top of page

Luke 11:1-13

A confession. But first, the backstory.

My church started a ministry last year called The Diaper Closet, where families can receive free diapers. We learned that one in three US families reports a lack of sufficient supply of diapers to keep an infant or child clean, dry, and healthy, so we worked with a local organization to distribute diapers in our community, eventually taking the project on ourselves as a regular part of our ministry. While our congregation, community organizations, and other churches work together to stock the closet, word is spreading, and we are running low on diapers.

Here’s the confession: I haven’t contributed any diapers recently because I don’t want to go to Walmart to get them. Yes, I know I could get them elsewhere, but Walmart’s brand is the best “bang for your buck.” And as much as I want to provide for these families, I really dislike going to Walmart. Plus, our Walmart is currently being remodeled, so I feel sheepishly justified in my reluctance.“

Forgive us our sins” and all, I guess.

While I avoid the slightest inconvenience and make excuses, a lady in my church finds out she needs a life-altering surgery. I can’t even imagine what she’s going through. I’m heartbroken for her. She has several other difficult situations going on, so the timing couldn’t be worse. But here’s why I’m telling you all this (and how it connects back to Luke 11): do you know what this lady did the day before she was to have surgery that will change her life? She went to Walmart to buy diapers.

Can you believe that? I certainly can’t.

The parable in Luke 11:5-8 is brief but powerful. While I have previously preached this text as a call to persistence in prayer, this time around I’m hearing it differently. Barbara E. Reid suggests that this parable (sourced by L) wasn’t originally about prayer at all, but that Luke frames it that way by placing it between vv.1-4 (sourced by Q) and vv.9-11(sourced by Q), two teachings about prayer and provision [1]. Preachers, therefore, have a choice to make. Will we take the parable on its own terms, seeing it as a stand-alone narrative, or will we take the full pericope as it is redacted before us today, allowing the context to shape the meaning of the parable? Either option is within the bounds of scholarships and tradition [2]. However, if, like me, you are compelled, or at least fascinated by the former option, we can zoom in a bit more.

Reid provides helpful sociohistorical considerations. “Friend” is a key concept in this parable, and it’s a loaded term. A far cry from Facebook’s definition, first-century friendship was a mutually beneficial relationship that provided familial-like commitment to those outside one’s own household. A community was built on friendships like these, and it could even save lives. If you run out of food, you can count on a friend to supply what you need, keeping your household alive. Reversing that situation, when the tables are turned, you will do the same for your friend’s household. But there’s a problem. It becomes increasingly difficult to give away your food when you don’t have much left for yourself. The closer you are to the bottom line, the trickier it is to be a good friend, though, ironically, it’s also when you need the benefits of friendship more than ever [3]. Reid suggests that this parable calls the reader to perform the generous hospitality of friendship, even when we don’t see any clear benefit to it ourselves. She concludes, “The parable, then, does not simply state what is obvious in this culture: that one who is asked to supply for the needs of a guest will most certainly do so. Nor is it a reassurance that God hears petitionary prayer and grants requests. Such readings simply reiterate expected mores and have no parabolic twist. Rather, the parable in11:5-8 is one that affirms extravagant hospitality in precarious economic circumstances where such profligate care of another may seem to foolishly jeopardize one’s own security” [4].

In the parable, this generosity comes not as an obligation to a friendship (v.8) but because of ‘shamelessness’ (ἀναίδειαν). Reid points out that this word (a hapax legomenon) is unfortunately translated as ‘persistence’ only here, not in any other LXX uses [5]. While she notes that a complete understanding of the author’s intention is out of reach—the pronouns aren’t even clear, so which friend practices ‘shamelessness’?—I want to let it describe the one that finally shares the bread. That interpretation stands in opposition to how I’ve preached this text before, and it undermines the notion that we need to be persistent in prayer so that God will respond. But we are left with a picture of a provider that, having first turned the needy away, finally embraces generous hospitality not because it will secure his or her own future but because something inside shifts. A “shamelessness” takes over, and suddenly this friend is sharing what before was hoarded. Why give away your supply when it doesn’t mean you’ll get anything out of it? Who cares! It’s simply what she must do, an act of hospitality that submits to God’s kingdom economics instead of our logic. It is this same shamelessness that motivates the father in Luke’s parable about the two lost sons to throw a party for the son who blew his inheritance (15:11-32).

This shamelessness is modeled for us in chapter fifty-three of the Rule of St. Benedict: “Whenever guests arrive or depart, let Christ be adored in them—for Him indeed we receive in them—by bowing of the head or by full prostration. And when the guests have been received let them be taken to pray and then let the superior, or whomsoever he shall have appointed, sit with them. Let the divine law be read in the presence of a guest, that he may be edified; and after this let all courtesy be shewn him... Let the abbot serve water for the guests’ hands; and let both the abbot and also the whole community wash all the guests’ feet: and the washing finished let them say this versicle:‘We have received Thy mercy, O God, in the midst of Thy temple.’ And above all let care be scrupulously shewn in receiving the poor and strangers; for in them specially is Christ received. For the fear that the rich inspire itself secures deference for them.” Special care is to be shown to those who cannot offer anything in return. That’s Christian hospitality at its best.

Thus, we are boomeranged back to vv.1-4, to the intersection of hospitality and prayer. Maybe the parable is not wholly unrelated to prayer after all, but a reminder that God answers the prayers of others by forming a generously hospitable people. Perhaps the petition for bread of v.3 will be answered not with manna from heaven but with loaves baked by human hands that belong to citizens of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. Walking along the busy streets of downtown Chicago, I passed several homeless men. My heart ached for them. I prayed, as I continued to walk on my way, “Lord, have mercy.” “You have mercy,” I think our Lord somewhat coarsely replied. Divine mercy may often have altogether mundane, material origins. “Your kingdom come” may require flour, oil, and a good kneading. The church does what it does not because it will get a return on investment, not because it will be good PR, not because it secures our future, but simply because we are compelled to extend to the world around us the same hospitality we’ve experienced in the Godhead.

Having soaked in this story, here are some q