Some years ago a friend’s wife was ill and needed surgery. My friend was terrified, as his wife of 30 years had never been sick. He began bargaining with God. He promised God that if she came through the surgery and recovered, he would give up cigarettes. He quit cold turkey right then and there. She recovered quickly after the surgery and returned to excellent health.
In the Gospel today Jesus tells a parable, followed by several sayings, to convey how extraordinarily loving and gracious God is and how much God wants to shower us with what is good. We don’t have to try to convince God to be generous toward us—that is the very thing God wants to do!
Jesus tells a parable about a person who has a special need late at night, after a guest arrives unexpectedly. He goes to his neighbor to ask for bread to serve to the guest. Even though the neighbor and his family are sound asleep, surely he will respond. In the very unlikely case that the neighbor’s care for his friend falters, his sensitivity to the shame that failure to respond would bring on his own household would propel him to open the door and supply the bread. The motive ascribed to the friend making the request (anaideia, verse 8) is often rendered “persistence.” But the Greek word is more accurately translated “shamelessness.”
The sense is that the sleeping friend responds to the request for bread to avoid having shame come upon his household and the village, who all share responsibility for hospitality to the guest. The opening line of the parable asks a rhetorical question that sets up the expected response: It is completely unthinkable that a friend would act shamefully by denying a friend in need. A friend would most certainly give what is asked and more. The point of the parable is that God’s response to us when we are needy is like that of the generously giving friend. The translation “persistence” originates from the Latin versions from the fifth century onward that inaccurately rendered anaideia as importunitatem.
The sayings that follow the parable reinforce its meaning, elaborating that God stands ready and eager to open the door to whoever knocks and to give whatever we ask, just as parents desire to give good gifts to their children.
The Gospel challenges the idea that God sends suffering to test or challenge or strengthen us and insists that God desires only good for us. We do not have to badger God or bargain with God to give us good things.
A careful reading of today’s first Scripture passage, from Genesis, also reveals God’s desire for the well-being of all, not a desire to punish from which God must be dissuaded. The text begins with God going to investigate whether the outcry against the people of Sodom and Gomorrah is warranted. The answer to that question is never given in the text. Instead, Abraham begins to bargain with God, taking it for granted that God has made a judgment to sweep away all those who are presumed guilty. Over and over God’s response is, “I will not destroy.”
In the opening lines of the Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, showing them how to begin by centering on God’s holiness, God’s realm and God’s bountiful gifts of daily food and forgiveness. By accepting these unearned and abundant gifts, disciples are transformed into people who are increasingly giving and forgiving, like God. The persistence needed is not to keep imploring God so as to change God’s mind, but to keep on faithfully praying so as to be changed into an icon of the divine generosity.