Prayer: the midnight visitor

This coming Sunday is the 17th Sunday in Lectionary Cycle C. Jesus presents a parable following the lesson on how to pray:

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ 7 and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.

This parable, which is only found in Luke, is connected to the previous prayer by the words for “bread” (vv. 3, 5) and “give” (vv. 3, 7, 8). The setting is likely a small village where there are no shops. A household would bake its bread each morning. By the end of the day, the household’s supply is used. Now comes the unexpected call. At midnight the man must feed his friend, for hospitality is a sacred duty. So he goes to another friend for three loaves, i.e. three small loaves which would suffice for one man. But this second householder has shut his door and gone to bed with his children. Most families lived in a one-roomed house. The whole family would sleep on a raised platform at one end of such a room. A man in such a situation could not get up without disturbing the whole family. The friend raises no difficulty about giving the bread; the issue is the family already retired. (or perhaps just the bother of getting).

The key word is “persistence” (anaideia) in v.8. This word only occurs here in the NT. It comes from two words: (1) the verb aideomai, which means “to feel shame, be ashamed or fear; to respect, reverence; and (2) the prefix an which negates the other meanings: e.g., “not to feel shame” or “not to have respect.”  From a lexicon: the word means: “a lack of sensitivity to what is proper,” and can be translated with “insolence, audacity, impudence, or shamelessness.”

Yet pronouns in this verse make it unclear who is acting shamelessly. Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreter’s Bible, p.236) makes these comments about this verse:

Following the normal meaning of the term, we may understand v. 8 as posing a comparison between the obligation of friendship and those of the honor-shame code. The ambiguous pronouns leave room for debate over whether the petitioner is shameless for begging for food in the middle of the night or whether we are to understand that the sleeper would be shameless for refusing a neighbor’s request. Either reading is possible, but the latter is preferable. The situation is unthinkable not because of the petitioner’s persistence but because honor demanded that a neighbor get up, awaken his whole family if necessary, and supply his neighbor’s need – if not from friendship, then at least to avoid being shamed.

Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p.350-1) agree:

Western commentaries not-withstanding, there is no evidence that the Greek word rendered … “persistence” … ever had those meanings in antiquity. The word means “shamelessness,” the negative quality of lacking sensitivity (shame) to one’s public honor status. Thus the petitioner threatens to expose the potential shamelessness of the sleeper. By morning the entire village would know of his refusal to provide hospitality. He thus gives in to avoid public exposure as a shameless person.

However, Tannehill (Luke, pp. 189-190) comes to a different conclusion:

Interpretation of this term is difficult. In spite of the NRSV, “persistence” is not quite accurate, for anaideia really means “shamelessness,” the negative quality of one who offends social standards. Some interpreters think this refers to the shamelessness of the sleeper in the eyes of the village if he does not get up and help his friend. The alternative is to apply “his shamelessness” to the one asking for bread, with the assumption that, even though the man is preserving his honor by feeding his midnight guests, he is acting shamelessly by rousing a family out of bed. Part of this problem is a confusion of pronouns in verse 8, which leaves uncertain who is meant by “his shamelessness.”

In support of the second reading, it might be noted that shamelessness, even though a negative quality in society, is not necessarily so in the Gospel tradition. The “faith” commended in healing stories is a boldness that refuses to be stopped by social proprieties [cf. 5:20 and 8:47-48], and the widow who approaches the unjust judge … is not only persistent but bold, even impudent (18:1-5). Although it is true that human requests of God may show ignorance and pettiness, this passage seems to deal with a different problem: an unwillingness to ask, out of fear or deference. The following verses (vv. 9-10) speak to the same issue.

On one hand, we don’t have to be afraid of approaching God properly with our prayers with the right words or at the right time. We can be bold and shameless in our requests to God at any time.

On the other hand, does God need to protect his honor by answering our requests? Can we respect a God who tells us to pray for our daily needs, but then doesn’t appear to give what we need? However, the man’s request isn’t just for himself, but for his late-night-visiting friends, that he might properly care for their needs.

Four times in these verses, the word “friend” (philos) is used. There is the friendship between the two neighbors and the friendship between the first man and his midnight visitors. The story then suggests that there is a similar friendship between God and us — we can approach God as a friend — even waking him up from a deep sleep — that is, if God ever slept.

The answer to his “prayer” was to be given what he needed v. 8.


  • R. Allen Culpepper Luke, vol. 9 in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1995)
  • Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gorden Fee (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997)
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes”
  • Robert C. Tannehil, Luke in Abington New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1996)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.

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