Context, context, context.
That was the clarion call in my Bible interpretation and sermon classes while training for pastoral ministry.
Context, context, context being drilled into my head has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s put me at odds with some pastors and teachers who weren’t so dedicated to context because the point they were making was so cool!
Except the text didn’t support it.
I’m kind of a stickler for accuracy. I fight this battle with myself every time I sit down to read, study, teach and discuss the Bible. My library has many books on ancient Israel’s culture and 1st c. Jewish thoughts and practices, the seedbed out of which grew our modern version of the original Jewish Messianic faith and practice.
So, let’s look at a prime example of why context is so important, shall we?
In chapter 11 of his Gospel, Dr. Luke relates Jesus’ teaching on prayer, a subject about which Jesus’ disciples were asking and about which all of us disciples seem to struggle. Most Christians believe Jesus just gave them words to say. In context, though, Jesus was giving them not just words, but also the format and topics to guide their prayer time. The Lord’s Prayer (or more accurately, the Disciples’ Prayer) is more of a broad outline than narrow specifics. Sure, we can ask for provision (daily bread), but that heading can include much more than just food. “Daily bread” encompasses every provision we need from our Heavenly Father to sustain us.
So right away, the context of Luke 11 is about prayer. Luke 11:1-4 focuses on the how and what. What follows in verses 5-8 is a parable explaining “Why should we pray?”
On the surface, it seems Jesus is teaching and training His disciples to nag His Father into granting their requests. Does God want us to nag Him? Well, yes. That’s the point of the Persistent Widow v. the Unjust, Uncaring Judge parable in Luke 18. Okay, fine, not nag, but persist in prayer, because it’s His Father’s nature to answer since it would be against His just and caring nature to disregard His child’s need.
But this ain’t that in Luke 11:5-8. There’s something else in play and the parable’s context reveals it. Before you continue, carefully read Luke 11:5-8 first.
Luke’s context is a need that arises at a very inopportune time, both for the asker of bread and the askee. For the asker, it’s an unexpected guest at an unexpected time (Midnight. Sheesh, how rude!). The man’s daily food has already been consumed and there are no 24-hour convenience stores in the 1st c Jewish village. The closest thing to a convenience store is one’s neighbor. But in the parable, this certainly isn’t convenient for the askee. Why?
According to (Source) “A house may have been one or two-roomed, but it had everything the family needed. There was a raised platform at one end, where they sat and slept on cushions and mats.”
What Jesus describes in His parable was very familiar in His day. Once everyone bedded down for the night, it would greatly disrupt the whole family if someone got up to rummage for food at midnight. Just try to get the little ones back to sleep! You can bet every one of His disciples felt the askee’s discomfort at the inconvenience of the asker’s request.
This brings up the more crucial aspect of this story’s context. Hospitality.
Offering hospitality was a highly regarded virtue and a strong cultural expectation in Jesus’ day.
Abraham set the hospitality example in Genesis 18 when he invited three strangers into his home, “ministered to their physical comfort, and served them lavishly.” We see hospitality in operation with Laban and Rebekah for Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24), Jethro for Moses (Exodus 2), Manoah (Samson’s father) for the Angel of the Lord (Judges 13), and the Shunamite woman for Elisha (2 Kings 4). (Source) Hospitality is a big thing in the Bible!
Also, the Torah commanded the same treatment of the stranger as one would offer to a neighbor (Leviticus 19:34, Exodus 12:49). So logically, if you were expected to offer hospitality to your neighbor, you would of course offer it to a stranger.
Community responsibility is also a cultural factor in this parable. Not only was an individual expected to offer hospitality to a guest, but the community was expected to pick up the slack if the individual fell short of the resources needed to fulfill their duty. It was all in a day’s work of obeying the Lord’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
But what happened if you were able to offer hospitality and refused to do so? Oh boy, were you in trouble! Your reputation as a Torah-observant Jew and a real mensch (Yiddish for a dependable, down-to-earth member of the community) was smeared. That’s a big, fat, black mark on your reputation. That’s how important it was to help a neighbor offer hospitality.
By the way, you see this Jewish community expectation (actually a command!) in the New Covenant community as well (see Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 5:10, Hebrews 13:2). So don’t think we Christians are off the hook!
Now let’s bring this together. What was Jesus teaching and training His disciples about prayer?
Since the expectation of hospitality among the 1st c. Jews was so strong, “inconvenience” was no excuse to beg off one’s responsibility, even if you weren’t directly involved. Your reputation in the community was at stake.
Well, our Heavenly Father has a reputation to uphold as well.
Just as an earthly father is expected to provide, forgive, and protect his children, so our Heavenly Father tells us to expect the same from Him: provide (Deuteronomy 11:13-15; Matthew 6:33), forgive (Psalm 32:1-2; Matthew 6:12-15), and protect (Deuteronomy 33:29; John 17:11-15). These are the main categories of requests Jesus lays out for the disciples to guide how and what they pray (Luke 11:3-4).
Through His teachings, Jesus taught us to expect our Heavenly Father to answer us when we pray as surely as one would expect a neighbor to help offer hospitality. Why?
Because it’s our Heavenly Father’s nature, will, and promise to answer His children’s prayers for help. His reputation is at stake if He doesn’t! It would harm His reputation as the One True Loving and Faithful Father to not answer His child. Not only is His reputation with His children at stake, but also with the entire world.
And here’s the strength behind Jesus’ rabbinic logic: If a human neighbor is compelled by God’s word and cultural norms to answer the call despite the greatest inconvenience, how much more will God answer your call for help. He is the One who gave His word, who made the promise, who never sleeps, and who is never inconvenienced by your need.
To not answer His child, especially after our Elder Brother Jesus gave us His word that our Father will respond to our prayer, is to make Jesus and our Heavenly Father out to be liars.
Regarding God’s absolute holiness, that will not do!
But lest we think this parable is carte blanche to selfishly ask for the hottest car or the hottest spouse or the highest promotion, God’s answers are tempered at all times by the boundaries of His will and His best for your life. Will He answer us? Yes, because His reputation is at stake. But the “who, what, when, why, and how” are still in play concerning His will.
Today we’re jaded by the broken promises of many people in this fallen world. Sadly, some have established a reputation more for broken promises than for keeping their word (see politicians, et al). Because of our experience with fallen human nature, we often project that same failing onto God Himself.
Well, disciple, it’s time to learn and embrace the truth. Your Father never lies. Your Father loves and cares for all. Your Father has promised to answer your call, and He will because it will affect His reputation.
What a great encouragement to commune with our Father who wants to pour out our hearts to Him.
So pray! Talk to your Father as Jesus outlined. Acknowledge Him as Supreme, ask for His help to make Him primary in your life, and for His will to take priority over yours (Luke 11:2). Then ask for provision, forgiveness, and protection (Luke 11:3-4). That’s it. That covers the basics.
Now expect your Heavenly Father to answer with the reassurance that He will…
Because His reputation is at stake!
Pastor Jay Christianson
The Truth Barista, Frothy Thoughts