Like 11: 1-13 – The Re. Helen Havlik – 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time – June 17, 2018
“The Importunate Neighbor” – Eugene Burnand
When Jesus told stories – or parables – he painted word pictures to help his listeners imagine themselves in the bigger story of God, which he called “the kingdom of God.” Using our imaginations in this way draws us closer to God and to each other, because we learn to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. So during the summer, we’re picturing God’s kingdom through the eyes of many artists. We’ve seen The Mulberry Tree, by Vincent VanGogh, because Jesus says God’s kingdom starts small, but grows very large. Last week we pictured grace in the generosity of the boss to his workers with Rembrandt’s Parable of the Laborers in the Vinyard. This week we’re picturing the meaning and importance of prayer with this drawing by Eugene Burnand from 1908. This is the way I usually picture this parable: notice that this house is locked down – even with bars on the window – and the neighbor looks reluctant to bother anyone. But what if the door were already open and the candles lighted? What if the door were always open? I’m reading from Luck, Ch. 11, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
According to the Gospel writers, Jesus prayed constantly – he was always going off by himself to be with God in prayer. We don’t know exactly how he prayed – he could’ve used the formal synagogue in prayers. He could’ve spoken solely from the heart. Maybe he did a lot of both? Now on one such occasion, after he returned from praying, the disciples wanted the whole story: “John taught his disciples to pray – isn’t it about time you taught us, too?” So Jesus teaches them the simple 38-word prayer we now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Id don’t know what they were expecting, but I can see them turning to each other, wondering if this was all Jesus said when he spent those long hours away from them. “Surely,” they must be muttering to themselves, “for all the time he spends alone, this prayer can’t be it!” So Jesus explains with a parable.
When we’re children, most of us figure out how to get what we need from our parents. At first we cry when we’re hungry or our diapers need changing. But we soon move past those needs to what we want, even if it isn’t good for us – a certain toy, ice cream instead of mashed carrots, stalling at bedtime. Most parents get the difference between what we need and what we want and aren’t so easily persuaded. So we try to find what works – whining, say, or bargaining (please Mom, I’ll eat my carrots if you let me stay up till midnight!), or just persisting until Dad can’t take it anymore and gives in. And it’s not just kids who do this – we adults have our own version of this, so you have to wonder if the disciples simply are looking for the key that will get them what they want. I don’t know exactly what they want – but I do know what most of us usually want: well-being, a good and decent and long life, to be spared pain and loss. None of these are wrong to want – but it does mean that even if we try to do otherwise, w naturally read this text through a “gimme” lens. And through that lens, Jesus appears to be telling us that God will give us anything we ask for if only we pray hard enough, persist long enough, beg loud enough. So our prayer life can become just another way of earning God’s blessing and getting everything our heats desire – because what parent wouldn’t give anything for their child’s happiness? But we know from reading the whole Gospel story that Jesus wants his disciples to become people who want what God wants. And so his prayer isn’t like anyone else’s – it isn’t about what you want or what you can earn – it’s about relationship. It’s about receiving. It’s about what you and I can’t do for ourselves. It’s about seeing as God sees and doing as God does in Jesus Christ. It’s about who God is and what God wants and what we and the people around us really need.
The people who first heard this parable would have understood it differently from us. If someone pounded on our door at midnight, we might get up grudgingly, if at all, just as Jesus suggests. We probably would do the easiest thing possible to get this annoying person to go away. We don’t like to ask for help like that, right? So why should other people. Even if we asked for help, at least we’d wait until morning. But in the Middle East at the time of Jesus, what he’s proposing is unthinkable. In fact his listeners hear him saying something like, “You know this would never happen, but suppose someone knocked on his neighbor’s door…” That’s because hospitality was crucial to the well-being of everyone in the community. It often meant life and death to people who lived in desert areas, many of whom were nomadic and moved from place to place looking for pasture for their flocks. The command to “welcome the stranger” shows up dozens of times in both the Old and New Testaments. Nowadays we take Jesus literally and picture a neighbor who’s unwilling to open the door – the one asking for help has to practically pound it down to get a response. But Jesus knows his listeners will find that idea both wrong and offensive – unlike us they know the neighbor’s door is always open, as is theirs, as is God’s. Jesus is saying, even if the unthinkable were to happen – and it won’t, of course – you all understand how non-negotiable hospitality is for us; God is even more welcoming and generous to those who simply seek a relationship with God in prayer.
Robert Farrar Capon calls this a parable of grace and as such it’s about the life that comes only from death, the death of Jesus and our willingness to die in him and be raised to new life. (The Parables of Grace, pp. 68-75) We are dead – or as good as dead – until God comes along in Jesus Christ and offers us hospitality. We don’t have to pound down the door. Persistence isn’t about nagging God to give us what we want (“lower prices, higher quality” or access to the cosmic Santa), even when what we want is good, like the health of other people. Any parent can affirm that begging rarely gets you what you want – and most parents I know would rather not hear whining. This story isn’t about wearing God down – it’s about wearing ourselves down. It’s solely and completely about our persisting in wanting what God wants: that we would even be willing to lose our lives for Christ’s sake, as we show welcome and love to our neighbors, no matter who they are or how they got here.
When Jesus tells us to persist in prayer he’s being very specific about what we are to be praying, because by praying his way we lose our lives in order to gain them. When we ask and seek and knock, this is what we are promised: that God’s kingdom, which came in Jesus Christ, will now continue to come as the Holy Spirit works in us and through us. And “we” means you and I together. When we pray as Jesus suggests, we are wanting what our good God wants – and such prayers are always answered by God whose door is always open. Those answers come as we lean to see ourselves differently – as people also created and loved and forgiven by God. Picture this: when you are the neighbor in need, God’s door is always open to you. And when the tables are turned, and your neighbor needs you, it’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t do the same for them as was done for you.