READ : Luke 11:1-13
If all the answers to our prayers came quickly and in just the way we asked, Jesus would never have needed to tell the stories that urge us to keep on praying! So we must never give up. Today’s program looks at the parable of the Friend at Midnight.
While Jesus was praying in a certain place, his disciples came up to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). What an impression the Lord’s example must have made on those closest to him. Most of his disciples had been raised in the conventional piety of Galilean society and were familiar with religious devotion, but none of them, I think, had ever seen anyone pray the way Jesus did. He would often rise a great while before daybreak in order to give himself to prayer, or he would go off into the hills near the Sea of Galilee and spend a whole night alone talking with his heavenly Father. Peter, James, John and the others must have thought, “How does he do it? Where do you learn to pray like that? How could we find that kind of intimacy with God?” So they came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
The first thing Jesus did in response to his disciples’ request was to teach them the prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” a model of how we should approach God our Heavenly Father with all our praises and petitions. The second thing Jesus did was not surprisingly to tell a story. It’s the parable we call the Friend at Midnight.
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘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.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
If the Lord’s Prayer teaches us what we should ask for when we pray; the parable of the Friend at Midnight teaches us how we should ask.
How to Pray: Persistently
The answer, basically, is two things. The first characteristic that ought to mark our praying is persistence. We need to pray long and hard. That is the point the only point, really of Jesus’ parable.
Jesus compares prayer to the way a man goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night to borrow some food for a late-arriving visitor. There were no grocery stores in ancient Palestine, and eastern hospitality demanded that the man offer some refreshment to his traveling guest. He had nothing to serve, so he goes next door to ask his friend for bread. But the friend has already retired for the night with his family. Houses were small, one-room affairs in Jesus’ day, with the living room being transformed into the bedroom at night by rolling out mats on the floor. Someone banging on the door in the middle of the night was bound to disturb the whole household, and the father in the story could not get up without rousing his children too, so his neighbor’s request was a real pain. Finally the man did get up and respond, not because of friendship, says Jesus, but simply because the neighbor just refused to go away.
So important is the quality of persistence in prayer that Jesus later told a second parable with the same point, to teach the same lesson. In that story the main character is a poor widow who kept pestering a heartless judge to hear her case and grant her justice until finally, in exasperation, the judge says, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:4-5).
Keep on praying, Jesus is telling us, and you will receive an answer. That is the simple truth he wants us to grasp from these parables. Of course God isn’t like a grouchy neighbor or an unjust judge. He is not reluctant to answer our cries for his help, nor does he need to be badgered into responding to our prayers.
Jesus chooses to deliberately use shocking analogies in these parables in order to make his favorite argument, what we might call the “how much more” argument. If even a sleepy neighbor will finally open the door when you pound long enough, what do we think our loving heavenly Father will do when we knock on his door? If even a worthless human judge finally gives in to a poor widow’s pleas, how much more won’t the Judge of all the universe respond to the desperate cries of his children for justice, salvation, deliverance from evil! So the first characteristic of our prayers needs to be persistence.
How to Pray: Earnestly
Here’s the second one. In the school of Jesus, we’re taught to pray earnestly. Whenever we pray, we need to pray as if we really meant it. “So I say to you,” Jesus encouraged his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11:9). “Ask . . . seek . . . knock.” Jesus urges the same thing three times over. And his repetition, I think, is meant to intensify the point. He does not say this so that we will simply multiply words in praying, the way that pagans pray, but rather to get us to go on praying from the heart. God has promised, not once but three times over, to grant our deepest needs and desires. If we ask, we will receive an answer: either what we have asked for, or what the Lord has determined is best for us. If we seek him, we will find him. If we knock on his door, the Lord will open it to us. What encouragement!
Then why do we pray in such a haphazard, lazy, half-hearted fashion? The puritan pastor Richard Baxter wrote, “You shall find this to be God’s usual course not to give his children the taste of his delights till they begin to sweat in seeking after them.” We need to learn how to pray earnestly, that is, from the heart. Here is another good quote from the great 19th century English bishop J. C. Ryle:
Words said without heart are as utterly useless to our souls as the drum-beating of the poor heathen before their idols. Where there is no heart, there may be lip-work and tongue-work, but there is nothing that God listens to there is no prayer.
Never Give up
I was reading a newspaper story which recounted an interview with the great historian and writer William Manchester. Manchester is the author of 18 books, and for the past twenty years he has been working on a biographical trilogy of the life of Winston Churchill, entitled The Last Lion. The first two volumes of this biography have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hard cover, and fans are eagerly awaiting the final installment. But it’s not going to come. Manchester is too old, too sick, and too despondent. He can no longer concentrate on his work, or think clearly enough to write. Speaking to a reporter from the New York Times, with the unfinished manuscript of his book lying in front of him, Manchester talked about the terrible frustration of having lost so much. The interview ended with this poignant statement: “My wife is gone, and I can no longer write. If I believed in the power of prayer, I would pray every day that he carry me away.”
If only William Manchester, and so many others like him, did know the power of prayer, and even more importantly, the power, grace and love of the Lord to whom we pray. Speaking of The Last Lion, there’s a Winston Churchill story that applies here, I think. It seems the great man was invited in his retirement to deliver a speech at a famous boys’ school. Following lengthy ceremonies and a lavish introduction, Churchill walked up to the podium and delivered his speech which consisted of three words, repeated three times: “Never give up. Never give up. Never, never, never give up.”
It’s such a simple point, really, and it’s the very same point which Jesus makes in his parables on prayer: Never give up either praying or believing in the God who answers prayer! God rewards persistence and earnestness in prayer. God will answer; God will act in response to his people’s cries.
Let’s be honest. We have all been puzzled at one time or another and pained by the Lord’s difficult silence. We’ve been dismayed by his strange lack of response to our prayers. We pray desperately, and nothing happens. Or we get the opposite of what we pleaded for. If all the answers to our prayers came quickly and in just the way we asked, Jesus would never have needed to tell the stories that urge us to keep on praying! So we must never give up. Listen to Jesus again:
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
Here is the Lord’s own promise that guarantees the power of prayer. God will quickly grant justice to his own people who cry to him. But God’s idea of “quickly” doesn’t always agree with ours. He measures time differently than we do. Thus the need for perseverance and faith, and thus Jesus’ final searching question: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” I can’t speak for you, but I am determined that in my case at least, insofar as I am able, he will find faith in me. I will go on believing, despite all my doubts and struggles, and I will go on praying, despite my frequent stumbles and falls.