I chuckle to myself sometimes when I drive around and I see bumper stickers and billboards with hokey slogans like “Jesus is the Answer” because that phrase makes me want to say something snarky like, “Could you repeat the question?”
I find that folks who resort to one-liners like that are too quick to boil down the deep, rich complexity of two thousand years of Christian tradition to a cheap, one-sided formula and I just don’t think you can honestly do that if you actually read the Bible and wrestle with the things it says. When I think about the person Jesus of Nazareth and the kinds of things he said and did, I’m frankly puzzled and disturbed more often than not. One of the things that keeps me engaged with Jesus as my Lord and Savior is the way that he challenges me time and time again to grow as person and to break out of old, destructive ways of thinking and living. Most often, he does this by telling stories and asking questions of his audience. So yeah, I laugh when I see signs that say “Jesus is the answer” because, frankly, the one I want to slap on the back of my car would have to say, “Jesus is the problem.”
Jesus is a problem. If you actually read the gospels, you’ll see he’s that perpetual, prophetic pebble in the shoe to those who think they hold all power and know all the answers to every question ever asked. It’s literally impossible to hang around Jesus for any length of time and not get your worldview seriously knocked off-balance in some kind of significant way.
And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is once again doing just that: knocking things off-balance as usual.
Today’s reading is all about Jesus’ teaching on the subject of prayer. What he has to say about it challenged people in his time and continues to challenge us in our own time, although in a slightly different way.
In the ancient world, the story Jesus tells about one friend begging bread from another friend in the middle of the night would have been heard, not as a story about prayer, but as a story about public protest.
In this story, a friend shows up at his friend’s house in the middle of the night, asking for bread, “Friend,” he says, “lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And the other friend says, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.”
But, according to Jesus, this conflict is preordained to end in the first friend’s favor because “even though [the second friend] will not get up and give [the first one] anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”
Now, the key word in that last sentence is persistence. In some older translations, the word they used was importunity. But the original Greek word here is anaideian, which literally means “shamelessness”. By behaving so shamelessly in public, in the middle of the night, the first friend is demonstrating the abject desperation of his situation and appealing directly to his friend’s moral character. The second friend, on the other hand, is now honor-bound to respond because refusing to do so would cost him respect in the eyes of the village, and remember that respect in the ancient world was at least as valuable as money. So, in the end, Jesus’ parable is really all about the character of the one being asked for bread. Taken as a metaphor for prayer, this parable is about God’s character as the one being prayed to by believers. The question ultimately being asked here is not, “How do I get my prayers answered?” but rather “Who is God?”
Among the religious authorities in that part of the ancient world, they believed that God answered prayer based on a kind of merit system in relation to the Jewish Torah. Only decent, established leaders with proper pedigrees and credentials would dare to approach the almighty God with a request. Jesus, on the other hand, is turning that cultural expectation on its head. He’s saying that it’s not the character of the person that determines God’s willingness to hear prayer, but the character of God. God, according to Jesus, is not a bean-counting judge who’s “making a list and checking it twice” before deciding whether someone’s prayers are worth hearing. Rather, the God that Jesus believes in is a generous, loving presence whose office door is perpetually open to any and every broken heart that comes knocking in the middle of the night, looking for some sign that they matter and they are loved. God doesn’t care whether you have the right beliefs or the right morals. It doesn’t matter whether or not you deserve love, you get it anyway because that’s just who God is. God is love. Full stop. End of sentence. Nothing else matters. There’s nothing you can do about it. Deal with it.
So that’s what the parable means in the ancient world: prayer is about shameless audacity. Prayer is not about the worthiness of the one who is asking, but the character the one who is asked.
Here in the modern world, Jesus’ parable on prayer has just as many challenging things to say to us, although in a different way. Unlike the world of the ancient Middle East, our culture has been shaped by two centuries of industrial capitalism. Our main question when it comes to prayer is, “Does it work?”
We’re obsessed with things working in the modern world. We define reality by what we can observe and measure. If you can’t see it or attach a number to it in some way, then it must not be real. We are the only culture in the history of the human race to think this way. Shouldn’t that strike us as odd? Every other human civilization has left room open in their worldview for some kind of transcendent mystery. Some parts of reality just can’t be measured. Everybody else seems to get that but us. So, statistically speaking, I think we enlightened, evolved westerners should at least ask ourselves the question: Could it be possible that we are actually the ones with the problem?
There can be no doubt that our means-ends rationality has taken us far. We have made unparalleled leaps in the fields of science, technology, medicine, communication, travel, and exploration. The modern mind has obviously been a blessing. But we’ve also caused more death, extinction, pollution, annihilation, and oppression than any other culture in history, so we can’t stay high up on our pedestal for very long. Without an overarching sense of meaning and mystery, we’ve managed to do a lot without knowing what it’s all for. So I ask again: maybe ours is the culture with the problem.
When it comes to prayer, modern westerners have repeatedly come back to that rational question: Does it work? And they’ve typically presented one of two possible answers.
On the one hand, you have some believers arguing that it absolutely does. They say that prayer is like magic. If you pray to the right person in the right way, you will get what you want. If you don’t get the result you want, then you forgot to pray, or you didn’t do it right, or you didn’t have enough faith. This is the ultimate form of “blaming the victim” when it comes to spirituality and suffering. Needless to say, I think this “prayer is magic” philosophy is a pile of baloney.
On the other hand, there are lots of other modern folks who say that prayer is just a placebo: a psychological self-help exercise that just comforts people and brings communities together without making a real difference in the world. I have to say that this perspective makes me just as uncomfortable as the “prayer is magic” approach because it too neatly divides reality into the material and the spiritual, with the material being regarded as the only part that’s really real. In the five years that I’ve been a pastor, I’ve walked with people and families through some really hard times. I’ve seen some amazing things for which I have no logical explanation. One might even call them miraculous. On the other hand, I’ve seen good, devout people face unimaginable tragedy with seemingly unanswered prayers. I’ve seen innocent children suffer and die under the deafening silence of heaven. So, when it comes to the observable, measurable effectiveness of prayer, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all direct answer. It’s ambiguous.
The place I come to when I hear Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that getting things done is not the point. If we’re stuck in that place where we’re asking, “Does prayer work?” then we’re asking the wrong question.
Just like the friend in Jesus’ parable, the question comes down to this: Who is God? Prayer draws our attention to that same loving, open presence that envelopes us all, whether we deserve it or not, whether we believe in it or not. Prayer is not about you and it’s not about getting things done. Prayer changes us, regardless of whether or not it changes our circumstances. Prayer gets us out of our narrow-minded, modern rationality and helps us to grow in our awareness of the great mystery within around us. Prayer opens our hearts and minds to hear and to trust in that silent, inner voice that continually calls out to us, saying, “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Be blessed and be a blessing.