The Parable of the Midnight Bread Run
17th Sunday ordinary time, 7-24-16, Genesis 18:20-32,Ps 138, Col. 2:12-14, Luke 11:1-13
Did you think at first this week’s Gospel and Old Testament readings didn’t seem related? Me too. However, 3 questions emerged from the similarities I did find. Let me tell you what they are and how I found them.
Abraham was sitting in the shade of a tree at the opening of his tent. To his surprise, 3 men appeared to be walked out of the shimmer of the burning hot desert toward his tent. He jumped up and ran to them, offering food and drink. His behavior was not bizarre – it was the “ordinary” and expected gift of hospitality. In the desert, travelers could not just go down the street to the next hotel. Hospitality was life and death in the desert, and every nomad like Abraham knew all too well that the next man to depend on this desert hospitality could be him. People were dependent on each other, and they knew it.
But one of the men blessed Abraham and Sarah with the prophecy that within a year, they would have the son they had longed for all their lives. This was not “ordinary.” Then the men prepared to leave for the city of Sodom, and we are told one of them is God. God and Abraham are “tight” – they have a covenant and a relationship. God sends the other 2 ahead and lingers to confide in Abraham about the Sodom and Gomorrah problem. God is on his way to find out if the complaints he hears about the evil in those cities is as bad as people say. This is a much earlier understanding of God than we read in the New Testament, yet God is, even then, listening- and responding- to prayers. Hold on to that thought for a moment.
Abraham is determined to find out if God values life. This is the first question I found -we would phrase it, “Do all lives matter to God?” The culture of that day concerned communities. A community of at least 12 men was the focal point; that’s what mattered. Abraham means to know if God cares about individuals. The answer is clearly yes, God does number each of us, for God will save the entire city for not 12, but even 10 innocent people. In the end, God finds just 4 innocent people- who are given safety.
What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that they should be destroyed? This has been discussed for centuries. Ezekiel 16 said it was their disregard for the poor, pride in their prosperity, and their complacency. Isaiah 1 says their faith was empty, and their hands were bloody from injustices. Jeremiah 23 lists adultery, living in lies, siding with the wicked, and provoking others to evil. Genesis 19 lists: random, uncontrolled violence and lack of that important hospitality. When the two messengers God sent entered the city, Lot offered them food, lodging, and safety for the night. Then a violent mob gathered & Lot was so appalled that the city residents would attack them that he offered his daughters to the rioters in place of the two men. Imagine putting your own children in danger to protect two strangers- but the point the enormous responsibility of protecting travelers– and how seriously out of control the cities were. The city people call Lot “an immigrant”, using the word like an ethnic slur, and threaten him with violence, too. My 2nd question is then: “What attitude should we have toward travelers, strangers, refugees, and immigrants?” 2 weeks ago we touched on this question with the Good Samaritan story. But generosity and compassion for immigrants and refugees has always been the expectation of God’s people.
There can be little doubt that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had totally severed any relationship to God, and had lost any sense of justice, hospitality or respect. And here is the place we can move to the Gospel reading, even though the contrast with Sodom and Gomorrah is so deliberately striking that the two seem incongruent. But Jesus tells this remarkable and often misunderstood parable of the man who needs bread to feed a traveler who has arrived from his journey late at night.
So we know about the hospitality thing. But something else is going on here. First, Jesus asks literally, “Who from You” (which of you) has a friend to whom you go at midnight and say to him, ‘lend me 3 loaves’…and the answer would be, ‘Don’t bother me, I am not able to get up and give you anything.’” Do you have a friend who would say that? 11 times a question is posed in the Gospels starting with “Who from you” and every time the answer is “No!” The whole point is that no one would refuse to get up and give his friend what he needs. It is unthinkable, unimaginable, an easy conclusion based on everyday life. For sure, the poor sleeping man will hand over the bread. Now look at this parable again. Does it mention any knocking at the door or repetition of the request? No. There is nothing to suggest this is a lesson in persistence. Not that persistence is bad, it’s just not in this parable. We have a problem. The Greek word here translated in some recent Bibles as “persistence” is “anaideia” is correctly translated “shamelessness or bad manners, rudeness”. There are no recorded uses historically of this word in any other meaning. Jesus is using the contrast to make a point about prayer and our relationship to our Abba/ Father. God is not like the sleeping man, who needs rudeness and social convention to produce what you want.
This is a “how much more” parable. In other words, if a man will get up in the middle of the night to answer a request that is rude, how much more will God answer your requests? Matthew in 6: 27 (which starts with “who from you”)has the same thing when he says if God cares about the birds and flowers, how much more will God care about you? This is the same God who listened and responded to Abraham’s prayer for a son and the outcry over the evil in Sodom & Gomorrah. God has a long & impressive resume in handling prayers. In this parable, Jesus is giving us assurance – certainty!- that God hears our prayers and responds… to the point of giving his own Spirit, the Holy Spirit to help us. This parable and the verses which follow affirm the importance of prayer and is an invitation to pray. Come to God with your worries, cares, needs – it’s not a waste of time.
So here is my 3rd question: Can you tell the difference between people with a prayerful, dependent relationship with God, and people who have severed all relationship with God and depend on their own power? I think our readings answer that pretty clearly. To put it another way, what is the defining difference between a violent, out of control mob with no concern for those in need; and people who share their dependence and needs with each other, and who embrace the hungry and the outsider? It would seem that a prayerful relationship with God is the difference here. It would seem that kind of dependence on God completes us as beings made in God’s image.