Today we come to what is called in some books the Parable of the Importunate Guest. Or the Parable of the Unwelcome Guest, or the Persistent Friend. A parable about prayer… I’ve called it ‘The Parable of the Bloke Who Went Begging for Food from his Sleeping Neighbour’!
Today’s parable is a familiar story
Imagine says Jesus that you are putting on a meal for a guest when suddenly you realise you’re missing a crucial ingredient! Panic! Local 24 hour Tescos is shut, garage store no help, where do you go, what can you do? Need the ingredient and need it now!
All been there haven’t we, not an unfamiliar story at all
So, what do you do, you call on your neighbours or your friends to beg some, and that is exactly what happens here.
But of course this is a parable. If you remember back to the introduction, you’ll recall that Jesus’ parables are a bit like riddles. They’re an earthly story, an everyday event, but with a twist. The challenge to us is to spot the twist and to work out what it means to us.
So where is the twist in this story? It sounds so familiar…
Here’s a twist, the guest isn’t expected. He’s a friend who’s out travelling and has called in on the off chance. Ever happened to you before. Can be quite inconvenient can’t it! If you’d known you’d have got the food in advance, hovered the floors, dusted the cobwebs away, and warned the children to be on their best behaviour. But no, no warning, out of the blue there’s that knocking on the door…
Now of course, you could try and get away with just offering a quick cuppa and chat, and hope they’ll go away before mealtime. As long as your tummy doesn’t rumble loudly prompting them to hint that they need some food you might just get away with it!
Not so easy. In the time that Jesus told this story, there were strict rules about hospitality, as indeed there still are in many parts of the world even today. If a guest came to your house like this, you were honour bound to offer hospitality, food and drink. Who knows, maybe this guest was relying on that fact, moving from friend to friend scrounging as he went. He may have been someone you were keen to while the hours away with, or might have been someone you’d rather avoid, but that is irrelevant, here they are, your guest, and if you don’t feed them you’ll run the risk of loosing face.
You can imagine the scene can’t you. Your guest arrives. You sit them down, make them comfortable. Talk for a while and then say that you’ve got to put the food on – ‘no it’s no effort, really.’ Out to the kitchen to desperately run around seeing what culinary delights you can throw together in 10 minutes. Reaching out for Delia Smith, you pick out a great idea, should do the job nicely. It’s only when you get half way through that you discover the crucial ingredient is missing. No bread. No bread, no meal. No meal, no hospitality. No hospitality and you’re suddenly as popular as Jade Goody… Stick the head around the door Basil Fawlty style, just one moment now, before skipping secretly out of the back door to slip off to the neighbours. Surely they’ll rescue you in your hour of need. As you go, you stop and look at your watch. Ah, it’s late… never mind, needs must, they’ll come good, they always do. And so it proves to be. They have bread and your guest is provided for.
And so we come to the twist in this parable, this is the lesson.
In prayer we are like the man in this parable looking after the unexpected guest, and God is like the neighbour he goes to visit. The lesson of this parable is that despite our faults, our unthoughtful nature, or our needs and inadequacies, God hears our prayers and supports us.
Or is it?
We try to be nice don’t we, to do the Christian thing, to care for those around us. There are some days aren’t there when it is a breeze, you know the days when life is under control, when you have time and energy to deal with whatever comes your way. Occasionally those days come when you feel like some super person. Run the world, care for the family, put the food on the table, oversee that crisis at work, and still have energy to deal with everyone else’s problems. Those are the days we try and survive!
And so it was on this day. You’d got through the day, dealt with work, got the children to bed, done whatever else you needed to do. Eventually bed comes and the pillow is a welcome place to rest your head and shut your eyes… And then there comes this knocking on the door, the First Century Neighbour from Hell…
In First Century Palestine, house layouts were a bit different than today. There wasn’t an upstairs in the average house (remember most were peasants). Instead they would al sleep on a platform together. For the neighbour to answer the call, they would have to clamber over a family of sleeping people, running the risk of waking them up – and what parent ever wants to run that risk! And if they don’t stir them then, they run a second chance of doing so when they light lamps and stumble after the bread that may be stored somewhere. Its no surprise is it that the neighbour is most reluctant. I tell you the truth, if that was me, and you came around, I’m sorry, there’s fat chance that I would get up, risk waking the kids all for the sake of some bread! To be honest, there’s little chance if I were asleep that I would hear you at all!
(Illustration of phonecall from the police that Matt and I slept through!)
You knock on the door and call out. No response. Must be asleep. Oh well, they’ll forgive you. You knock again, a bit louder. And again. Eventually you call out – who cares, if you wake up the whole neighbourhood, someone will surely be able to help you. Be quiet, comes the grumpy response, don’t you realise what the time is! In for a mite, in for a denarii. You keep on going until eventually your neighbour gives in and comes down with the bread. Here, take it – this is not because you’re my friend, but in order to get rid of you so that you don’t wake the kids and I can get back to bed.
And all of a sudden, we realise that we’ve got this parable all wrong. This isn’t about God’s willingness to overlook our inadequacies (even in the kitchen). No, its about the need for persistence in prayer.
There are times when we pray and God answers us straight away. Then there are times when we have to keep on going, keep on knocking until he answers. Now this doesn’t say why this is the case, but we can speculate possible reasons for this. Perhaps God is looking for us to prove our faith. Perhaps it’s to do with earnestness in prayer or commitment to the cause we are praying about. Perhaps its because the timing isn’t right. Could be for a whole variety of reasons!
How does that sound to you? Do you see what I’m saying here? I have to confess that the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. Just like the parable of the sower, I have heard many sermons on this passage, and that is what many of them have said. But something is wrong here.
Is God really a grumpy neighbour who only responds because we bludgeon him into submission?
Is prayer really about how much emotion we put into it?
Does God call us to prove our faith by holding back the things we need or seek?
Maybe the answer to this riddle is back in the laws of hospitality. We’ve already thought about how the host was obligated to serve his unexpected guest, and how that might send him out in the middle of the night, and out to his neighbour, even knowing the hour it was. And here is the crunch. The truth is, he wouldn’t be worried about his neighbours response. Remember the world was more community focussed that today. He could go to his neighbour and not be worried about waking him and his household, as his guest was the neighbourhood’s guest. It was just as much their responsibility as his to provide for him. The scandal of this passage is not the guest turning up unannounced. It is not even the host demanding bread from his sleeping neighbour. The scandal is that when he called on his neighbour, that the neighbour didn’t leap to help when his friend came a knocking…
All of a sudden we realise that it is not the host that is the original neighbour from hell, but the man who’s door he goes knocking on. Such a figure in First Century Palestine would be a social outcast, ostracised for his lack of social concern and his snobbery. This is the real twist in the parable, the scandal.
Is God really like this?
No. Let’s look either side of this passage.
Before the Lord’s prayer where we are told to pray for our needs, for our daily bread – an incidentally, three loaves would be considered a meals worth for one person.
And then after, Read Luke 11:9-13
God is presented here as nothing like this man.
Ask and you shall receive,
Seek and you will find
Knock and the door will be opened!
We don’t need to badger God, and he certainly doesn’t want to hold back from his children.
This turns the traditional understanding on its head. If a snivelling, begrudging figure such as the man in this story will help those who come calling for his help, so much more will our Father, Abba, in heaven with all its riches at his disposal, help those who seek his aid…