Some sermony thoughts on Luke 11.1-13
I’ve always found the parable of the persistent neighbour rather troubling. Our habit is to map parables onto the real world – us and God – as an exact one to one allegory, and in this case, that would cast God as the grudging friend with his own family safely behind a locked door who only responds to nagging.
This can’t be right, and setting the parable alongside the teaching of the Lords prayer helps us unpick it a bit.
The first thing to notice is that the late night request for bread isn’t out of the blue. The two are friends – they have an ongoing relationship, and there is probably more to that relationship than asking favours of each other. If the friendship in the story is supposed to tell us something about our relationship with God: relationship with God is not purely transactional, a series of favours being asked and granted. We go to God with praise, with our deepest desires and concerns about the world, with our basic needs, with our guilt and our bitterness, and our fear of the evil that others may do do us, or that we may do ourselves. In fact, all the things that the Lord’s Prayer describes, and which we can find unfolded both in our worship (try it, you’ll see what I mean) and in our daily lives.
The second thing to notice is the key phrase towards the end of the reading: ‘How much more…?’ What God does for us is more than we can expect from a human relationship. And the imagery switches back from the friendship model to the parent-child model, indicating perhaps that this is a closer comparison. Jesus invites us to call God ‘Abba’ – an intimate, unguarded term, reassuring us that we are not randomly demanding neighbours banging on God’s door at midnight, but rather we are (or we can be) the children tucked up safely in the bed.
The friends/neighbours vs family issue here reminds me very much of the phrase ‘children of Abraham’ that appears a few times in the gospels. At the time of Abraham, God was experienced as the family God, and Jesus’ own contemporaries placed huge significance on their heritage as part of the family that God promised to Abraham would be more numerous than the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert. And yet we can also read in the gospel that, ‘God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones’. This story too, invites us to work out where we are in relation to God, and to reflect on our identity as children of God, members of God’s household, and all that that means, and all that might get in the way of that.
One of the things that that means becomes apparent if we let go of the one-to-one mapping of the parable, and instead mix things up a bit. What if the comparison is not so much that we can extrapolate who God is not by saying ‘God is like us in this story, but better?’ What if, instead, we say, ‘Our neighbourliness and our relationships must be modeled on God our heavenly Father, and what we know of God from the testimony of scripture and the life of Christ?’ What would it mean if we looked at the story not from the point of view of the neighbour knocking on the door, waiting for our prayers to be answered? What if we approached the story as the children in the bed, who, hopefully, take after their parent, and who know that their heavenly Father is a generous God, and that there is enough bread in the house to feed many neighbours and travellers?
Would we, on behalf of our Father, climb out of the bed and open the door, and offer God’s hospitality? Of the many wise things Pope Francis has said, one of my favourites is this:
“You pray for the hungry. Then you feed the hungry. That’s how prayer works.”