The Friend at Midnight

June 17, 2024

By Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 11:02
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The Gospels provide us with some foundational teachings about prayer through both the examples of Jesus praying and what He taught about prayer. Luke groups together some of those teachings in his gospel in chapter 11. The chapter begins with Jesus praying, and when He is done, His disciples ask Him to teach them to pray. It was here that Jesus taught them to pray the Lord’s Prayer, also commonly referred to as “Our Father.”

Luke continues the theme of “teach us to pray” by moving into the parable of the friend at midnight. This is a short parable, immediately followed by a saying or poem that continues to teach about prayer. Let’s take a look at the parable.

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).

Jesus begins this parable with a long rhetorical question, a question to which virtually every first-century Jewish person would answer, “Of course not!” He’s asking, “Can you imagine being approached by a neighbor at night who is asking to borrow some bread to feed an unexpected visitor, to whom you would reply, ‘The kids are in bed and the door is locked, so I can’t help you’?”

The answer is absolutely not. Hospitality in first-century Palestine was a deeply ingrained principle. In a village, hospitality was not only an individual requirement, but a community one as well. In this case, it was the duty of the sleeping man, no matter how inconvenient, to get out of bed to help the neighbor with the three loaves requested.

None of Jesus’ listeners would refuse to get out of bed, no matter what time it was, to help a neighbor in need. They all knew the importance of hospitality to visitors. No one would make such excuses as the children being asleep or the door being locked. Jesus knew that, and everyone listening knew it as well—which, as we’ll see, is one of the major points of the parable.

When the neighbor says, “A friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that he has no food in his house. At the end of the parable, Jesus says the sleeping man will rise and give the neighbor whatever he needs. So it may be that even more than bread is given.

As for the sleeper’s concern about waking his children, peasant homes in that day consisted of one room, with the whole family sleeping on mats on the floor. Arising from bed, getting the bread, and unbolting the door would most likely awaken the whole family. But for a legitimate request such as the duty to put adequate food on the table so that the neighbor’s visitor could be shown proper hospitality, it was a given that such an inconvenience would be tolerated.

The parable started with the question “Which of you,” to which the listener would think, “No one.” Jesus then verbalizes the answer. He says that even though the sleeping man won’t rise and give the neighbor the bread because he’s a friend, he will do so because of the neighbor’s impudence.

Bible scholars debate the meaning of the Greek word, anaideia, which is translated as importunity in the King James Version and as persistence in many other translations. This is the only place in the Bible the word is used, and the word and how it’s used in the parable causes some difficulty in interpreting the story. The definition of anaideia is shamelessness or impudence, neither of which exactly means persistence or importunity.

When looking up the definitions of shamelessness and impudence, we see terms such as offensively bold behavior; assurance, accompanied with a disregard of the presence or opinions of others; lack of shame; forwardness. With this in mind, instead of seeing the neighbor needing to borrow bread as being persistent, we should see him as a person willing to risk being bothersome when there is a good reason, as one who has the assurance that even though waking up his neighbor will seem rude, his request will be granted. The man is asking boldly and without shame.

When looked at in light of the disciples’ initial request of “teach us to pray,” Jesus’ story encourages us to pray with boldness, to come before God without shame when asking for our needs.

A teaching technique used by Jewish rabbis was to teach from the lesser to the greater, meaning that if a conclusion applies in an easy case, it also applies in a more important one. Jesus used this method in relaying this parable: If the sleeping man will rise and respond to the request from his neighbor in need, then how much more will God answer our prayers when we bring our requests to Him?

This story of everyday life teaches us that God will answer prayer. He will rise up, as the sleeping man did, and will generously give us what we need. Jesus had just finished teaching His disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the words “give us this day our daily bread,” and He followed it up with a parable about someone needing bread. The point being made is that we should boldly make our requests known to God and have the assurance that He will answer.

Jesus further makes this point in the next two verses, in which He says: “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9–10).

Following these two verses is the parable of the Father’s good gifts, which gives further information regarding prayer. This parable has a presentation similar to the one of the friend at midnight. It begins with a question: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11–12).

The inferred answer would be that no father would do such a thing. No father would give his son a snake instead of a fish, a scorpion instead of an egg, or, as it says in Matthew’s Gospel, a stone for a loaf of bread. That would have been obvious to the listeners.

Jesus then finishes the parable with: “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!” (Luke 11:13). Here again, Jesus is using the lesser-to-greater technique. If an earthly father, who is evil in comparison to the perfection of God the Father, gives his children good gifts, how much more will God give the great gift of His Holy Spirit to those who ask?

If children who ask their parents for food won’t instead be given harmful things, how much more can we trust that God our Father, who is infinitely greater than all earthly parents, will give us good things in response to our prayers?—Including His presence in us through the Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, in chapter 11 Luke shines a light on a number of important prayer principles: that we need to come confidently before God in prayer, asking with boldness for our needs, with the knowing assurance that if we ask, we will receive, and if we knock, doors will be opened. Jesus also makes the point that if we can expect those who love and care for us—our parents—to give us our daily bread—food and other vital needs—then we can count on God, our heavenly Father, to do the same, and immensely more. We can come boldly before Him in prayer, knowing He will care for us.

Originally published September 2013. Adapted and republished June 2024. Read by John Laurence.

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