The Friend at Midnight – A Reflection by Don Wilson

Parishioner and contributor Don Wilson will be offering this reflection at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility as part of REC, or Residents Encounter Christ prison ministry. Please keep Don and his ministry peers, and especially the incarcerated in your prayers.

The Gospel Parable of the Friend at Midnight – Luke 1:1-13
17th Sunday in ordinary time

Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”? Luke 11:5-6, RSV

In reflecting on this weekend’s gospel, I couldn’t help but see where this parable lent itself well to a kind of (chapter 2 or sequel) to the reflection I did a couple weeks ago on the Good Samaritan and the role of Innkeeper.

“The Good Samaritan” as well as the “Prodigal Son” are complex and multi-layered stories but are engaging, as stories, and it’s not too hard to see where Jesus is going with them. But there is a set of parables that are not so easy to interpret and “The Friend at Midnight” is one of them. At first glance one might get the idea that Jesus is focusing on perseverance or persistence in prayer and that is the traditional interpretation. But isn’t there more to it than that? Perhaps the point of this parable is that only God can be manipulated to answer our prayers and give us what we need/want because we kind of get on God’s nerves through constant prayer – much like a whining child at the supermarket who wants his mom to give him a candy bar and keeps at it until she relents? I tend to think not. There is much more to this parable at work here.

First we must start with the premise that these parables provide us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God – which is to come in to our lives now. Secondly, these parables all point to grace – God’s overwhelming grace which God showers upon us abundantly and generously in different ways. So the traditional interpretation (which is essentially my child in the supermarket example) really doesn’t’ point us towards grace, rather it points us to works of righteousness. Putting that aside for a moment, I feel we need to interpret this parable from a contextual point of view – emphasizing both the social as well as textural context.

The social order of the day was that most peasants lived in small villages in Jesus’ day. Cana and Nazareth were both villages and in village life people were very interdependent. They had to count on each other to assist them with various tasks in order to live. Simply put, one could not survive on one’s own. Our attribute of “American rugged individualism” would not have worked in this context.

Those small villages would have of had one communal oven in which to bake bread. The women would have worked together, helped each other, and provide for each other in this important task. Consequently there were expectations and even rules governing this interdependent community. One of the essential rules (which actually relates back to the Pentateuch) was the treatment of strangers and visitors. Hospitality was absolutely mandated. A visitor was to be taken in, cared for and fed – even it f it meant the family or village would have less food for themselves.

In this parable a visitor has arrived in the village. The host needs to provide food, but doesn’t have enough food to provide for him and, so as expected, goes to a neighbor for assistance. The neighbor, as we observe, is not very receptive (which actually brings a shock element to the story) and comes up with all kind of lame excuses. But eventually he agrees. Why? Our traditional text points to “persistence” – because of the neighbor’s persistence he will get up and provide him with whatever he needs.

When reflecting on the textual context: This parable follows immediately upon Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. At the disciples’ request to be taught in prayer Jesus launches into this version of the Lord’s Prayer which is much shorter and seems incomplete to those of us who pray Matthew’s traditional “Our Father” form each week. In this instance Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer breaks off: Bring us not to the time of trial – do not bring us to temptation. What Jesus sets in motion in this parable is not an accident.

I believe, that for Luke, one of the greatest and most destructive temptations was the idea that we can do it on our own; and that we are independent and don’t need any one else. Isn’t this the temptation we ask God to keep us from being seduced by? Don’t we pray – Help us to recognize that we are interdependent – help us to accept and live that as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Finally, I see the note of importance of “bread” in this text. Give us the bread for today and the man comes to ask the neighbor for three loaves of bread. My understanding is that Luke’s reference to bread points to the Sacrament of Holy Communion – which is the ultimate Kingdom meal. The Sacrament of the Eucharist, as I have heard Father Butler intimate many times, “is what weaves us together” – as the Kingdom’s tapestry, if you will. In the breaking of the bread we recognize Jesus present with us and we see our brothers and sisters in Christ as fellow citizens of God’s Kingdom.

My personal “take away” or epilogue
Midnight is a confusing hour when it is difficult to be faithful. The most inspiring word that We as church must speak is that no midnight lasts forever. The weary traveler by midnight who asks for bread is really seeking the sense of community as well as salvation.

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