Dear friends in Christ:
Did Jesus just call us “evil?” His main message in this text is about prayer, but included in one of his points is the line which says: “If you, then, who are evil…” and he seems to be talking to all of us. Yes, Jesus was speaking to his disciples, but we are his disciples too… and we are those who give good gifts to our children. So is Jesus calling us evil? Yes. And rather bluntly so.
These words seem kind of harsh, don’t they? This is the kind of line in a speech that gets people in trouble today. It’s the kind that generates its own headlines: “Jesus calls people evil.” His words contain no nuance, no qualifiers. Just that hard label—thrown out there to put us in our place or knock us down a bit.
People tend to protest the use of such labels, but can we really argue with Jesus on his point? The news is full of stories every day about man’s inhumanity to man. The acts of hate and terror that we’ve witnessed in our country just these past few weeks is ample evidence of our collective human evil. President Obama said during his speech in Dallas after the horrific police shootings there: “We know there is evil in this world.” And he’s right. What we in the church would add, based on what Jesus has taught us, is that this evil is not just “out there” in others, but is also “in here” – in our hearts. In each of us. Even disciples of Jesus. It is why we begin our services confessing our sins and asking for God’s mercy and help.
When our President spoke of evil that day in Dallas, he went on to say: “That’s why we need police departments.” Amen to that. In light of today’s Gospel reading from the scriptures, I would like us to consider one more need that we have: “that’s why we need prayer.”
“Teach us to pray,” said one of the disciples to Jesus. We don’t know why this particular request was made. There’s the mention of John’s teachings on prayer, so maybe this disciple just wanted his teacher to be like the well-regarded John. The text also mentions that Jesus had just finished praying himself, so maybe this disciple was interested in the connection between Jesus’ robust prayer life and his great powers. Ultimately, however, the request for teaching on prayer probably comes from the same place ours does—a place of concern about the great evil around us and a desire to do something about it. We have a sense that prayer is very important in all of this. We want Jesus to help us with our prayers.
As we heard in the text, Jesus answered the request of the disciple. He gave a beautiful example of prayer for all his disciples to use. And then, he shared some important thoughts on the proper approach to prayer, given through two illustrations. During the season of Lent this year, we studied the Lord’s Prayer in great detail, therefore I won’t speak much about it today. Let me just note that Luke gives a shortened version of the prayer, leaving out a couple of the petitions that Matthew includes when he records the prayer. Don’t worry, it’s the same prayer. The petitions Luke leaves out are expanded thoughts on the other petitions that come before them. Luke just abbreviates.
What I would like us to focus on today is the teaching which follows this prayer, a section I’ve labeled: “the proper approach to prayer.”
Jesus begins this section with an illustration about a man who needs food for his late-night-arriving friend. Not having enough of his own food he knocks on the door of his neighbor to ask for help. The neighbor doesn’t want to get out of bed, but eventually he does “because of his impudence.”
Here we have another word in our text that stands out because of its harshness. “Impudence” is a word that implies a lack of respect for another. It’s a shameless boldness in making one’s request. If my neighbor were to knock on my door at midnight just because he doesn’t have enough food for his visiting friend, I would definitely consider that a rather impudent thing to do. I know he could drive to some store that was open and buy his own food or wait until morning. Come to think of it, we used to make fun of a guy in our college dormitory who would show up at our doors late at night and say: “hey guys, you got any food?” He wasn’t poor. He wasn’t lonely. He was just lazy, and overly hungry.
Some translations of this text use the word “persistence” instead of impudence. They assume that the man with the friend continues to persistently knock on his neighbor’s door until the man relents. This word changes the meaning a bit, but does seem to fit with the Bible’s teachings on prayer as found in other texts. We think of Jesus’ parable from Luke 18 in which he clearly encourages persistence in prayer. Paul, too, speaks of not giving up in prayer, but rather continuing steadfastly. In our first reading today we heard Abraham being persistent in asking God to spare the city of Sodom from destruction.
To pray persistently is a good thing to do, and it may seem like the best meaning of the illustration here in Luke 11. However, the original word still has that implication of shamelessness. Because of this, other translations will use the word “boldness.” “Because of his boldness he will give him what he needs.” This word gets at the audacity of knocking on your neighbor’s door at midnight. And, it also reflects an important point about our posture in prayer. To ask God for help is a very bold thing for someone to be doing—especially someone who is evil, like us. Who are we, sinful as we are, to approach the Almighty and Holy Lord of the Universe? We are in no way worthy to approach God for any kind of help. Note how Abraham in his speaking with God said: “Behold, I am but dust and ashes.” He knew he was being bold in asking God to change his mind.
Martin Luther emphasized the boldness of coming to God in prayer in his catechisms. Luther fully understood that we are not worthy to approach God. And yet, even more, he also clearly heard God’s invitation to pray. For Luther, this invitation was most clearly understood in Jesus’ reference to God as Father. He explains the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer by saying: “In these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.”
We can boldly ask God for our desires in prayer because God invites us to do so. That’s why Jesus goes on in this text to say, very directly, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
What a privilege we have been given – that we can take our needs to the Lord in prayer! This privilege comes because we are children of God. And I would remind you, that we are children of God not simply by our birth into this world, but by our re-birth into the Kingdom. This re-birth was made possible for us when Jesus went to the cross to pay the price for our sin. We are children of God when He sends us His Holy Spirit and we acknowledge Jesus as our Savior. In fact, that’s the point Jesus is making in the last line of today’s text: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Yes, God bids us to come to him persistently and boldly in prayer. This is to be our posture in pouring out our requests to God. And yet the text tells us more than this also. These verses also make clear that God is very generous in responding to our prayers. God is like a Father who gives good gifts to his children. He doesn’t give serpents to those who ask for fish. He doesn’t give scorpions to those who ask for eggs. He gives the greatest of gifts, including the Holy Spirit. For you see… of all the things we might think we need, it is the Holy Spirit that we need the most.
Yes, I realize we might question the goodness of God’s gifts sometimes. We ask for peace and yet still encounter violence. We ask for prosperity and yet still struggle to make ends meet. God’s gifts to us are indeed good, but that doesn’t mean we won’t still have difficulties facing the evil of this world. Struggle and challenge will always be a part of life this side of heaven.
The important thing to remember is that God doesn’t leave us to struggle alone. He gives the Holy Spirit to teach us, to strengthen us and to inspire us. And God listens to our prayers—acting on them in the way he knows to be best. When we ask for fish we will not receive a serpent, but we may not receive fish either. We may receive something better, or different. That which we receive from God may not be exactly what we want, but it will be sufficient for our true needs.
God is a generous and thoughtful giver. This is the point of the last illustration in our text. And, actually, it may also be the point of the first illustration. Let me explain.
When we heard about the man who wakes up his friend at midnight, we assumed that it was the man himself, and not the friend, who was impudent. However, the text is not clear about that. The words “because of his impudence” could actually be referring to the friend who was woken up. You see, in the days of Jesus there existed a very strong hospitality code which said that visitors to a home must be taken care of. It doesn’t matter if they arrive at midnight, they must be welcomed. And that means providing food. So, if a neighbor knocks on your door and asks for help in this important task, you are expected to help. And you should help gladly, for there will probably come a day when you will need to knock on your neighbor’s door too.
So, if that is the way this story is to be understood, doesn’t that mean that it’s the neighbor friend who is impudent? And, since the neighbor who has bread to give represents the One who answers our prayer, what does that say about Him? Is the illustration Jesus uses saying God is impudent? Well, if we can be bluntly called evil, perhaps God can risk being seen as impudent.
Certainly God must feel a little reluctance at times to give generously to his disobedient children, who often wait until the last minute to ask for the things they need. But He does it. And maybe it’s even done out of a sense of obligation more than desire at times. Note how Abraham in our first reading appealed to God’s sense of shame when he said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you to do such a thing.” I would never counsel anyone to be so bold in speaking to God. But Abraham did it. And God listened.
Just remember what happened in the rest of the story. God still got his way. The city of Sodom was destroyed because of its wickedness. But Abraham’s request was fulfilled also—his righteous brother Lot and his family were allowed to escape. God listens to our prayer and acts on it, even though God’s actions may be different than what we asked for.
“Lord, teach us to pray,” said a disciple to Jesus one day. Let us also, as disciples of Jesus, continue to ask him for direction in our prayer. God teaches us very directly in His holy Word, and so our first task is to study that Word for its teachings on prayer. And yet surely we can grow in our prayer life, too, as we simply do it. God invites us to pray.
Through our time with him in prayer God will speak to our hearts and move us through His Holy Spirit. Through our time in prayer we will grow in our understanding of our true needs, in our understanding of the world’s needs and in our faith that God is indeed working in the world.
God is the One who overcomes the evil of the world. Let us pray that he first overcome the evil within us, and that he then uses us as instruments of his care and healing in the world. May God’s Kingdom come, in the name of Jesus. Amen