Posted by: mattcolvin | June 24, 2010

Parable of the Obnoxious Neighbor

Our men’s Bible study this morning considered Luke 11, which includes Jesus’ instructions to His disciples about how to pray. In urging persistence, he tells the parable of the obnoxious neighbor (Lk. 11:5-8).

The parable starts in the same manner as many of Jesus’ arguments from the universal behavior of his contemporaries: “Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves.'” Similar lines: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a rock?” Or “Which one of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the Sabbath?” Implied answer: “No one.” So the parable starts with an unimaginable piece of obnoxiousness: a jackass who has forgotten to do his grocery shopping is hammering on the door at midnight.

More than that, he is motivated by shame to color his irresponsible and untimely request as a righteous concern to uphold the standards of hospitality: “for a friend of mine has come to me on his journey, and I have nothing to set before him.” It is one thing to rouse your neighbor and ask to borrow food for yourself; quite another to put forth a culturally obligatory duty toward guests.

The man who receives this petition is evidently operating out of the same culture. He “answers from within” — so, does not open to his neighbor — and replies with a very good excuse: “Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give to you.” Note: “cannot,” not “don’t want to.”

And the excuse has as good a pretext of righteous duty as the original request did. I well recall that my 2-year-old daughter’s favorite sleeping position when she was 1 year old was on top of her mother’s chest and neck, pinning her to the bed. “I cannot rise”, indeed. But of course, in Jesus’ story the scene pregnantly omits what would surely be the expected situation. “My children are with me in bed.” Well, what of the wife? But her omission is easily understood in light of Jesus’ point: It is one thing to say, “Go away, I’m in bed with my wife”; quite another to say, “I cannot get up, lest I wake my children.”

These are considerations of shame: what would other people think? What are the acceptable grounds for a request, or excuses for denying one, that can be put forward within a given culture? Jesus paints a vivid and rather comical picture of the studied hypocrisy and pretenses of men.

The conclusion of the story is undertranslated by the NKJV: “Yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs.” The word rendered “persistence” is anaideia, properly “shamelessness.” In other words, the one asking for bread is undeterred by the cultural barriers to such midnight requests.

All this is in the service of an a fortiori argument: Jesus intends to compare the behavior of men with the behavior of God; and not only that, but the behavior of sinful men with the behavior of a righteous God:

The man who requests bread is violating cultural shame barriers; the one who gives bread has a very good excuse not to do so, and this excuse is overcome by the shameless persistence of his friend. We, by contrast, have been commanded to make our requests known to God; and He has assured us of His glad willingness to give to us. On the one hand, an instance of giving despite large barriers and demotivations; on the other, the generosity of God.

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