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February 23 lesson: Ever-Persevering Petitions

February 17, 2020
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Ever-Persevering Petitions

Winter Quarter: Honoring God

Sunday school lesson for the week of February 23, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard


Lesson Scripture: Luke 11:1-13
Key Verse: Luke 11:19

I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Lesson Aim:

To understand the act of persistent, persevering prayer and the nature of God as expressed in Jesus’ parable.

(Clarification: Most often the characters in a parable represent the person of God, the reality of the Kingdom, or the
importance of God’s word. However, the sleeping host does not represent God in this particular parable, but rather represents our misconceptions about God, especially as those misconceptions relate to prayer. The friend in need of help represents us and our need to care for society and those we love. Thus, the reluctant host does not represent God. He represents what many in Jesus’ day assumed about God. The Retribution Principle defined some as blessed by God because of their righteousness and others cursed because they were not obedient. There was little or no place for grace, especially as Jesus defined grace. This parable serves as a contrast between the true nature of God who is loving and giving, and the perception some held that God is too busy for them, or that some are not as important to God as others.)

Historical, theological and experiential background

We are definitely an “instant gratification” society. Our dinner is ready after a few minutes in a microwave, we can communicate quickly with texts and cell phones, and we can purchase items over the internet and have them arrive with a day or two. The internet allows us to have information at our fingertips with the push of a few keys. We become frustrated when forced to wait. We are even attempting to quicken the game of baseball because many think the game is too slow and takes too long. Our desire for instant gratification has seeped into our prayer life. We often expect God to answer our prayers immediately, or at least quickly. The idea of waiting years – or even a lifetime – for the answer to a prayer is unthinkable to many. Many of us give up far too quickly when praying. If we do not experience an answer after a few requests we move on and attempt to find our answers elsewhere. The problem with moving onward isn’t just that God knows the best answer and we are refusing to wait for it, but also that there is much to be learned while waiting. Patience can teach us what immediate gratification cannot.

It is always important to remember the role parables served in Jesus’ teaching ministry. Parables were never intended to be picked apart, with every word and phrase having spiritual significance. For example, the parable Jesus uses here has the host saying that he and his children are already in bed. However, it does not mention his wife. Should we then make the lack of mention of the wife a central point in what Jesus was trying to teach? Of course not! That is a fact that stands on the periphery of the central truth of the parable. Most parables have one major truth the story imparts and the details simply are part of the story-telling. When Jesus says, “A farmer went out to sow,” he doesn’t say which farmer, where the farmer lives, what kind of seed he sows, or the season in which he sows. The parable has little to do with these facts. It has everything to do with what happens to the seed once it is sown. Therefore, our intent is to find that one major truth Jesus wants the hearer to hear and understand, for that is most significant. Therefore, we will not become bogged down in the minutia of the parable, but we will seek that spiritual truth which alters, transforms, and enriches life. Issues like patience, persistence, the desire behind our prayers, and the nature of God who answers our prayers are the concerns to which we will give our greatest attention.

In considering the background, it is imperative that we do not interpret our key verse as God’s promise to answer every prayer we ask, in the manner we would like it answered, and in the time we desire that it be answered. This verse has often been employed as a “ask and get what you want” prayer while ignoring the fact that many of our prayers are answered years later, perhaps not even in our lifetime. And, the manner in which our prayer is answered may be in a manner we never imagined, and in some cases in a manner we did not initially want due to the higher will of the Kingdom God. Does God answer prayer? Certainly. However, that answer serves a reality greater than our own. One day we will understand God’s purposes and their relationship to the way he answered. Paul reminded us that “now we see through a glass dimly, but then we shall see face to face.” (I Cor. 13) We must remember that delayed answers do not mean our prayers are not answered. God does not see as we see; his vision is higher and wiser. This is the caveat that always undergirds our prayer requests.

There are few greater examples of our prayers being answered according to the higher redemptive will of God than Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. He prayed “If there is any way, let this cup pass from me.” This is a prayer for deliverance. However, Jesus recognizes the high, holy redemptive will of God when he adds, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” The conquering of suffering and death was accomplished later through the resurrection. This same process of prayer can be applied to our own prayers and requests. We may walk through suffering and pray that the suffering would stop only to later discover God was using the suffering for reasons far above any we could imagine. Later, we will be blessed as one used of God for another purpose. I, like many clergy, can attest that some of the most difficult tests we have faced make us more effective, understanding ministers. I personally possess wisdom now that I would never own apart from the suffering through which I walked. The same is true for laity as for clergy.

This parable addresses certain misassumptions we often believe about God. The first is that we believe God is too busy to be bothered by our human affairs. Or, some assume God has too many other concerns to be bothered by our personal requests. Thus, Jesus uses the phrase in the parable in which the head of the household says to the petitioner, “Don’t bother me.” For we often assume God says this to us. Thus, in the parable we see ourselves, the nature of our prayers, and the misassumption we possess regarding the nature of God who hears and responds to our prayers.

In Luke 11 Jesus had been asked to teach his followers how to pray. He thus offered the Lord’s Prayer. Now in the chapter the nature of that prayer is being “fleshed out” as it relates to daily life and common human circumstances. The Lord’s Prayer speaks to hospitality, friendship, and the nature of God. Thus, Jesus follows his teaching of the Lord’s Prayer with this illuminating parable.

Historical, theological, experiential reflection upon Luke 11:1-13:

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’”

In the parable the two men have a pre-established relationship. They are friends. It is helpful to remember the importance of the Law of Hospitality. This was more than a Mosaic Law. It was a law that gave the entire near eastern world its sense of civilized behavior. The people lived in a harsh environmental climate in which it was difficult to carry food without possibility of it spoiling. The days could be blistering hot and the nights very cold. Hospitality from another was imperative to their way of life. It was a major violation of law and etiquette to turn away one in need of drink, food, and shelter. This is the backdrop against which this friend asks his own friend for help in feeding a weary, needy visitor. The fact that the parable mentions it is midnight is not one of the insignificant background facts for the parable. It is important to note it is midnight, and the effect of that hour upon the petitioner’s request is necessary information. Families are asleep. The lamps with their often-expensive oil have been extinguished. Arising at midnight involves relighting a lamp or two, possibly awaking members of the family who need their sleep, for they will greet their day which begins at sunrise, or perhaps even prior to the break of day. In other words, it is bothersome to arise and care for someone needing bread at midnight. The request of his friend is to borrow three loaves of bread. This may sound like little to ask to care for another. However, families did not keep a lot of food in storage. They did not have the means to store it in a manner to keep it from spoiling. Bread was often eaten that day, or not later than the next for it would not have remained fresh. It would quickly turn hard. It would have been a little unusual for a family to have three loaves still stored in the house for the remaining day. Thus, we can gain a sense of urgency on the part of the friend needing the bread for his visitor. He had to understand this as a major request. The awakened host might have had three loaves, but it would most likely have diminished his own family’s supply. Notice, the friend asking his friend for the loaves does not have enough in his own house to care for his visitor. He is asking his friend for bread that he himself does not have. The friend’s request is bothersome, and there is a degree of sacrifice on the part of the host of the house in providing three loaves. The request is bothersome to the host and he appears agitated. However, our prayers are never bothersome to God; we often assume God has other important matters to which he needs to attend. God is our creator, the God of the cosmos who “holds all things together by the word of his power.” God is more than capable of hearing and responding to all prayers. God’s grace is inexhaustible. (Psalm 65) It is a poor understanding of God we have developed when we believe he doesn’t want to be bothered by us. The friend who might have been bothered by the request at midnight is offered in contrast to the God revealed in Jesus who cares for all. Parables do not always use a major character to portray God; often the character stands in contrast to the nature of God. In the parable the host is bothered by the request. However, the revelation of God in Christ reveals God’s unending care. Whether it is a woman crawling through the crowd to touch his garment, or the grief of Mary and Martha weeping over Lazarus’ death, Jesus is aware of all in need. The request of the friend asking his neighbor to sacrifice his own bread for him to care for his visitor does reveal that often sacrifice is necessary to answering a request. Some relinquish what they want or need that the greater good of another might be met. Jesus’ prayer to escape the cup in Gethsemane required him to sacrifice what his heart really wanted. However, he sacrificed his prayer of escape that others would know the love and redemption of God. Often our prayers, though they might be righteous and good, can be answered in the milieu of sacrifice as another has greater need. In the story of Elijah and the starving widow, she had prayed that she might take their last bit of meal and oil to make one last meal for her and her son. How difficult it must have been to sacrifice her need to make Elijah a meal. However, the feeding of Elijah was used of God to reveal his power over all within the home territory of sinful Jezebel. Still, God took care of the widow and her son after she sacrificed. When our prayers are not answered immediately, even when we believe they must be answered right then, God has a redemptive purpose that requires sacrifice. God will answer our prayers in his time and manner for our good.

Do you pray in isolation, with little consideration of how your prayer will affect others? Do you expect God to answer your prayer in a particular time frame? Do you assume the prayer is unanswered if not within that time frame or in the manner you asked? Are you willing to not have your prayer answered as you would like that someone else might benefit according to God’s loving will?

“I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.”

As we read these words, we get the impression the man is having to wear the host down through his persistence. If the host represented God we would think we need to be so persistent that God finally gives in and helps us. However, the God revealed in Jesus is nothing like this host. God is more than eager to hear. We believe through the incarnation of Christ that God is with us, and being with us means he knows what we need most and responds to us in love and grace. However, we should not overlook the fact that persistence does have some value. The value has nothing to do with getting God to finally answer our prayer. Persistence allows us understand how important an issue is to us. My mother was dying years ago in an ICU cubicle. I spent a lot of time in the hospital chapel at the altar praying. I prayed for her healing over and again. She passed away, but I, more than ever, realized how important she was in my life, and what an emptiness I would feel without her. I refer to this particular experience in my life because I called a prayer line advertised on television. I called the first time and the person prayed a beautiful, comforting prayer. She was no better, and as a young, new Christian I called the next day and asked again for prayer. The person refused. She said, “We have prayed once and any other prayer reveals a lack of faith.” I was hurt and confused. I was a young man persistently praying for the life of his mother. My persistence did not assure God answered the prayer in the manner or time I asked. God took her to himself and I learned a great deal about God through the many Christians who put their arms around me and walked me through my grief. Persistence is important and we should never be afraid to persistently pray. It does not mean we will wear God down until he answers. God doesn’t work that way. God answers prayer for the good of all, and for the higher good of his kingdom. In the parable, the aggravated host who seemed agitated finally gave the bread to his friend. However, he could have given him the bread willingly and gladly as a friend should. He does not represent the heart of God. Instead, he appears to act more like we do. When teaching Scripture, I tell the students that the Bible at times is a mirror and other times is a window. The Bible is a mirror in that it allows us to see ourselves. It is a window in that it allows us to peer into the heart of God. In this parable, the agitated host serves as a mirror in which we see how we can behave at times when someone’s need arrives at a time not convenient for us.

Are you reluctant to pray the same prayer on many occasions? Do you feel your repeated prayers in some way “bother” God? Do we believe the more we pray the greater the possibility of God answering? When someone in our life needs something from us for their welfare, do we act more like the aggravated host, or like our giving, loving Lord?

“So, I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

At this point, Jesus leaves the actual story in the parable and teaches the lesson he wants his listeners to receive. The Gentiles and Romans, along with other religions, taught that their gods needed to be manipulated in order to act. Sometimes you give a proper sacrifice, or use a certain incantation, etc. However, we belong to the Lord of Creation, the only God. Jesus is encouraging us to pray, and pray regularly. He tells us to seek and knock. However, Jesus in no way is promising that our persistent prayers, our repetitive knocking will assure the answer we want when we want it. Experience teaches us that prayer does not work in that manner. But more importantly, Scripture teaches us that God answers prayer in consideration of everyone and the good of everyone. I sat in a testimony service once in which a woman offered praise that a tornado had jumped over her house. She finished her praise with the words, “God takes care of his own.” What she didn’t say was that when the tornado leaped over her home it struck many homes behind her, ripping them from their foundations and even causing death. Most likely these people too were earnestly praying. They too were special people to the Lord. The greater prayer would have been for the tornado to miss everyone’s home, not just mine. Sadly, I admit often I pray that the storms of life will leave me and my family alone. However, I live in a community of people who are loved of God. Their prayers are as important as mine. It is important to seek and knock. It reminds me that ultimately all life belongs to God, and God’s will always work towards the common good. Seeking and knocking reminds me of how important things and people are to me. I need to be reminded how precious people are in my life. But mainly, seeking and knocking reminds me that I am in relationship with God. It reminds me God is near, God hears, and always answers according to his will of love and mercy. Unlike the gods of the pagans who act through human manipulation, our God acts through an eternal motivation of love. Why pray at all? Why ask, seek, and knock? Again, praying is one of the spiritual disciplines that reminds me God is in my life and important to my life. The person that begins their day in prayer immediately brings God into their day. They will be mindful of God’s presence throughout the day. My prayers remind me not only is God present, but God’s will is being done. There are indeed moments when my prayers are in concert with God’s will, and there are times when they are not. But through praying, I affirm my faith that God is working toward the eternal good, and I am a part of that good.

Have you assumed from this verse that God answers our prayers according to our desires, and because we diligently pray? It is our passion for a particular answer that moves God to answer prayer, or is it God’s passion for all of us, and the good for all of us that moves God? What value is there in your praying even when your request is not answered? Do you find it easy to stop praying when an answer doesn’t come?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish will give him a snake instead; or if he asks him for an egg will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

Jesus now continues to flesh out the parable with a second illustration. The question sounds rather rhetorical, for none would answer that the father should give the son a snake. However, this question is placed within the context of prayer, and misconceptions the Jewish people often believe about God. Some would believe that if you have violated the Mosaic Law in some manner, (remember there are more than 600 laws!), and you ask God for a blessing you instead will receive a curse, or an answer that punishes. Remember, those who keep the law are the blessed in life. A rich young ruler once came to Jesus and asked for eternal life. The disciples believed he was rich because he was faithful to God. Jesus told him to go sell his possessions and give them away. The text reads the man left sad. Why? This was not the answer he expected. A rich, righteous young man could expect eternal life in a far easier fashion. Even the disciples are confused, asking later, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus story is about a father and a son. The assumption is made, and is most always true, that fathers love their children. If our children ask us for food would we give them something that would harm them instead? Even if our children are on occasion disobedient, we still act toward them in love. In his illustration, Jesus reminds us that even evil fathers are good to his children. He uses the most extreme example of an unkind father, and yet reminds the listener that even evil fathers would act lovingly toward their children. We all have a sin nature within. We are far from perfect. Yet, in spite of our flaws, we would feed our children and protect them by not giving them a snake or a scorpion. Jesus knows the masses have been taught by religious leaders that they are sinners, and the reason they suffer financially and physically is because of their sin. They believe God does not act mercifully toward the sinner. Jesus’ teaching is more radical than we can imagine. He is proclaiming that God loves all, especially the suffering. Thus, when they pray to God, they have the same access and receive the same loving answers as the most righteous in Israel. Naturally, this teaching greatly upset the religious leaders, but it liberated and filled the masses with joy. Still, Jesus takes his illustration another step forward in love. God will not only hear their need, but will fill them with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not belong just to the perfect or the most righteous. He belongs to all who seek God with a humble, earnest heart. God desires to be an indwelling presence in all.

What misassumptions do you hear today about God and the way the Lord relates to his people? Do you think of God as a loving parent rather than a harsh judge? How does our assumptions or misassumptions about God affect our prayer life?

Summary:

Jesus revealed the very heart and nature of God. That nature is loving and merciful. The spiritual ear of God is open to all who call upon him, even with faith as a grain of mustard seed. This parable offers hope to all that we are never alone, never abandoned, and never forgotten.

Prayer:

Almighty God, our loving parent, we pray knowing that you eagerly hear us. We acknowledge your higher will at work in life, that all might know of your love and true righteousness. We pray to you having great confidence in your love. Amen.

Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at craigrikard169@yahoo.com.          

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