Formations 05.19.2024: How Much More

William Holman Hunt, The Importunate Neighbor, 1895

Luke 11:5-13

This week’s text is one of those where an understanding of ancient culture sheds great light—while at the same time destroying a mountain of good, traditional preaching!

Jesus tells a parable about asking God for something in prayer. The setup is clear. A man finds himself in a bind when a friend shows up at midnight, hungry from the day’s journey. So this man goes to his neighbor for help. The neighbor rebuffs him but then turns around and helps him anyway.

Unfortunately, our English translations can lead us to misunderstand Jesus’s message. It does so at two points. First, the NRSVue and many other translations say that he will give to his neighbor because of his “persistence” (v. 8). To be sure, Jesus tells other parables where the point is to be persistent in prayer. The parable of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8 springs quickly to mind. Persistent prayer is a good thing.

But here? Here, Luke doesn’t use the normal Greek word for “persistence.” Rather, he uses a word that always carries a negative connotation. That’s why other English Bibles translate it as “brashness” (CEB), “shamelessness” (Darby), or “importunity” (KJV). Whatever this man did, it is not a good thing.

Furthermore, which man are we even talking about? The word “his” (v. 8) is ambiguous. Does it refer to the first man, the one who suddenly has a guest to feed, or to the second man, the one trying to sleep? Whose “brashness,” “shamelessness,” or “importunity” is at issue?

In short, is this a story about the neighbor who constantly knocks on the door or about the sleeper who sends him away? It seems to me that only one of these characters has acted dishonorably—and then quickly backpedaled to correct the situation.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s empowering presence in the lives of believers. And that is the ultimate point of Jesus’s parable: “If you, then, 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!” (v. 13).

The rabbis of Jesus’s day often framed their arguments in terms of “how much more.” If this is true, then how much more must that be true? If miscreants like you and me can swallow our pride and do the right thing to preserve our own reputation, then how much more will God do right simply because God keeps divine promises?


• What makes the Holy Spirit such a good gift?
• What is involved in receiving this gift?
• Is the Spirit a gift we receive only once or a gift we can (and should) ask for and receive many times? Explain.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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