Shuck and Jive

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Friend at Midnight--A Sermon

A Friend at Midnight
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 8th, 2011
Mother’s Day

The Gospel of Jesus 18:1-5
Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend who comes to you in the middle of the night and says to you, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on a trip has just shown up and I have nothing to offer him.’ And suppose you reply, ‘Stop bothering me. The door is already locked and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to get you anything’—I tell you, even though you won’t get up and give the friend anything out of friendship, yet you will get up and give that person whatever is needed because you’d be ashamed not to.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 75, Luke 11:5-8.

The parable of The Friend at Midnight is a bit of a puzzler. What motivates you to get out of bed and give three loaves to your friend who calls out to you at all hours of the night? If we can answer that question we can get a glimpse into the empire of God.

This parable is only found in Luke. That is an argument against its authenticity as a parable of Jesus. It may very well be a creation of the author of Luke. In Luke it serves as an illustration for the general admonition to be persistent in prayer. It follows Luke’s version of the Lords’ Prayer.
You have the Lord’s Prayer then the parable of the Friend at Midnight. Then Luke has Jesus say:
So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if he child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 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!”
In this setting, The Friend at Midnight is about the importance of persistence in prayer. It is similar to Luke’s interpretation of the woman knocking on the judge’s door for justice. Eventually he gives in because she wears him out. For Luke these parables are about prayer. The parables move from the lesser to the greater.
  • If an unjust judge will finally answer the woman’s request, how much more so will God?
  • If a sleeping, crabby guy in the middle of the night will finally roust himself up to give you bread, how much more so will God?
  • If you will give your child an egg instead of a scorpion and a fish instead of a snake, how much more will God give you what you need?
Take it to the Lord in prayer. You can stick most any parable in Luke’s gospel and it will be framed in such a way to be about persisting in prayer. With The Friend at Midnight, we have an allegory in which you are requesting bread from your friend who is God. Because of your persistence God will grant your request. Keep on praying. The persistent turtle wins the race. That is how the Church has interpreted this parable through its history.

I have said that whenever a parable appears to have a judge, an absent landlord, or a king as the god-figure we should be suspicious. Now I will add to that. Whenever we have a crabby, sleepy guy as the god-figure we should be suspicious as well.

Parables are rarely allegories. Even as the church, beginning with the author of Luke, has read this parable as an allegory to make the moral point of the importance of the persistence of prayer, we might get more mileage out of it if we read it differently.

The parables of Jesus tell us something about life. In particular, they tell us about economic life, the economy of God, if you will, as opposed to the economy of this world of injustice.

Everyone knew what the kingdom of Caesar was like. They lived in it. Everyone knew what life was like in the kingdom of Herod. Jesus, through parable, offers a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

The Jesus Seminar Fellows thought this parable--if we can wrest it away from Luke--may go back to Jesus. It isn’t about persistence in prayer. As important as that may be, this parable isn’t that. It does have something to do with how we deal with food, the neighbor, and the stranger.

Here are some background items. People baked bread a few times a week perhaps. Everyone in the village would know who made bread most recently. If you had a guest you wouldn’t give the guest stale bread, but fresh bread.

Bread is not the meal itself. Bread was used as a utensil. Everyone had a loaf of bread, like a pita. Everyone dipped into a common bowl, some vegetable or bean dish. Then you eat what you have broken off and dipped. That way the common bowl stays clean.

The request is for bread, but possibly for more as the last line of the parable states: You will give that person whatever is needed.

There is a word with which we have to come to terms.
The word is anaideia. It means shamelessness. It is the name of a Greek goddess. Anaideia was the goddess of ruthlessness, shamelessness, and unforgiveness. Her companion was Hybris or the god of violence. Anaideia and Hybris run the world don’t they?

The NRSV (the translation in your pew) has translated anaideia as persistence. That sounds like a positive quality. Because of the persistence of the one who calls out in the middle of the night, the crabby, sleepy guy will respond.
The problem is that anaideia, no matter how you twist it doesn’t yield persistence.

is a bad thing. It means shamelessness. What is shamelessness? It is the lack of shame. For instance, Transocean is shameless when it reports that this past year was its safest on record. Yes, that is the same year of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed eleven people and poured five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Their safest year. Have they no shame? No, they have no shame. The goddess Anaideia is the CEO.

There is a problem. In our parable we have this weird word, shamelessness, sitting there. It is a key word. The parable hinges on it. It is because of shamelessness that you are going to grumble and fuss and stumble over the kids and to try to find your glasses so you can see well enough to locate three loaves of bread in the middle-of- the-night-why-don’t-these-people- travel-in-the-daylight-are-they-a-bunch-of-owls-and –why-doesn’t-my-friend-bake-his-own-darn-bread.

The second problem is that we don’t know who is shameless, the friend who asks for the three loaves or you. Shamelessness is the motivator, but we don’t know whose shamelessness it is that will get you out of your bed. The grammatical structure of the sentence could yield either reading.

We have a couple of questions. We need answers. We are going to leave Anaideia sitting here. We are going to leave shamelessness for a bit, go this way and then swing back and pick her up.

We need to look at the values of a peasant society and Torah obligations.

In a peasant society the highest value is security. Peasants will accept a great deal of exploitation for safety. There is a relationship with the elites, that is the landowners. The issue is not how much the elites take but how much they leave. They need to leave enough for subsistence. If it gets to the point where peasants have to pay from their subsistence, their survival, then they call injustice on the elites.

There was a delicate balance between elites and peasants. The elites could take nearly everything but not everything. Especially in times of struggle, the elites’ fundamental job from the peasants’ point of view is the basic subsistence safety net. They would put up with a great deal of exploitation in exchange for security.

The second value within a peasant village is that the community is more important than the individual. William Herzog writes in his book Parables as Subversive Speech about the Limited Good Society. Everything in a peasant society--land, wealth, love, honor and so forth--is limited in quantity and in short supply. If one gains, another loses. An individual could only improve oneself at the expense of others. Herzog writes:

Therefore, any individual’s gain was perceived as a threat to the entire village unless that gain was used for the poor or the common welfare of the village, and even then, the benefactor would be viewed with suspicion….The peasant’s goal was to remain within the profile of village expectations, not to stand out from them. P. 204
Security and community. You never get rich or even get a break, but no one goes hungry.

The third value is reciprocity. The neighbor asks from you, bread, for instance, because the neighbor has a claim on it. You give to the neighbor, because the neighbor will now be obligated in the future. This also worked with the village as a whole. Every family was guaranteed a minimal subsistence from the village.
In turn, they were obligated to the village.

Back to our parable. We have a traveler coming at night expecting hospitality. One of the primary Torah values is hospitality to the stranger. The model is Abraham entertaining guests who turn out to be angels. The opposite, the model to avoid, is the behavior of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather than show hospitality they actually seek to harm the guests.

The requirement for hospitality is not on individuals or families, but the entire village. Here is a speech from Jesus to his disciples, who are all itinerants. He gives them this speech before they go out on the road. They are the ones moving from village to village. They are the ones in the parable who are visiting at night.

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you. But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Luke 10:8-11
We can see that the requirement of hospitality is upon the entire town. So, one interpretation of this parable is an obvious one. If you didn’t get up in the middle of the night and get the bread, the word would get around the village and you would be shamed. That is the way the Jesus Seminar seemed to interpret it given the translation in the bulletin. You would be ashamed not to answer your neighbor’s call because you have a duty to the village. That is one possible interpretation.

It seems a little too obvious, and it doesn’t quite fit the structure of the sentence.

I think the issue is about villages not individuals. It is also about competing values.

Hospitality isn’t a given in every village. It appears from the speech that Jesus gave to his disciples that not every village does show hospitality to the stranger. Jesus can imagine, probably from experience, that not every town will fulfill its Torah obligation to welcome the stranger. Not everyone gets up in the night and calls to the neighbor and not every neighbor wakes up and gets the bread and whatever else is needed for the meal.

I think that is what this parable wants to address. Why? Why wouldn’t they?

Why wouldn’t a village always show hospitality to the stranger?

One reason might be scarcity. In times of scarcity, there is pressure on the peasant village to secure for itself. This put pressure on the requirement for hospitality. This made a conflict of values between peasants and elites.

Elites or patrons would not necessarily share peasant values or Torah values or at least this Torah value. The Torah values of the elites had to do with purity. Keeping ritually clean as opposed to unclean. Peasants were not able to do that.

Throughout the gospels we find Jesus criticizing the elites, the scribes, and religious leaders, for twisting the Torah to their advantage. That is for making much of the purity codes, and ignoring the weightier aspects of justice and compassion.

From the perspective of the religious leaders, the elites, the ones who have interpreted the rules, the idea that peasants would give their food away to begging strangers is shameless. William Herzog writes:

For the internal elites of Palestine, the primary value of living by the purities was that it permitted them to pursue their acquisitive greed while remaining Torah-clean. In pursuing the acquisition of wealth at the expense of the peasants and rural poor, they mimicked the behavior of their Roman overlords. …From the point of view of these urban elites, the hospitality of the villagers was shameless. It was expended on a virtual stranger and gained them nothing in return. The villagers would have done better to save their food for hard times rather than expect their social superiors to take care of them when their subsistence failed. They were fools for expending their necessities to feed a stranger off the streets. pp. 213-4
What Jesus has done in this parable is to turn the tables on what is shameless. Jesus uses irony. He is saying that the kingdom of God is shameless. Shamelessness has to do with breaking boundaries.

Jesus is constantly accused of having no shame, of being shameless. He is a glutton and drunkard. He eats with sinners. He lets the woman touch his feet with her hair. He heals on the Sabbath. He doesn’t have a job. He wanders around and tells stories and one-liners for food. He and his disciples do not ritually wash before they eat. They pick heads of grain on the Sabbath. He bypasses the authority of the Temple and its priesthood and forgives sins. "You can too," he says.

How do you build an empire on this kind of behavior? Shameless.

Shamelessness does not apply to the person calling out for the three loaves nor to the person who gets up and provides the loaves, but to the whole village who lives by these counter-intuitive values of hospitality. In a time of scarcity, hospitality is shameless.
Shamelessness is a negative. It means without a sense of shame. Without honor.

But Jesus turns it around and he says this is what the kingdom of God is about.

Welcome to the glorious shamelessness of the kingdom of God!

Listen to this parable again, with my use of the word, shamelessness.

Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend who comes to you in the middle of the night and says to you, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on a trip has just shown up and I have nothing to offer him.’ And suppose you reply, ‘Stop bothering me. The door is already locked and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to get you anything’—I tell you, even though you won’t get up and give the friend anything out of friendship, yet because of shamelessness you will get up and give that person whatever is needed.”
This parable may be a praise parable of villagers who get it. They exhibit shamelessness.

The shamelessness of the kingdom of God.

You know why you will get up and be hospitable to the stranger even though you don’t have two sticks to rub together? It is because of shamelessness. It is because you have no shame. You have inherited the values of the kingdom. You’ll help anybody, even when you don’t have the means to help yourself.

The elites won’t help you. They didn't do it in the first century. They won’t do it in the 21st century. They will invent all kinds of self-righteous and religious sounding excuses for why they get to retain all the stuff and let you starve. They will invent all kinds of theories such as "trickle-down economics". They’ll call you communists. They will claim that you are lazy and shameless for trying to take
their money.

Let them.

But you,
says Jesus with a smile,

are shameless. You’ll help anyone, no matter what. That is the kingdom of God.


  1. Wow: "Anaideia was the goddess of ruthlessness, shamelessness, and unforgiveness. Her companion was Hybris or the god of violence. Anaideia and Hybris run the world don’t they?"

    And we live in a "peasant society" concerned only with security. Community means only your tribe or local associations. If you're "not from here" you're out.

    And we'll kill anyone to maintain the myth that we are secure and united.

    double wow.

  2. I'm with Sea Raven. This sermon deserves a wow. I also think it explains a whole lot about your ministry, and that's a good thing.