The Parable of the Midnight Guest
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his anaideia.
“And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”Luke 11:5-13
Parable of the Absurd
Addressing first-century Palestinian Jews, Jesus asked a rhetorical question: If God were one of you, would he neglect a guest?
Middle Eastern Jews obeyed a moral reflex older than Abraham—the desert law of unconditional hospitality. A sleepy friend unwilling to get up to give bread and provisions to a village guest was an absurdity.
Rooted in ancient Bedouin culture, an ethos of unconditional hospitality, even toward enemies, ensured survival in the desert.1 A Bedouin tent, always open to welcome guests, guaranteed refuge for the weary traveler. Rich or poor, hosts lavished their choicest food and provisions on their visitors. Like a soldier wounded in combat, a host who suffered privation to feed his guest won esteem for his valor.
Ingrained by over four millennia of tradition, the Bedouin spirit persists in the Arab world to this day:
“Hospitality is the Arab madness…we do karam (hospitality) to excess. We waste food and spend all our wages to impress guests with meat, and sometimes we don’t even have enough money to clothe our children and send them to good schools.”2
The story of Abraham and his three guests epitomizes the Bedouin code of hospitality (Genesis 18:1-8). While sitting at the entrance of his tent, on the lookout for travelers, Abraham sees three men. He runs to greet them and bows to the ground, requesting the favor of their stay. After offering his guests water to bathe their feet, he prepares a splendid banquet. Sarah bakes bread with “three seahs of fine flour”—enough to feed three hundred people. Abraham serves them a choice calf with curds and milk, waiting on them as they eat.
Unbeknownst to the patriarch, the visitors turn out to be angels. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” writes the author of the book of Hebrews, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
The Midnight Guest
In this social milieu, a neglected guest is an outrage. Playing to his audience, Jesus’ parable pitches a preposterous plot. A host with an empty pantry receives a guest at midnight. Calling on his friend to loan him three loaves of bread, he hears absurd excuses—he and his children are asleep, and the doors are locked. On account of “his anaideia,” however, the friend gets up at once and gives him “whatever he needs.”
Meaning of Anaideia
I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his anaideia.Luke 11:8
Over the centuries, the majority of Biblical translators rendered the Greek word anaideia, referring to the host, as “persistence.” Recent scholars, however, argue that the word refers to the sleeper’s “shamelessness” in the positive sense (“being free of shame,” that is, upholding honor). One who possesses anaideia in this sense fulfills his duty to the community and will not shame it.
The original meaning of anaideia found in ancient Greek literature is “shamelessness” in the negative sense. New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey postulates that the Greek Gospel, lacking a word for the positive Aramaic concept of “shamelessness,” grasped its closest analogue, anaideia.3 See the post, Loaves of the Trinity, for further analysis of this linguistic theory and reasons for the translation, “persistence.”
Recognizing the cultural context, Joachim Jeremias argues that verses 5-7 should be regarded as “one continuous rhetorical question.”4 In actuality, “The rules of hospitality in the first century required that the entire community assist in entertaining a midnight guest.”5 The refusal of the friend is “unthinkable” under the rules of Middle Eastern hospitality.
The Divine Host
Unlike the widow in the Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8), there is no evidence of “persistence” in the Parable of the Midnight Guest. The excuses of the sleeper are hyperbolically humorous, eliciting the response, “Give me a break!” to borrow an American idiom.6
If no human being behaves like the inhospitable friend, Jesus suggests, will God behave so poorly?
“And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”Luke 11:9
God the Father, our divine host, eagerly desires to pour out his Holy Spirit on those who ask him. Do we trust him to fulfill his promise?
If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”Luke 11:13
If a sleepy friend will honor a guest,
How much more will the Lord hear our request?
1 Clinton Bailey, “Abraham and Lot’s Bedouin-Style Hospitality,” TheTorah.com, 2019. https://thetorah.com/article/abraham-and-lots-bedouin-style-hospitality.
2 Andrew Shryock, “The New Jordanian Hospitality: House, Host, and Guest in the Culture of Public Display,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 46, no. 1 (2004): 39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3879412.
3 Kenneth Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), Book I, 125-133.
4 Joachim Jeremias, Parables of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 158.
Jeremias is quoted by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 911.
5 Arthur A. Just Jr., editor, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2003), 184.
6 “Give me a break!” expresses disbelief in something ludicrous.
2 Replies to “The Parable of the Midnight Guest”
Dear Gloria, I prayed on your “Parable of the Absurd.” It made me think of Theater of the Absurd and the plays of Eugene Ionesco that I used to read and enjoy. His plays focus largely on ideas of existentialism and express what happens when human existence lacks meaning or purpose and communication breaks down. Your reflection makes me thankful that with God absurdity brings discovery which brings mystery and meaning and promise into our lives. Praise be to God!
The “Parable of the Absurd” puts a fresh perspective on God and his character. Christ emptied himself in using our human language and experience to communicate divine truths. Indeed, parables are Incarnational: “Blessed is He who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors” (St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith, no. 31).