Shamelessness in Prayer

You are currently viewing Shamelessness in Prayer
The Importunate Friend by Dalziel Brothers, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1864. Collection of The Met Museum, Rogers Fund, 1921. Image courtesy of The Met Museum, New York.

“Have you no shame?” That’s the question I posed to a friend who, to my great embarrassment, was bargaining with a shopkeeper over an already ridiculously inexpensive bauble in an Arab market in the Old City of Jerusalem. True, we were looking for cheap souvenirs to bring back to friends and family. Also true, my friend said, was that bargaining was part of their culture. But how low would he go? 

One could ask the same question of Abraham in Sunday’s first reading. Just how cheeky is it to bargain with God, no less? Abraham knows he risks trying God’s patience. Moreover, Abraham’s motivations might not have been the purest. He didn’t want to save just “sin city,” but also his nephew Lot, who lived there. He then persistently whittled down to an almost ludicrous figure the number of righteous needed to save Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet God agreed! 

Jump to Luke’s Gospel, and we find a related theme, though it is obscured by a misleading translation. We see Jesus, at prayer, being asked to teach his own disciples to pray, as John the Baptist had taught his disciples. Jesus responds with what we call “the Lord’s prayer.” But notice that it is not the version we pray daily, which comes from Matthew, but a shorter, less poetic version. It is likely the more original, but Matthew’s is the more liturgical. In Luke the prayer is simple yet elegant: hallow God’s name, pray for the coming kingdom and daily bread, and pray for forgiveness of sins, not only for ourselves but between us. We seek God’s mercy, as Abraham did, for both innocent and guilty. 

But I spoke of a mistranslation. Only Luke connects the parable of the friend at midnight with the Lord’s prayer, and he then follows it up with the famous saying of “seek and find, knock and the door will open.” Many commentators and preachers see in these two passages confirmation that the point is about persistence in prayer. Don’t give up; God will eventually hear and answer. The problem is that the Greek word anaideia, translated “persistence” in the parable, means “shamelessness” or “importunity.” The friend begging bread from a neighbor at midnight when he has already locked up and gone to bed risks pushing the envelope a little too far. This is precisely Jesus’ point. Begging from a friend even at the most inopportune moment and under the most trying of circumstances—such as when being tested to the utmost—is exactly when God’s mercy suddenly appears.  

Unlike a human father, our heavenly Father sees no shame in our humble or mundane requests. Even should a human father fail to give his children what is best for them, our heavenly Father can do no such thing. Only Luke’s version of the saying attached to the parable after the Our Father shows the ultimate result of bold prayer: the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, it is this gift that most enriches each disciple and the Church as a community of faith and of prayer. This is the best of gifts. It is the best “souvenir” from a gracious God whose mercy knows no bounds. 

While I may be hesitant to push a merchant beyond politeness, I need not worry with God. 

© Liturgical Press.