If Christian bestsellers are any indication, many Christians are eager to figure out how to make prayer work. As one advertisement asks, “Are you seeking healing? Does a loved one need salvation? Is your faith community searching for direction?” When such problems assail us, we want to know if there is any way to improve the chances that God will answer our prayers. One commonly given answer is “Yes, if we want God to answer our prayers, He has told us what we must do; we must persist in asking.” As evidence of this, people often point to the Parable of the Friend at Midnight. Following is the translation from the New American Standard Bible (NASB); I underlined three phrases in the text, and I will explain why below.
And He said to them, “Suppose one of you shall have a friend, and shall go to him at midnight, and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he shall answer and say, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.” (Luke 11:5-8)
A very common way of understanding the parable is as follows:
A host, finding that he has no bread to share with his guest, goes to his friend’s house at midnight to ask for bread; the man inside refuses at first, but ultimately the host’s persistence wears his neighbor down and he agrees. So it is with God; when we go to Him with our needs—illness, poverty, relational problems, and so on—although He may answer “no” at first, if we are persistent in asking Him He will ultimately say “yes.”
Unfortunately, this common understanding of the parable is almost completely wrong. A lot of good work has been done in recent years researching and clarifying what Jesus says in this parable; my purpose in this article is to try to make the interpretive issues clear. This is why I underlined the three phrases in the text above; each represents a problematic translation choice in the NASB. Now, I am not knocking the NASB; it is the translation I use, and I admire it in many ways. But in this case, the NASB translation represents an older way of thinking about the parable; the translation choices made for these three phrases are misleading and help to obscure the point Jesus is making. We will examine each of these translation issues in turn.
Issue #1: Suppose one of you?
The opening words of the story are among the most helpful and important words in the parable. As noted above, the NASB has translated them as “suppose one of you shall have a friend.” This is my first issue with the NASB. Literally, Jesus asks, “Who among you shall have…?”—a very important phrase that Jesus uses often when telling stories. Consider a few examples:
But who among you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat”?
Implied answer: “No one among you will say this.” (Luke 17:7)
For who among you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it?
Implied answer: “No one among you does not sit down to calculate the cost.” (Luke 14:28)
Now a son will ask what father among you for a fish, and instead of a fish he will give him a snake?
Implied answer: A son of no father among you will ask for a fish and get a snake. (Luke 11:11)
Jesus starts His stories with “who among you” so He can emphasize that “no one among you” would act in the way he describes. In our parable, however, the length and complexity of the sentence that follows “who among you” makes the sentence tricky to translate. Reduced to its simplest form, however, the logic of Jesus’ statement emerges clearly:
Who among you has a friend and shall make this request to him and the friend would say “Don’t bother me, I can’t give you anything”?
Implied answer: “No one among you has a friend who will answer in this way.”
Jesus’ point is categorical: no one has a friend who would act this way under these circumstances. Notice what Jesus does not say: He does not say, “If you ask your friend and at first he says `no’, then keep asking him and eventually he will say `yes’.” Instead, Jesus is saying, “If you ask your friend in these circumstances, he will say `yes’.” That is the point of this parable, as we will see; there is no way that your friend would say no to such a request.
Issue #2: Even though?
The second issue with the NASB translation is the phrase “Even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend.” “Even though” is one possible translation, but a better one in this context would be “even if.” Jesus is not saying that friendship would not be enough to inspire the friend to get up and grant the request. Very likely it would be enough. But if by chance friendship would not inspire him, something else would. So the basic logic here is this: “Who among you has a friend that would turn you down in this situation? Even if friendship were not enough motivation (and it would be), he has an even stronger motivation to agree.”
Issue #3: Persistence?
Many modern commentators have argued (and I agree) that “persistence” is not a good way to translate the Greek word here. The issues get technical; let me just make some simple points:
- There is not one clear example in all of Greek literature of this word meaning “persistence.”
- The word basically means “shamelessness.”
- In the examples we have in Greek literature, “shamelessness” is a negative quality. A typical example: If you have lost all your money, and yet I choose this very time to go and ask you to pay me back, I am shameless: I ought to feel shame for being so greedy when you are in trouble, but I am shameless; I don’t feel the appropriate shame.
- Somehow in the context of the parable, the word has taken on a positive implication. The shamelessness of the man outside is a good thing to which the friend inside responds.
Recognizing the cultural situation into which Jesus was speaking will help us here. In that culture, hospitality was hugely important. For a host to be unable to offer hospitality would bring shame not only on himself but on the entire village. As modern readers, we might see only this striking feature of the story: midnight is an outrageous time to ask a favor from a friend. But in the cultural setting in which Jesus is telling the story, the outrageous time must be balanced against the importance of the request. So however we understand the man’s “shamelessness,” we need to see it in the light of the appropriateness and urgency of the man’s need, a need which his friend inside would clearly see.
So it seems to me (after considering a variety of options that we will not explore here) that there are two possibilities for why “shamelessness” could be understood to be a good thing that would inspire the friend to be generous. One possibility is that the word is being used in a positive way: “because he is not ashamed of his request.” Even though it is midnight, the man knows that his need is urgent and that his friend will agree; he is not ashamed to be waking his friend. The only problem with that option is that there is no precedent in the examples we have in Greek literature of the word being used in that positive way. So a second possibility is that the word is being used in a negative but ironic way: “because of his ‘shameless audacity’.” In a sense, the man ought to be ashamed for waking his friend at midnight, but the very fact that he has the shameless audacity to do so shows how urgent he sees his need to be (and he thinks his friend will agree.) With either option, the idea is that the friend will understand that only an urgent need would bring the host to his door at that hour, and so of course he will give him what he needs.
The point of this story
Having clarified the translation of the story, we are left to work out the nature of the analogy between the story and ourselves. Something in this story is like our relationship with God, but what is it? Here we must think about the larger context in which the parable is found. Jesus tells this parable immediately after giving his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which is, when you think about it, an audacious prayer in its own right. You and I are evil people who have turned away from God and His goodness. As Paul says in Romans, we were all enemies of God. And yet in the Lord’s Prayer we are asking for God to be gracious to us, his enemies. We are asking to be forgiven (when our sins are piled up as high as heaven). We are asking to be delivered from temptations that could destroy us (even though we are in fact weak and foolish and easily tempted). We are asking for God’s kingdom to come so that we can find our home there (even though we do not deserve to be there at all). We are lost and have a great need. But what makes us think that God would hear the cries of evil rebels like ourselves?
That is where the story comes in. The host also had a desperate need. For him to be hospitable to his guest was crucially important in his culture. And yet, he had nothing to give him. His desperate need led him to do what normally would be unthinkable: he woke his friend in the middle of the night. Now, how is his friend going to respond? Probably, just the fact that the host is his friend would be enough to make him get up. But if friendship were not enough, the nature of the need, a need so great that it led the host to shamelessly wake his friend at midnight, makes the request very right and appropriate. If the friend will not say “yes” out of friendship, then he will say “yes” because his friend’s audacity clearly shows how urgent his need is.
Jesus wants us to see this same thing about our prayers to God for forgiveness and deliverance and life in God’s kingdom. Why would we think that God would say “yes,” when we are so presumptuously asking for what we do not deserve? Well, maybe God’s friendship would be enough; that is, maybe the love of God, His care and concern, would be enough to make Him do it. But if not, the very nature of our need would make it even more certain that He will respond. We have a problem we cannot solve; we are guilty and evil and lost, and we need forgiveness and rescue and life. It may seem audacious of us to go to the very God we have sinned against, but where else can we go? Our very audacity shows how desperately we need Him.
In this parable, Jesus is assuring us categorically that God will answer “yes” to our prayers. All the more reason, then, for us to be clear about what kind of prayer Jesus is talking about. Is He in fact saying that God will say “yes” to every request? I would argue that in the Bible we find two distinctively different kinds of prayers, and that in this parable Jesus is only talking about one of them. This deserves more defense than I can give it here, but let me give a brief example. Think about these two prayers we find in the Bible:
- A tax gatherer prays, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”
- Before His crucifixion, Jesus prays, “Let this cup pass from me.”
In the first example, we know that God has revealed Himself to be a God of mercy; no one who sincerely asks God for mercy will be turned away. If the tax gatherer understands God, he can have every assurance that God will say “yes.” In the second example, however, Jesus had not been promised by God that the cup would pass from Him, that God would spare Him from going to the cross. In fact, He had been told specifically that He would go to the cross. It is the first kind of prayer, the prayer for those things that God has promised without qualification, the prayer for mercy and eternal life and wisdom and all that God has promised, that Jesus has in mind in the Parable of the Friend at Midnight. He teaches the Lord’s Prayer, and then He assures us in the following parable that God will not say “no” when we ask. He then follows the parable with the famous words “ask and you shall receive.” The parable, therefore, does not apply to praying for a job or a relationship or physical health. Now, it is entirely right and appropriate that we do pray for such things; God is the source of life, and we show our trust in Him by taking all our concerns to Him. But Jesus has not told us that we are guaranteed the answer “yes” to such prayers, and certainly He is not promising us that repeatedly asking is going to make the difference.
Jesus means this story to be very encouraging to us. We need not fear rejection: God will respond to the cries of his evil, guilty, lost people. God loves us, and our audacious plea for mercy will be heard. This story cannot assure us, however, if we do not understand the character of God. This story is about the love and mercy of God, but if we do not believe in the love and mercy of God, the story cannot comfort us. We tend to forget who God is; we tend to be overwhelmed by the things we see around us every day. In particular, sometimes we are overwhelmed by our own sense of unworthiness. Sometimes we are like a neighbor who thinks, “I can’t go to him at midnight; of course he will just tell me to get lost.” But God loves us, and He cares about mercy. He is telling us that He wants us to turn to Him for mercy and life; it is the right thing to do. When we realize that, we can ask with the confident expectation that the one who asks will receive.