When Luke recorded his version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2–4), he included Jesus expounding on this prayer through an odd parable that would have made his original hearers cringe:
“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’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” (Luke 11:5–8)
What’s odd is that a story about a socially humiliating situation and a reluctant, irritated benefactor is supposed to encourage us to pray. What does Jesus want us to see in this kind of need and this kind of provider?
1. Expect Unexpected Needs
The first thing to see is that the protagonist’s guest was unexpected. Jesus’s original hearers would have implicitly understood this.
In first-century near-Eastern cultures, having no food to offer a guest was deeply shameful. Note that this man would rather wake his sleeping friend’s entire family in the middle of the night than fail to provide food for his unexpected guest. Both situations (no food and sleeping friend) would have been deeply embarrassing and he would have avoided them if at all foreseen.
Lesson One: Jesus wants us to expect unexpected needs and respond to them.
2. Prepare Yourself for Inconvenience
A second thing to see is that the protagonist’s unexpected guest arrives at midnight. Of course it would have to be midnight.
Most of us today would consider midnight an inconvenient time to meet an unexpected need. Back then it was a really inconvenient time. We could assume our protagonist also had a family who also had their sleep interrupted. It’s not hard to imagine the crankiness and culturally equivalent grumbling whispers of “Are you serious?” when suddenly forced to entertain an unexpected midnight guest — especially when there’s no food to offer them. With no 24-hour convenience stores, and no phones to discreetly call for help, the man is required to trudge over to a friend’s house in the dead of night, and wake an entire family to ask for three small loaves of bread.
Lesson Two: Jesus wants us to expect to respond to unexpected needs at very inconvenient times.
3. Admit Your Insufficiency
A third thing to notice is what the protagonist says to his sleepy friend: “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.”
“I have nothing.” These are powerful words about impotence. The man in the parable found himself suddenly called on to respond to a need he lacked the resources to meet, and this forced him to beg provision from someone who had the resources.
Remember, this is a parable about prayer, not hospitality. In the man’s words, “I have nothing,” Jesus means for us to see our condition before God. Does this not describe our frequent sense of desperation in the face of someone else’s need? I feel this daily as a husband, father, friend, pastor, writer — as a Christian. I don’t have resident in me the resources to meet the needs around me. Our lack tempts us to avoid others’ needs rather than expose our insufficiency.
But Jesus not only knows our impoverished condition; he designed it. He’s the Vine; we’re the branches. “Apart from [him we] can do nothing” (John 15:5). He wants us to feel keenly that we have nothing to offer on our own because this desperation moves us to ask God for what we need. That’s why immediately after telling this parable, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).
Lesson Three: Jesus wants our inability to meet unexpected, inconvenient needs to drive us to plead with God to supply the resources we need to serve others.
4. Remember God Is Eager to Help
A fourth thing to notice is the sleepy friend’s reluctance to help his desperate friend. This is what really makes the parable odd. The sleepy friend doesn’t want to be bothered. This forces the already inconvenienced and humiliated protagonist to become impudent (stubbornly persistent) in begging for help.
Why did Jesus use a reluctant friend to encourage us in prayer? We can see his reason in a similar point he made a few sentences later:
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)
Jesus’s point here is that our heavenly Father is more inclined to give us good gifts than we evil fathers are inclined to give our children good gifts. Similarly, the friend’s reluctance in the parable is not a reflection of our heavenly Father; he is a contrast to our heavenly Father. If a selfish, inconvenience-avoiding friend can be moved by “impudence” to meet his friend’s need, how much more will our eager, generous heavenly Father be moved by our persistent prayers! If God delays in answering our prayers, it is not due to reluctance on his part.
Lesson Four: Jesus wants us to respond to unexpected, inconvenient needs we cannot meet, with persistent prayer, remembering our Father’s eagerness to provide for us.
Will You Accept the Invitation?
This odd parable about prayer is a wonderful gift. Jesus is reassuring us that unexpected needs, arising at the most inconvenient times, which are beyond our ability to meet, and so press us to plead with God for provision, are part of the normal Christian life.
They are, in fact, God’s design. Few things have the power to make people feel more loved than our willingness to joyfully sacrifice to make them a priority. And few things honor God more than our willingness to really trust him to provide for our needs. The two forces combine when we face unexpected, inconvenient, overwhelming needs. They are opportunities to sacrificially love like Jesus and radically trust in Jesus at the same time.