The NRSV follows Luke’s apparent intention and puts under the heading of “The Lord’s Prayer” Luke’s anecdote of the friend at midnight along with the “Ask, seek, knock” and “Good gifts” aphorisms. Conventionally, these passages have been considered to be a treatise on prayer. If you pray as Jesus did, God will provide, just as you would if your next-door neighbor came to you to borrow a cup of sugar at some inconvenient time. You might resent the timing, but you would nevertheless provide the sugar out of pious duty. If you pray as Jesus did, God will answer, just as you would if your own child asked for an egg. You would not substitute a scorpion.
But suppose this series of sayings was not a related sequence at all? Taken as an independent quotation, out of Luke’s context, we can readily see that the “friend at midnight” was not about how God answers prayer; it was about hospitality. The 21st Century world has largely forgotten that “hospitality” was a matter of life and death to 1st Century people. Welcoming the stranger into your tribal enclave for a night, or until the stand storm ended was a matter of honor on both sides. The host asked no questions about whether the stranger was an innocent traveler or a fugitive from law. The guest did not rob or otherwise violate the sanctity of the host. This code assured some degree of safety for everyone in a dangerous world.
In addition, 1st Century Palestine was an “honor/shame” culture. In Luke’s story, the host taken by surprise by unexpected guests may have run the risk of “shame” for not being able to properly care for them, but far more likely is the “shame” the sleepy neighbor would have experienced if he had not responded. He and his family would have been socially ostracized. The Jesus Seminar scholars point out that the original Greek that Luke used in the last sentence of the story can be translated either as “you will get up and give the other whatever is needed because you’d be ashamed not to;” or “because the other is not ashamed to ask.” (The Five Gospels, p. 327-328). The surprised neighbor is not ashamed to ask for help in supplying hospitality to the unexpected guests.
We cannot know why Luke did what he did with this snippet of oral tradition. It seems to fit better with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke interprets the parable in terms of the law that says “love your neighbor as yourself.” A discussion about the unexpected need to help a neighbor seems to be a further illustration of the reliance of neighbors upon one another. The Good Samaritan unexpectedly extends hospitality beyond what a reluctant neighbor might be shamed into offering.
Citizens of these United States pride ourselves on the fact that we can rely on our neighbors for help in time of need. In fact, we are so proud of that fact that 20% of us think the government should have nothing to do with providing disaster relief , health care, education, or social security. But as the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast learned after Hurricane Katrina, relying on our neighbors is nothing more than a romantic notion. The hurricane happened in 2005. Assistance in recovery was not forthcoming from the federal government. Five years later, volunteer efforts on the part of corporations and non-profits have not been able to complete the task.
But what best illustrates the 21st Century failure to live up to Jesus’s 1st Century expectation of hospitality in Luke 11:5-9 is our treatment of immigrants – specifically, people who risk their lives to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. Our friends on the Christian Right insist that we are a Christian nation, yet we offer travelers nothing and lock our doors against them. We refuse to allow them food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care. Even when the worst of humanitarian violations force the disintegration of “undocumented” immigrant families, we are unashamed.
The Elves who put together the Revised Common Lectionary do not get to Luke’s series on prayer until late July this year (Proper 12, Year C). The tradition has followed Luke’s lead and ignored the more likely (and troublesome) subject of hospitality. The accompanying Old Testament RCL readings are Hosea 1:2-10 and Genesis 18:20-32. The prophet Hosea is condemning the land and people of Israel for forsaking God. The story in Genesis is the preamble to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both readings support the idea of God’s judgment and God’s answer to persistent prayer. When God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham convinces God to spare the cities for the sake of 10 righteous men. What is never read if the Revised Common Lectionary is followed is Genesis 19:1-29. But it is the full story of what happened to Lot in Sodom that goes to the heart of Jesus’s teaching about the friend at midnight.
The two angels sent by God to search out 10 righteous men arrive in Sodom in the evening. Lot sees them, and greets them with respect, and invites them into his house to wash their feet and spend the night. The angels decline, saying they will be fine spending the night in the village square. But Lot insists. They come into his house, and Lot prepares a feast. But then, before they retire for the night, the men of the city surround Lot’s house and demand that he throw the guests out so that the men can “know them.” The intent of the village men is clear. When Lot reminds them that the visitors have “come under the shelter of my roof” and offers them his daughters instead, the men of the village are outraged. But they are not outraged because of the offer of the daughters. That is a historical-cultural artifact that turns the story into a feminist “text of terror,” and can easily distract 21st century minds from the point. The men of Sodom are outraged because “this fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!” In other words, the immigrant has the nerve to shame the citizens for their failure to offer safe haven to the strangers. (If this were an academic paper, the next comment would be in a footnote: One has to wonder how the story of the destruction of Sodom became so well known, given that the Elves have skipped it altogether for purposes of Sunday morning preaching at least as long as the Common Lectionary has been in use. Surely such a story of violence and unexplained custom is hardly suitable for children's Sunday School lessons.)
The ancient rule of hospitality was broken at the risk not only of shame, but of one’s own future security. In a world dependent upon the most primitive of communications, once the word was out that your tribal lands or your household did not honor the rule, you could find yourself denied assistance or shelter. The angels warn Lot that because of this sin – this failure of the men of Sodom to follow the most basic rule for human survival – God is going to destroy the city. Lot had better leave with the angels and bring along sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone else that belongs to him.
Post-modern minds have drifted away from hospitality as an expression of distributive justice-compassion, where the stranger is given shelter – even feasted and entertained – for a night, with no questions asked. The post-modern form of the failure to honor the rule of hospitality plays out on a daily basis along the United States/Mexico border. It can also be clearly seen in the wall the Israelis constructed along the West Bank of the Jordan.
The ancient rule of hospitality still stands. God’s judgment – or the consequences for acting unjustly – does not apply only to people perceived as enemies. Throughout the Bible, God is just as likely to favor the enemy and condemn God’s own people because God cares only about justice-compassion. See, e.g., The Healing of Naaman, 2 Kings 5. We rightly reject the idea that God’s judgment for violating hospitality or ignoring God’s demand for justice takes the form of volcanos, hurricanes, or plagues. But we are mistaken if we think there is no judgment. God’s judgment in a post-modern world is expressed in political and environmental consequences. Politically, we now have the so-called Arizona “papers” law, which requires that Hispanics in Arizona now must carry proof of U.S. citizenship at all times or run the risk of arrest and deportation. Some may think that is no problem for citizens with blue eyes and blond hair. The implications of such naivety for human rights should be clear.
Environmentally, adding insult to injury in the Gulf of Mexico, now comes the mother of all oil leaks whose magnitude defies description. Again, government assistance is nowhere to be found; corporations are pointing fingers at one another; and class-action trial lawyers are on the prowl as BP offers pre-emptive $5,000 settlements to devastated families and businesses. Apparently all we can muster for our neighbors are internet campaigns to collect used pantyhose and dog hair.
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