Robert Capon – Parable of the Friend at Midnight

Tonight we are discussing the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) and the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-10). Please read chapter 5 “Death, Resurrection, and Forgiveness” and chapter 8 “Grace More Than Judgment” in Part II of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Fr. Kimel’s teaching on the chapter is here.

The Context:

The Parable of the Friend at Midnight is only found in Luke’s gospel. It appears immediately subsequent to the Lord’s Prayer and is intended to be a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. Our reading begins with Jesus’ disciples coming to him and asking him to teach them to pray the way John taught his disciples. In response, Jesus gives them the Lord’s Prayer. Luke 11:2b-4. In reading this passage, you will discover that Luke’s version of the prayer is much shorter than Matthew’s more familiar version. Matt. 6:9-14.

Rev. Capon invites us to look closely at the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, and specifically at the petitions through the lens of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. We petition for our daily bread. Jesus tells them to pray for nothing more by way of human achievement than the food they need day by day. No spiritual attainments, no ethical perfections; just the bare necessities to keep body and soul together. p.221. Praying for the self-achievement of spiritual perfection was a common practice, that Jesus warns us away from. Luke 18:11-12.

He tells us also to pray for our forgiveness so that we can forgive others. As we see in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, forgiveness is a matter of death to ourselves and a claim of resurrection to the new life promised in Christ.

Finally, we pray not to be led into temptation. The only fatal temptation, per Capon, is the temptation to think it is by further, better, and more aggressive living that we can have life. . . . The precise temptation, therefore, into which we pray we will not be led is the temptation to reject our saving death and try to proceed on our living own. p.222.

Capon tells us to interpret the Lord’s Prayer through Jesus’ death and resurrection because that is the basic gospel message. 1 Cor. 2:2. However, it is the subsequent Parable of the Friend of Midnight that compels this interpretation.

The Parable:

At the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says:

And he said to them, “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 importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs. Luke 11:5-8

A Dead God:

Think about the picture of God in the parable. He (Jesus) has them posit, as the figure of God the Father in this parable, a person who is deep in the experience of the nearest ordinary sacrament of death available to living people, namely, the daily expiration of falling asleep – that radically uncontrollable, lost state in which all reasonable responses to life are suspended. p.223. The friend (who is also a father) in the parable is dead (asleep). Not only is the friend dead asleep, but the friend’s initial response is a general “don’t bother me” followed by a list of reasons why he will not help. Nowhere else in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation will we find a description of God as being dead, or asleep, or simply not wanting to be bothered. Jesus gives us an absurd picture of God which necessarily should cause us to think more deeply about exactly what Jesus is trying to say.

He Will Rise:

Capon’s understanding that God is dead in the parable is further based upon Jesus’ use of the word anastenai (meaning to raise or rise) and egeirein (to raise or rise). Later in Luke’s gospel (and in other places) both of these words are used for Jesus’ rising from the grave. Luke 24:46, Acts 2:24, Luke 24:6, Acts 3:15. (In the Eastern Church, their Easter/Pascha greeting is Christos Anesti (“Christ is Risen”)). In the parable God is dead, and God arises. Jesus tells us, therefore, that it is out of death, not out of life, that God rises to answer our prayers. And note well that he rises not in response to the reasonableness or the moral uprightness of our requests but for no good reason other than to raise the rest of the dead. p.223. This is why the Son of Man must be crucified and die. God must die so that he can rise.  

Our Shamelessness:

The other key to the parable is the description of the bothersome neighbor. The neighbor begs and reasons with his friend to get relief. However, Jesus says that the friend (God) will not help his neighbor (us) because they are friends and neighbors. Their relationship does not cause the friend to arise and help his neighbor. Luke 11:8a. Rather the friend will arise due to the neighbor’s “persistence” or “importunity”. Luke 11:8b. The Greek word is anaideia which literally means “shameless persistence.” According to the parable, God does come to our aid because we ask or because we have invited Jesus into our hearts, or because we have a right relationship with God, but only in our shameless, selfless admission that we are dead without him, and the faith to confess that we are also dead with him and in him. p.224.

The whole parable, therefore, is a conjugation of prayer according to the paradigm of death and resurrection – a footnote to the Lord’s Prayer. p.224. The friend is dead and rises from the dead to answer his neighbor. But the friend only answers the neighbor once the neighbor shamelessly admits to the friend that he is dead without him. And in the friend’s resurrection, the neighbor finds his own resurrection. Once we accept the death we already have, and in the clean emptiness of that death we will find the life that all along has been hid for us with Christ in God. p.226

The Traditional Interpretation:

Capon ends his analysis of the parable by addressing the traditional interpretation of the parable which is that we must be persistent in prayer. This traditional interpretation contradicts both the Scriptures and our experience. First, Jesus clearly tells us (immediately prior to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew) that when we pray, we are not to use vain repetitions as the heathen do, for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Matt. 6:7. Persistence is discouraged. And it is Elijah on Mount Carmel that openly mocks the priests of Ba’al for believing that their God will answer them because of their persistence. 1 Kings 18:27. Our God is not some pagan deity that must be awakened or must be impressed by our persistence.

Second, Capon says that our common human experience is that persistence in prayer simply does not work to get what we want. But in fact, persistence doesn’t win anywhere near often enough to be held up as the precondition of God’s answering prayer. And I will not let you hand me the cheap, cruel bromide that when persistence doesn’t win it probably wasn’t real persistence. Tell that to somebody who asked, and sought, and knocked till her knuckles bled for a child who eventually died of leukemia anyway. p.225.

Then why do we pray if prayer is not efficacious? We pray not to get some reasonable, small-bore job done, but to celebrate the job beyond all liking and happening that has already been done for us and in us by Jesus. We have a friend in our death; in the end, he meets us nowhere else. Prayer is the flogging of the only Dead Horse actually able to rise. p. 226. Or as C.S. Lewis puts it in the Great Divorce: There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.

Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Moroccan chicken. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Colossians 3:2-4

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