“The Friend at Midnight”
The parable of the friend at midnight is one of several parables that only appear in Luke. The prodigal son and the Good Samaritan are two others unique to Luke’s gospel. Before the parable comes the Lord’s Prayer, which emphasizes Jesus’ close, prayerful relationship with God envisioned as Father. After the parable comes an exhortation to persevere in prayer to God.
If you came and stood on my front step and rang the doorbell, you might not notice the little tiny glass circle just above it. You might not realize that it’s a door camera. Whenever someone rings the doorbell, the phone rings three times. We can then turn any of the TV’s in the house to channel 17 and see who is standing on the porch and decide in advance whether to answer or not. It saves lots of trips up and down the stairs.
It also provides the kids and me with hours of entertainment. We have our own personal reality show. We call it “Front Porch.” It’s like visual caller id. Knock. Knock. It’s an eight year old girl green dress with sash covered with badges. I’ve consumed 2 boxes of Samoas and 3 of thin mints in the past 6 days. No answer.
Oh, look- there is a florist’s truck at the curb and the florist standing there with flowers. That’s an answer!
And there is a nervous looking young man in a tuxedo holding a corsage. The girl on the couch next to me, dressed in that lovely prom gown, jumps up and starts to run to the door, then catches herself and begins to walk in a statelier manner. This is a definite “answer the door.”
You couldn’t get away with not answering the door in a first century Palestinian village. You wouldn’t grumble and try to get out of giving bread to the friend at midnight standing on your door, either. Everyone in the village baked their bread at the village oven. They all know who has fresh bread. He’s the one. The custom is that you serve fresh bread to company. Plus the houses were so close together that when the needy friend stands on your doorstep pounding on your door at midnight, everybody up and down the street knows they’re there and you’re not getting out of bed to help them. To grumble like this would bring shame on one’s family and one’s village. And nobody in that village 2,000 years ago would want to be the one to destroy its reputation for gracious hospitality to travelers with their grumbling.
Today is Father’s Day. It is a day when we stand on our father’s doorstep and offer him thanks. How do you thank a good father? With a card and an invitation to lunch. With a cordless drill, a Weber grill, or a hobby tie? Those are the three most popular Father’s Day gifts this year.
My father was a tall man with dark hair, a great sense of humor and a great love for his children. He was really patient when we were sick. When I was little and sick, he would gather me up on his lap, wrap me in a blanket and rock me in the rocking chair, and say, “Miss Alyce, I’d take this big bad sickness from you if I could.”
When his liver cancer, after a year of remission, came back in 2002, it was my turn to say to him, “Dad, I’d take this big bad sickness from you if I could.” “Hey,” he said, “That’s my line. He was in a bed with metal rails set up in his study at the back of the house. The wonderful Hospice saints were coming every day. The night before he died, in the early hours of morning, my husband Murry and I each sat on either side of his bed in the darkened room, praying. On my side, I found myself repeating a prayer over and over again. An ancient prayer. A prayer that tells us so much about God in so few words: “Father, hallowed be thy name. They kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins.”
I’m not a father. I’m not a perfect mother. But I recognize a good father when I see one. A good father, in terms of our parable, is someone you can count on to come to the door and offer you nourishment when you show up on his doorstep. A good father offers you an egg or a fish, not a snake or a scorpion. A good father is someone who, though he has caller id, still answers the phone when you call and offers you encouragement.
My husband Murry is a good father. We have three children, two daughters in their twenties and a son who is 17. They call to chat with me. But when they have a problem, for some reason, it’s “Can I talk to Dad?” Our son is on his way to soccer practice at a different field than usual. He calls our landline: “Hi Mom, I’m lost, I need Dad.” Our daughter called Friday, “Hi, hon, I said.” “Mom, this is serious. I need to talk to Dad. This girl just backed into me in the parking lot at school and her car is scraped down the side, but it wasn’t my fault.” “Our oldest daughter, who is getting married in October, calls. “Hi mom. I’m fine. I need to talk to Dad. The Botanical Gardens say we can’t set up any folding chairs on the grass, so where are people going to sit? And they say they won’t refund my $400 deposit. I need to talk to Dad.”
A good father, in Luke’s view, is one who doesn’t just wait inside the manor house for you to come crawling back home, but who, throwing dignity to the winds, runs down the path to meet you with tears on his face. A good father, in Luke’s view, is one who comes out to where you’re lying in the ditch, beaten up by life, and picks you up, binds your wounds, and loves you into healing.
Maybe you’ve never known a father like that. Maybe you have. Will Willimon tells a story of a woman who worked in a drug and alcohol rehab center. She described her work to him “We have all incoming residents fill out a questionnaire when they are admitted. One of the questions is ‘Describe your home life growing up in a brief paragraph.’ Ninety percent of them start with these words: ‘I was raised in a good Christian home.” She said, “It’s enough to turn you against a good Christian home.”
Jesus began his prayer, “Father,” not because he wanted people to equate God with their human fathers. God knows and we know human parents can hurt as well as heal. Jesus prayed “Our Father” realizing that God’s identity and purposes exceed our ability to understand or articulate them. But he also knew that we human beings, with our limited knowledge, need to make comparisons between God and what we know. We know about family relationships, at least what they could be. The prophet Isaiah portrays God as a mother, picking up her young and carrying them when they are tired. Jesus himself depicts God as a mother hen shielding her people under her wings.
When he prayed what we call The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus was remembering a daily prayer he had heard prayed in the synagogue called the Kaddish, a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to God. “Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will….May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon.” Jesus’ prayer was a simpler, more direct, personal version of this prayer.
“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins.” Why do you think this was the prayer that sprang to my mind as my earthly father lay dying? Because it addresses a God who is honorable (hallowed be your name) who is accessible (your kingdom come) who is dependable (give us this day our daily bread) and who is merciful God (forgive us our sins). This is the God to whom Jesus prayed and taught us to pray. The night my father died, he needed to be reminded who it was that awaited him. So did I.
I remember a story about his dad I heard actor Burt Reynolds tell in an interview with Barbara Walters years ago. His dad was a sheriff in a small Southern town, beloved by everyone, but strict with his son. Burt respected and feared him, but yearned for some sign of tenderness or approval. Burt said, “Our family lived by two simple rules: “No crying. No hugging.” He went on, “There is a saying in the South that ‘no man is a man until his father tells him he is,’ and I hadn’t yet gotten that message from my father. I kept hoping someday I’d hear it.”
In the meantime, his hopes of being a professional football player were destroyed by an injury and his hopes of being an actor were growing dim. They told him he looked like Marlon Brando, but that he didn’t have any talent. A few bit parts in his twenties left him, at age 32, the best-known unknown in Hollywood.
Then his marriage to Judy Carne hit the rocks. This would be the first divorce in his family. He remembers staring at the phone, knowing he had to call home and break the news, but afraid that his dad would come to the phone instead of his mother. Yet, wanting more than anything to hear his father’s voice- standing there, staring at the phone, not able to make himself to pick it up.
When people called upon Jesus – who did they meet when he opened the door? Who did they hear on the other end of the line?
- To his disciples, panicking in a storm at sea, “Help us, we are perishing in this high gale! (Luke 8:22: 1ff calming of storm)
- To Jairus, a leader in the synagogue who fell at Jesus’ feet, “My l2 year old daughter is at the point of death (Luke 8:40)
- To a woman who fell at Jesus’ feet and begged for mercy “I have suffered from a flow of blood for 12 years.” (Luke 8:47)
- To a leper, who had suffered physical pain and social isolation for years, fell at Jesus’ feet and asked, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean!” (Luke 5:12)
Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him and said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
When they called upon him, knocked on his door, they were met by a person who had bread to give and who gave it gladly. How? Because he prayed. Early in the morning in a quiet place, late in the evening alone in the mountains, in a garden while the footsteps of your betrayers approached and your closest friends on earth lay sleeping. He prayed.
And he gives us this advice about prayer in our lives. Ask and it will be given to you. Search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
How did he know that? He knew because his tradition from Scripture and synagogue told him that God will pour out blessings on the one who asks and seeks and knocks. (Deut 4:29; Is 55:6; 65:1; Je 29:13-14; Pr 8:17).
But how did he know that? He knew from a lifetime of praying to a God who is honorable, accessible, dependable, and merciful.
After staring, staring at the at telephone on the table, dreading calling home to tell the news of his pending divorce, Burt Reynolds says he finally picked up the phone, dialed his parents’ number with shaking hands, and, thank God, got his mother on the phone. “Mom, Judy and I are getting a divorce. No, it’s final. Mom, tell him I’m sorry. Tell him I’ve failed again, and that I’m sorry.” “Then,” he says, “I heard this other voice on the phone. “Why don’t you come on home, son, “my father said, “and let me tell you about all the times I’ve failed in my life?”
Suppose you don’t have a door cam. Or if you have one, you forget to turn it on and when the doorbell rang, without thinking, you went to the door and opened it. And suppose God was standing on your porch. You chew on your lower lip and ask nervously “How can I help you?”
God quirked an eyebrow and said. “It’s the other way around, or have you so soon forgotten what you said to me last night? I was listening. I certainly wasn’t sleeping. And I distinctly remember,” says God, “that at approximately 12:01 this morning, as you lay in your bed with anxious thoughts rattling around in your mind, you called out to me.
God continued, “I clearly remember what you said next. You said, “Lord, You are calling me to be a friend at midnight to others. Come to me now, Be my friend at midnight. I need some bread.”
Why do you look so surprised to see me? Did you think I wouldn’t come to the door? Well, here I am, as promised. Are you going to let me in?
Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University