Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Shameless Prayers

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And he said to them, ‘Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything”? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. (Luke 11:5-8 ESV)
The story happens in Palestine of the first century. People set out on their journeys early in the morning before the sun rose and rested at noon till late afternoon. Then they plan their afternoon journey in such a way that they could reach a village where they knew someone before is dark. The traveller in this story might have arrived at midnight because he had to walk past many villages where he knew none to reach this distant village where he had a friend. He must have walked past many villages hoping that at his friend’s place he will find some food and a bed to sleep even at midnight.
Midnight was the awkward time to arrive at anyone’s place in those days. Many of us sleep late, maybe after midnight. The reasons that keep us awake late into midnight are many, besides the lack of discipline. Some of us work when our countrymen sleep because we are taking calls from people on the other side of the globe who are still awake. We have artificial lights which make the night appear as day. Modern amenities keep us awake—we watch TV, we can read late into the night, or engage in activities like having a game of badminton the lighted courts or even go for a swim.
However, the ancient man did not have anything like that. The food is cooked and eaten before sunset. Parents will put your children to bed early; there is no TV that they can watch and no books to read. And even if you have there no light! In the Mediterranean world, people went to work early in the morning to avoid the heat of the sun. So, it is you got to get to bed early at night. If you don’t sleep well after a long day’s work then your life next day is spoiled.
The sleeping friend had valid excuses to deny the request. Not one but four excuses.
  1. Do not bother me. The night is a time of rest after a day of hard work. ‘Let me sleep, man!’
  2. The door is now shut. The doors were heavy and opening them takes effort. The wooden latches that keep the doors closed are also heavy and is not easy to move them. They make a screeching sound.
Children are with him in bed. In ancient Palestine ordinary people lived in one-room houses. Individual bedrooms were a luxury. If he wakes up and open the door then his movements and the screech of the door will wake the children up. He might have taken a lot of effort to put them to sleep if they wake up they may not go back to sleep easily.
People would cook in the morning and go work to their workshops attached to their houses, fields to markets. They would cook for the day since there were no refrigerators to keep the leftovers and no microwaves for to warm up as we do till eternity. However, it is always possible to have leftovers and bread that may last for one or two days after cooking. That fateful night this host had none when the traveller just called in unexpectedly. To bother someone in such a situation is a really bad thing to do. It is immodesty of the highest order.
Hospitality was one of the highest virtues in the ancient world. First of all, if you find a traveller who arrived in the city and has nowhere to go then the person who found him should take him to his house, offer him food and shelter for the night. In bigger and busy towns a traveller may find an inn where they can get these for payment. Travellers who have friends will straight walk to the homes of their friends.
Making some food for the night for the traveller-guest is not the option. Cooking usually took a lot of time in those days. If he began cooking at midnight, it will be almost dawn when he finished. The host and guest cannot sleep and the guest has to set on his journey before the first rays of sunlight to avoid the terror of the heat. The only option then is to go to their neighbours and borrow some food.
Now, let me try to narrate a contemporary parable. You were in a hurry and did not pack your lunch when you sped off to the office. In your hurry, you also left your wallet with all the money and credit cards. On arrival at the office, you realized that the canteen is closed so that you cannot buy food on credit. You had skipped breakfast as well. You are hungry and is at the point of passing out.
In your desperate situation, you see colleagues in the other cabins opening their lunchboxes. Some have gone out to the fast-food shop across the road and got their sandwiches. There is the smell of food all over the place. Your tummy grumbles. What will you do? Will you walk to the person in the next cabin and ask her to share a bit of her sandwich? If you do so will you get a piece of it? Why do you expect that person to give you that? I am pretty sure that if you asked your friend will certainly give you some food out of her lunchbox. The reason is simple—you are so shameless to ask!
Jesus made the same point when he said, ‘I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence’ (Luke 11:8 ESV). The reason for granting is not friendship, that is clear. It was not his persistence since he did not repeat his request. The word translated as ‘impudence’ in ESV is a unique word found here only in the Bible. It means ‘shamelessness’ variously translated as ‘impudence’, ‘importunity’ etc. The word occurs only here in the NT which according to Gringich Lexicon the literal meaning is ‘shamelessness.’ Arland J. Hultgren defines shamelessness as ‘being or acting without sensibility to shame or disgrace.’
It is the shamelessness of the man who approaches a sleeping friend is in focus. This man has no regard for his shame or disgrace. He is not ashamed of bothering a friend. He is not worried about hearing excuses to deny his request. He just approaches him with absolute disregard to all these concerns. What would have happened if the friend did not get up and give him the bread? He will have to return home to face another friend who is hungry and tired. He will lose his face before him. The friend will have to go to bed hungry. That will be the most shameful experience in his life. So, what is better. Tell the visitor there is no bread, have some water and go to bed. Or go and knock at the door of a friend who is likely to have some leftovers? His choices were limited: surrender his dignity before one of them—either the traveller or his friend in the village. He chose the latter, that is the sleeping friend.
Who is the sleeping friend in the parable? The larger context of the parable sheds light on its interpretation. Jesus used the principle of lighter to heavier or simple to complex principle. If earthly friends will budge at the request of a shameless person then how much more will God? God will certainly grant what we ask. The same principle is applied in the saying that follows in 11:13 which reads,
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
The friend in the story is God the father. This story is part of a larger unit which begins in 11:2 and ends 11:13. The Jesus taught them to pray to the Father. Then having told this story he assures them that the heavenly father is much better than all earthly fathers. Luke thus suggests to us that this story (which is unique to him) must be read in the light of father-children relationship that we have with God.
The saying in 11:9-10 also provides an interpretation of the parable. It talks about the certainty of the answer. Those who ask will be given, those who knock will find doors opening, those who seek will find what they are seeking. However, it is not a general principle but works only in the framework of the father-child relationship that we have with God. That is what the context of the parable suggests.
So, the point of the parable is clear. In the context of assurance of being heard (11:9-10) and the confidence that heavenly father is always better than earthly father we don’t have to be ashamed. There is no room for shame because there is no room for fear of consequences. Our dignity is also intact since we are asking our father and not a stranger.
The context of the parable also suggests one more thing. Our requests have to fair and reasonable. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught them to pray for ‘daily bread.’ The man who approached his friend at midnight limited his request to ‘three loaves.’ Scholars point out that three loaves (each loaf the size of a man's palm) are just one serving of food. He was asking just for one meal for one person. Nothing more. It is a fair and reasonable request just as ‘daily bread’ is.
The context of the parable also sheds some light on the nature of the shameless behaviour. Shame is a result of sin, doubt, fear, and lack of intimacy. For example, Adam and Eve never felt shame before their sin, they walked even with God without clothes. They were not hiding they were naked. Shame sets in when we lose confidence in each other. For example, littler children run around the house without any clothes but when the doorbell rings they hide behind the doors. Their shame is relative—not ashamed in the presence of their parents. This means that shamelessness stems from a relationship of intimacy. That is why this parable is sandwiched between two mentions of the father in heaven. The prayer is to the father in heaven—our father and later our heavenly father.
So, our prayer must result from our intimacy with the father, an intimacy that leads to confident shamelessness. Our prayers should be confident—whatever is knocked at will be open and asked for will be given and sought after will be found. Our prayers should be fair and reasonable.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

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Burning Bushes

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