Trinity 6 – Persistence in Prayer
Since we have looked at the Lord’s prayer in some detail during Lent of this year, I do not propose to look again at the beginning of our gospel reading, except to note something that my on-line commentary points out – that with the Lukan version of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus appears to be saying ‘When your pray, use these words’ implying that this is a prayer that we should use as he has given it to us. This settles a question that I have had for some time as to whether Jesus was giving us an actual prayer to use – as we do, or giving us an idea of how we should pray. It is quite comforting to know that we may not have got this wrong for 2000 years!
It is interesting, however, that Luke records Jesus praying on five occasions, so he seems to be aware of the importance that Jesus placed on remaining in regular contact with his heavenly father. It is also the only direct teaching that we have recorded of the disciples asking for guidance on how to do something, and here they are not just looking for theoretical guidance on prayer – they want a prayer to use that will unite them and this is just what Jesus gives. There is more than one account in the gospels of Jesus sending them out to preach, teach and heal, but on no occasion are they recorded asking how they should preach, or what the central point of their teaching should be. Apparently being with Jesus had taught them of the importance of prayer, if they had learned nothing else. More than one book has been written with the title ‘Prayer, the Christian’s Vital Breath’ and in the Salvation Army hymn book a verse of a hymn begins ‘Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, The Christian’s native air.’ (Salvation Army Songbook, no 625 v5.) I wonder how long any of us can go without breathing!
Our Old Testament reading continues from the reading that we heard last week in which Abraham entertains three strangers who tell him that in time he will have a son. This promise is made to Abraham several times throughout his story and both he and Sarah, his wife understandably have increasing difficulty in believing it. The part of the story that was missed out of our readings was that Sarah on this occasion was listening from inside the tent, and when God promised that they would have a child she laughs as it is so ridiculous to consider bearing in mind her age. This is a story that we often used to tell to Tiny Church, as it illustrates the importance of generosity as shown by Abraham to his guests and the faithfulness of God in keeping his promises. It also brings to mind the instruction in Hebrews 13:2; ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’
A detail that I had not noticed before is that as the story continues, we read of two men continuing their journey to Sodom, with the implication that the third member of the group who stayed behind and had the conversation with Abraham that we heard in today’s reading was possibly God! The conversation shows Abraham apparently negotiating with God. It seems clear that Abraham was trying to save the cities as he was aware that his nephew Lot and his family were living there, but God seemed to end the conversation before Abraham could bring the numbers down that far. This example of Abraham negotiating in prayer is possibly the sort of thing that Jesus had in mind when he told the parable that we heard in our Gospel reading.
I was once told that it can be dangerous to try to pull too much meaning out of a parable, as Jesus told them as quick illustrations of the point that he wanted to make, and todays seems to be a case in point. This parable is one that is difficult to understand as it seems to imply that God is like the reluctant neighbour, and the only reason he grants our prayer requests is because he wants to shut us up. I am as sure as I can be that this was not what Jesus was getting at!
There is an interesting point that Jesus is putting over which relates to the customs of the day in that society. Hospitality was not a matter of choice; it was a matter of honour both in Jesus’ day and in Abraham’s. We heard last week how Abraham set his household in some turmoil when the guests arrived unexpectedly getting Sarah to make fresh bread and a servant to find the best animal in the flock to make a meal for them. In the same way the host who is awoken by unexpected guests who turn up in the middle of the night when he has nothing to offer them has no compunction about waking his neighbour and his family to borrow what he needs to fulfil his obligation. My on-line commentary has an interesting comment on why the neighbour actually does agree to get up and provide him with what he needs – it says this:
‘In the parable the sleeping neighbour’s desire to avoid shame in the eyes of the knocking host, and probably in the eyes of all his neighbours once his inhospitable behaviour became known, led him to get up and give his neighbour bread. The Greek word (anaideia translated for us as persistence) means shameless, or avoidance of shame,” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:2 (June 1979):123-31).
So Jesus is most definitely not telling us that we must continue petitioning God for what we want in order to browbeat Him in to granting our requests, although it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that is the point of the parable. Jesus is actually giving us a contrast that tells us more about the nature of God. God does not grant our requests to avoid shame as was the case with the neighbour, or to get himself a bit of peace. He grants them out of his love for us. Jesus is not comparing God with the reluctant neighbour; he is showing us the contrast. God is so much more than a friend or neighbour – he is our loving father.
But, because God is our father, who answers our prayers out of His love for us, he does not always give what we ask for, or when we ask for it. Many of us have children and can, I am sure remember times when we have refused requests from them simply because we knew, as they did not that in the long run the desired answer would not be good for them. I am not suggesting for a moment that our prayers centre around our wants and desires in the way that a child’s request might do, but until we can see things from the aspect of eternity – as God does, we can at times seem as ignorant as the child begging for another ice cream! That is why Jesus is very specific in his explanation to this parable, that the one thing that God will give, freely and unreservedly is the gift of His Holy Spirit to those of His children who ask for it. The emphasis of Jesus’ teaching here though is probably not so much God’s willingness to give His spirit, as to give wisdom and guidance that we need when we bring situations to Him in repeated prayer. God does not always give us what we want, but He does give the good that we need. This is something that I need to remember when praying into a situation that is ongoing, and sometimes seems to be hopeless. Jesus is also encouraging us here to continue to be faithful in prayer.
We have a loving, generous and faithful God who takes delight when we come to Him in prayer. We need to remember that there is no situation that is too big or too hopeless to bring to Him – He wants to know what are the concerns on our hearts. Perhaps the lesson from this parable is the chorus that many of us may have sung at Sunday School – ‘Day by day then let us pray, for prayer changes things’.