?
He’ll go to another friend at midnight,
and might tell him, ‘Friend! Lend me three loaves!
6 Because a friend of mine comes off the road to visit me,
and I have nothing I’ll give him to eat.’
7 From within, this person may say in reply, ‘Don’t put your trouble on me!
The door was already shut, and my children are with me in bed.
I can’t get up to give you a thing.’
8 But I tell you, if he’ll not get up and give it
for the sake of being his friend,
he will indeed get up and give it
because of his rudeness,
and will give him as much as he needs.”

And this is why he tells us to ask, seek, and knock. That part comes immediately afterward.

This parable is phrased a little awkwardly, ’cause Jesus introduces it with “Who among you has a friend?”—and then proceeds to talk about two other guys. It’s not about you and your friend; it’s about two entirely different guys. It’s an awkward transition, and for this reason a number of translators try to insert “you” into the story. Like the NET starting, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight…” Lk 11.5 NET or the NIV’s ending, “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.” Lk 11.8 NIV But Jesus actually stops talking about “you” as soon as his one-liner introduction is over. This is why I inserted the words “like this”: He’s talking about the hypothetical friend. Not you. Don’t take it personally—the lesson is for you.

Jesus’s audience knew all about unexpected guests at night. Unlike our culture, it wasn’t at all easy to send word ahead: No phones, texts, emails, telegrams, nor postal service. Yep, no postal service: The way Paul sent letters all over the Roman Empire was to send someone with the letter, to deliver it personally. That person might be the one to unexpectedly show up at your house at 2AM… and need a place to sleep, and probably food.

Hospitality and rudeness.

In the Roman Empire, hospitality was considered extremely important. Mostly ’cause they had a myth about it: Zeus and Hermes liked to disguise themselves as humans for fun, and go traveling. In one town, the only folks who bothered to greet them was a couple, Philemon and Baucis. In gratitude, Zeus led ’em out of town… then drowned the town. Which is why the people of Lystra, Lycaonia, were so insistent on worshiping Barnabas and Paul as Zeus and Hermes after they cured a guy. Ac 14.8-13 They thought the gods were doing it again—and didn’t want the town flooded!

In Jesus’s culture, hospitality was extremely important for more noble reasons: You love your neighbor as you love yourself. Lv 19.18 So 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. Didn’t matter if it was midnight: What if you were in the same situation? Wouldn’t you want someone to help you or let you in?

It’s why Jesus pointing out a host hadn’t even offered him water for his feet Lk 7.44 exposed a serious social faux pas on that guy’s part. Human hospitality has a bad habit of turning into reciprocity instead of grace. We do for others because we expect the same back. And if people slight us in this way—if people ignore social cues, on the grounds of “Why should I? Who says?” (i.e. basically the basis of every comedy show Larry David writes) —people figure it gives us license to slight ’em back. If they don’t treat us as a friend, they’re not our friends, and we needn’t be friends in return.

In contrast, Jesus expects way better of his followers than reciprocity. But let’s not take that tangent today.

Under hospitality’s customs, all this hypothetical friend’s excuses—“Your problem’s not my problem,” “I’m done for the evening,” “My family comes first”—don’t matter. If your neighbor’s in a jam, you do for your neighbor. The only reason you wouldn’t, is this is an enemy. You don’t trust ’em. They’ll attack you once the door’s open. You kinda want them to suffer.

Here’s the ironic part of this story: This friend at the door wasn’t acting like a friend. Waking a person at midnight—and when you bang on the door of your average poor person’s one-room house, you’re not just waking the friend but his entire family—was a major disruption. Whether this guy at the door is a true friend or not, he’s kinda making this whole family suffer. He’s not acting like much of a friend.

Jesus states this put-upon person’s motives for helping out his friend aren’t actually friendship. It’s because of the guy’s ἀναίδειαν/anaídeian, which the KJV calls “importunity” and the ESV “impudence.” It’s a compound word which means “without modesty.” It’s shamelessness. Rudeness. Inappropriateness. He’s not getting help because of their relationship; he’s getting it because he’s being such a pain right now.

Which happens! But shouldn’t. When customers have a massive hissy fit because they’re not getting their way, it’s because they learned as infants—and their parents never taught them to grow out of it—that when you make a big noise, people will give you what you want to make you shut up and go away. Good parents will have a cut-off point, and tell their toddlers, “You can cry all you want; I’m not letting you play with the nail gun.” But too many parents lack the patience, and will do anything to stop the whining—and these kids grow up to be just the worst people. The most selfish among us.

They do get results though. Which Jesus points out… as he’s talking about prayer, of all things. Is that the takeaway for us Christians who wanna understand prayer better? We’re to get rude?

Well, kinda, yeah.

Audacity before God.

See, in both Jesus’s day and ours, people were taught you don’t do this with God. He’s the LORD our God who created the cosmos. He’s holy. He’s great and powerful, and can smite us with a word, and we’re scum, and how dare we approach him. If human judges, governors, kings, and emperors didn’t allow that sort of behavior to their subjects, what gives us the idea we can do that with the Almighty?

Well actually, it’s because he is Almighty. Y’see, human judges, governors, kings, and emperors insist upon decorum because they’re not almighty. They’re fellow humans, who either got their power legitimately or not. But because they’re insecure about their power, they or their courtiers feel they need to wield it, and remind everybody of it, lest people rise up and overthrow them. Hence court etiquette, titles, deference, and flattery: You’re trying to keep ’em happy lest they kill you, or hand you over to torturers.

Is God like that? Not in the slightest. He’s not worried at all about being overthrown; it’s not remotely possible! He’s not insecure in his power. Heck, he willingly gave it up to become human. He already knows our flattery is hypocrisy; he already knows how much we actually love him; he already forgave all the stuff which makes us beneath him. He loves us anyway.

So do we need to bow and scrape when we come to God with requests? Nah. It’s a waste of our time and his.

Okay, let’s use Jesus’s story as an analogy for prayer. You’re the person beating on the door. You have a friend who just showed up on you, and is in great need, so for once you’re not praying for yourself; you’re interceding for another person. You’re short on resources, but you know somebody with greater resources—like God, who has unlimited resources.

But the friend behind the door, in this story… isn’t God.

As is made obvious by his circumstances. Does God sleep at night? Are there times where he really doesn’t wanna be bothered? Does he latch the door and bundle himself up with his kids, and tell everybody who comes to him, “Come back in the morning”? The friend in the story isn’t even meant to be God. Jesus is only using him as a basis for comparison: If this is how friends behave, isn’t God a much better friend?

Likewise this friend’s motivation, in comparison with God’s. The friend behind the door doesn’t wanna do anything. It’s the middle of the night! He’s gotta be up in four hours to milk the chickens! But he’ll grudgingly do for you, just to get you to shut up… and again, isn’t God a much better friend? He won’t do for you grudgingly. He loves you abundantly.

We don’t have to approach God with rudeness, and probably shouldn’t. But it’s okay to be bold. Even in the middle of the night.