Word on Wednesday – by John Mason
‘Honor…’ – August 17, 2016
Sometimes I am asked: ‘Can I trust God to hear my prayers and answer them? It is all very well to say we can call God, Father, but we know that parents are often preoccupied with other matters and do not hear us, let alone respond. And given the millions who must be praying at any one time, can we be sure our prayers will be heard?
Jesus anticipates our questions. Consider what he promises: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9-10).
On either side of these verses Jesus answers two questions about prayer: God always listens to us (Luke 11:5-8) and, God always has our very best interests at heart (Luke 11:11-13). This week I will consider the first of his two answers.
Luke 11:5-8 is sometimes called, ‘The Parable of the Friend at Midnight’. In recent times some commentators have noted that the parable falls into the category of sayings that have an underlying, unspoken question: ‘Can you imagine…?’ With this parable Jesus asks, ‘Can you imagine a man talking like this to a friend in need?’
The key to understanding the parable is in the words in verse 8 usually translated, ‘the man’s boldness’ or ‘importunity’. I want to suggest that this is one place where most of our English translations are unhelpful. According to Dr. Kenneth Bailey who lived in the Middle-East for many years and who has written extensively from his careful research on literary and cultural matters, our translations reflect an understanding that only goes back to the 12th century. The true meaning of the parable is lost, Bailey points out, because of a misunderstanding of the meaning of an important word in verse 8.
The word translated boldness in verse 8 is better translated sense of honor or blamelessness – with reference to the man who is in bed, not the one knocking at the door.
In the original (Greek) text the word has a negative meaning indicating that a significant shift is required to translate the word with a positive meaning – such as boldness or persistence. Bailey has shown that a better translation of the word is avoidance of shame, a positive meaning.
Furthermore, we need to look carefully at the words verses 7 and 8. In the original text the noun, man’s does not appear: it is the personal pronoun his. The flow of the syntax and the narrative impact of the story, focus on the sleeper in bed, not the man who is knocking on the door.
In this story God is represented as the one who is in bed, seemingly shut in for the night. The unwritten laws of mid-eastern hospitality, which are an important sub-text of the parable, required a man to get up and help his neighbor in need. If he didn’t he would be shamed and would bring dishonor to the whole community.
‘Can you imagine,’ Jesus was asking, ‘anyone saying to a neighbor in need, even at midnight – ‘Don’t disturb me’? or, ‘Get lost’?
So it is with God. His very nature, and the honor of his name, will demand that he get up and act. Otherwise he will bring shame to his name. Because of his honor, his integrity, his name – something for which Jesus tells us we are to pray (Father, hallowed, honored, be your name) – God will hear and act. God will no more ignore the prayers of his people than a mother will ignore her crying baby.
‘God is a God of integrity,’ Jesus is telling us. He can be trusted to hear our requests, no matter how great or small, no matter what time of day or night. He is on call 24/7.
Understanding the nature and importance of prayer Martin Luther once observed: “I find that I am so busy that I now need to pray three hours a day”. The busier he was, the more time he needed to spend with God— not less. Furthermore, he was assured that God, for the honor of his name, would not only hear his prayers but answer them.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com