In Luke 11, Jesus teaches his disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer. While there are books about the prayer itself, Luke’s account follows the prayer with two teachings that center on God’s role in prayer.
A Friend At Midnight
The first teaching is a parable. Jesus invites the hearer to imagine themselves going to a neighbor’s house at midnight asking for three loaves of bread to serve to an unexpected guest. When the hearer arrives the friend declares themselves unable to help because they already locked the door and put the children to bed. English translations go on to imply that the hearer pounds on the door and keeps asking until the friend finally gives in and gives them what they want.
Taken in context, the story implies that we should harass God until God, worn out by our begging, gives us what we want. It is an interpretation that invites us to treat God like a vending machine in the sky or some celestial Santa Claus. But is that the lesson we should take away?
What Is Jesus Teaching About Prayer?
While it rarely appears in English translations of the text, Jesus’ parable opens with a question. It is something to the effect of, “Can you imagine going to a friend’s house at midnight and having them respond with excuses like these?” Culturally, the answer is, “Of course not!” In a society build around hospitality, where a guest in any home is a guest of the entire village, it would be shameful for anyone in the village to not get out of bed and help. Therefore, even if the friend doesn’t want to get up, the cultural obligation will move them to do so.
Interestingly enough, the word most English Bibles translate as persistence also means shamelessness. Persistence is a later meaning of the word but was not the usage in Jesus’ day.
This culturally informed reading creates a radically different teaching. Rather than hounding God until God breaks down, Jesus invites us to pray with confidence that God hears our prayers, not out of shamelessness, but because, as we learn in the Lord’s Prayer, God is like a loving father.
A Father Giving Good Gifts
If this point was not clear from the parable, Jesus goes on to talk about how earthly fathers give good gifts, so how much better are the gifts from a God in heaven?
In other words, both teachings invite us to believe that God hears what we are asking, the real question then is whether or not our prayers align with what Jesus teaches us to pray for.
Do we pray we will keep God’s name holy?
Do we ask for those things that we need to survive?
Are we praying for forgiveness and the strength to forgive?