Avoidance of ShameThere are three distinct teachings on prayer in Luke 11.1-13. First, Jesus teaches his disciples a model prayer (Luke 11.1-4). Second, he shares a parable often called the “Friend at Midnight” (Luke 11.5-8). Third, he tells yet another parable concerning prayer which is often placed as a part of the first parable but seems best to be seen as a different parable because it carries a different meaning.
This interpretation of the first of these parables turns on the translation of the word anaideia. When it is properly understood, the parable makes sense and has a different meaning from that usually seen in popular interpretations.
The parable opens with a question expecting an emphatic negative answer. The question can be paraphrased: Can you imagine having a guest and going to a neighbor to borrow bread, and the neighbor offering several ridiculous excuses about a locked door and sleeping children? The listener from the ancient Middle East would respond, “No, I cannot imagine such a thing!”
Contemporary exegetical literature is full of references to the need to travel by night because of the heat. This is true in certain desert areas, but it was not customary in Palestine. The arrival of a friend at midnight is unusual.
When a friend did arrive unexpectedly, he was not simply a guest of the individual to whose house he had come. He was a guest of the whole community. In going to his neighbor, the host is asking the sleeper to fulfill his duty to the guest of the village. With this background in mind, verse 7 should become clearer. In verses 5 through 7 we have the question which expects the negative answer. Remember, Jesus is saying, “Can you imagine having a friend and going to him with the request to help you entertain a guest, and then he offers silly excuses about sleeping and a barred door?” “No!,” would be the reply.
The word anaideia usually means shamelessness (a negative quality), but it is translated in most Bibles today by persistence. The negative meaning of the Greek word certainly raises a problem in the interpretation. Is it shameless for the believer to take his request to God in prayer? Surely not! To make sense of the parable, the Church apparently felt it necessary to turn this negative word into a positive word, and by the twelfth century, the shift had occurred.
What then is the solution? Another translation of the word is possible. It could be translated as “avoidance of shame”. Most people read this parable and think that the sleeper finally gave in to the persistence of the host who was making the request. This is an unfortunate reading of the text. The qualities of verse 8 are the qualities of the sleeper, not the host. If the sleeper refused the request of anything so humble as a loaf of bread, the host would continue his rounds, cursing the stinginess of the sleeper who would not get up even to fulfill his duty. The story would be all over the village by morning. The sleeper would be met with cries of shame everywhere he went. Keep in mind if he had not given the bread, he would have brought shame on the entire community as well as himself. Therefore, because of his desire for the avoidance of shame, he would rise and grant whatever the borrower asked.
What does this teach us, if it does not teach us persistence in prayer? I believe it can teach us two things. First, it teaches us something about the character of God. He will answer prayer because of his integrity. Everything was against the host getting his request answered. It was night. His neighbor was in bed. His children were asleep. This made the request awkward but not impossible. Therefore, because of the neighbor’s integrity—his avoidance of shame—he graciously replied. Our cultural presuppositions in the last half of the twentieth century tend to make us uneasy about seeing the preservation of honor as a virtue that is appropriate to God. Given the importance of this concept in the Eastern value system, it would be surprising if Jesus did not use such a quality as a prime virtue for the Father.
Second, this parable teaches us that we can be assured of an answer. If you are confident that you will have your needs met when you go to a neighbor’s house.