Ken Bailey’s sociological interpretation is very ‘helpful and provocative. A key point that he makes concerns the cultural expectation regarding hospitality. “The Oriental responsibility for his guest is legendary. . . . The host must serve his guest and the guest must eat.” For a host to be unable to offer hospitality to a guest would be shameful; more importantly, it would bring shame not only on himself, but also on the entire village. “A guest must leave the village with a good feeling about the hospitality of the village as a community.”’*Consequently, while to our ears it may seem unreasonable that our friend would wake us up at midnight to ask for the loan of three loaves of bread, in its social context what was being asked was an urgent necessity, not only for the person asking but also for the one being asked. This sheds a different light on the whole exchange. Jesus is saying, ‘you know that everyone of you in these circumstances would say ‘yes’, how much more then can we expect that God will say ‘yes’ to our legitimate requests.’
So perseverance is involved but it is not the main thing. Which brings me to poverty. For there is a little debate around the translation of one word in this parable, the word here translated ‘persistence’, ‘because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.’ The Greek word here is αναίδεια ,sometimes indeed translated persistence, but more commonly shamelessness. Why is this person shameless? Because they have nothing to lose and will therefore persist no matter what. Their poverty makes them shameless and hence persistent.
How does this relate to our prayer? Well I am reminded of the verse from the psalms, ‘God hears the cry of the poor.’ That’s us. For we have nothing to offer God but our poverty and our longing that God will fill us with God’s self, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
Which brings us to the second part of our passage today. ‘Ask and it will be given, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.’ In the early part of our Christian journey it is easy to get caught up here in questions about why God does not seem to answer my prayers for this or that. After a while we learn that prayer is not about God answering our requests for things we believe we need, however good and worthwhile those things may seem to be. Prayer is about asking God for the things God has actually promised to give and always will give, most particularly God’s very self through the Spirit, as Jesus concludes. These are ‘the few things necessary’ to which Jesus referred at the beginning of this exploration of prayer. Which is not to pretend that it is easy. The Welsh poet RS Thomas expresses it well in his poem ‘Folk Tale’
Prayers like gravel
Flung at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
the loved one’s
attention. But without
visible plaits to let
down for the believer
to climb up,
to what purpose open
that far casement?
have refrained long since
but that peering once
through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
the movement of a curtain
We come to prayer as lovers and paupers, not as leaders and teachers. To arrive at this point involves my third P, a process of purification that is life long. As TS Eliot described it in his poem Little Gidding, it is ‘about the purification of the motive in the ground of our beseeching.’ So long as we think we know what is best, and are asking God for that, we are still in charge. Our motive is not purified. The ego is still in control. Prayer, deep prayer, is about letting go of all of that. It is about offering persistently, our longing for God, in poverty of spirit and trust that God will always give us Gods self. God sees our longing and responds, but never in the ways we expect and often in ways we cannot see or understand. The path may be light or dark, for as psalmist says, ‘both light and dark are both alike to thee’.
This weekend some of us are privileged to enter into retreat. May we at this and every time, come to God in poverty with our hands empty and our hearts pure and may we glimpse there something of the kingdom of which RS Thomas wrote
… [it] takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
* quoted from “Prayer and Despair: The Parables of the Friend at Midnight and the Unjust Judge” a thesis by Ronald A. Julian
by Penny Jones, 12 October 2017, for SFC eucharist