Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Shameless Prayer

Yesterday, in an aside, we mocked the tendency of some Biblical commentators to see pet themes, notably "hospitality," in every story.  Oops.

Here's our general idea:  While hospitality codes clearly play an enormous role in the Bible, as they do in much traditional literature including noticeably Germanic mythology, surely they cannot be that pervasive -- can they?

Surely, we hinted, this is an overreaction by modern commentators to the decline of "Christendom," and to the realization that churches in a thoroughly Christianized culture had lost the knack of welcoming non-Christians.  A society of de rigeur infant baptisms had no need of an adult catechumenate; church bodies in which members were transferred like soldiers from one post to another had no need to explain themselves, carefully and lovingly and from the ground up, to each new face through the door.  But, as that society has disappeared, it has become evident that modern churches do need to change their assumptions about the strangers they seek to welcome.

From this indisputable truth, we have suspected, grows a certain anxiety on the part of church leaders -- attuned to their own churches' history of inhospitality, they have slowly come to see "hospitality" as an essential element of the Gospel, one which (in the worst cases) seems to squeeze out sin, repentance and forgiveness in some modern proclamation.

All this may be so.  We are not yet persuaded otherwise.  But by gum, hospitality really is everywhere in the Bible.

We are reminded of this by Pr. Elizabeth Johnson's comments on Luke 11:1-13, at Working Preacher this week.  Jesus tells the brief parable of "the knock at midnight," about the guy who pounds on his neighbor's door, demanding some food to give his own unexpected guests.  In Johnson's reading, the guy is about to lose his social standing -- his honor -- because he cannot comply with the hospitality codes.  This is convincing.

She makes the further, and to us more dubious, argument that it is the second fellow, the one awakened by this pounding, whose honor is at stake:
His friend displays no shame in asking for help to meet the requirements of hospitality. The woken-up friend would incur dishonor if he failed to help his neighbor in this essential obligation. So he will respond because of social pressure at the very least.
Really?  Or isn't he kindly -- graciously -- supplying the food, and thereby the honor, that his neighbor lacks?  We're not sure this is right, but we also don't know the anthropological literature that would clear it up.

Either way, though, Johnson points out something which we had entirely missed.  The first man's pounding, described in a word translated by the NRSV as "persistence" and the KJV as "importunity," is in fact anaideia.  This is best translated as "shamelessness" or "impudence." Indeed, it has the same etymological relationship to the Greek word for one's own private parts that "impudence" does to the Latin "pudenda."

Johnson argues that the fellow pounding on the door is not ashamed because, under the social system of his time, he has no reason to be ashamed.  This is the sort of obligation that neighbors have to one another.

Our own inclination is to read the story, and the word, differently.  We think that the first fellow is exposing something shameful -- be it his own lack of preparation or his poverty -- and that his neighbor is moved by this self-exposure.  And in the same way, God is moved by our own prayers when we dare to reveal our own shortcomings, our failures and fears and our most shameful secrets.

Both interpretations have their appeal.  Either way, we are fascinated by the idea that Jesus is not encouraging persistence in prayer but something more shocking and unfamiliar to most of us:  shameless prayer.


Diane said...

I like this: "shameless prayer." I think Abraham's bargaining with God comes in Genesis 18 comes of in sort of the same way....

Father Anonymous said...

Yup. Absolutely

Pastor Joelle said...

I'll probably steal this in the future and forget that it was in fact your idea not mine