Importuning the God of Resurrection

And he said to them, “Among you, what man would have a friend, and would come to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, Since a friend of mine has just visited me from the road and I have nothing I might set before him,’ And the one inside would say in response, ‘Do not present me with difficulties; the door has already been closed, and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even if he will not rise and give it to him because he is his friend, still on account of his persistence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone asking receives, and the one seeking finds, and to the one knocking it will be opened. And what father among you, if his son will ask for a fish, will hand him a snake instead of a fish? Or, again, if he will ask for an egg, will instead hand him a scorpion? If therefore you, being wicked, know to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father from heaven give a Holy Spirit to those asking him.” (Luke 11:5-13)

When I preached the Parable of the Importunate Neighbor in my parishes, I always focused on the dual theme of persistence in prayer and God’s willingness to give us good gifts. It seems pretty obvious, that’s what the commentaries tell us, and I couldn’t think of any better interpretation. But Capon is not persuaded that this is the best reading. “I have nothing against urging persistence in prayer,” he remarks; “but I do think that holding it up as the main point of this particular parable gives, if not a charley horse, then at least an Indian burn to the arm of Scripture” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 224). He invites us to read the parable through the lens of death and resurrection:

Jesus asks the disciples to suppose that they have a friend who is home in bed at midnight. Note what that means. He has them posit, as the figure of God the Father in this parable, a person who is deep in the experience of the nearest ordinary sacrament of death available to living people, namely, the daily expiration of falling asleep—that radically uncontrollable, lost state in which all reasonable responses to life are suspended. Next, he invites them to imagine that they break in upon that parabolic death of God with a veri­table battering ram of reasonable requests. He gives them a whole rigama­role of plausible arguments with which to persuade their dead friend to rise. They need three loaves; they need them so they can feed a ravenously hungry guest; and they could not have come any sooner because their guest has only just now arrived. They would, of course, have raided their own pantry, but alas, this was not their day to go food shopping and they are fresh out of everything. The sleeper is their only hope.

Astonishingly, though, Jesus has the surrogate for God give them the cold shoulder. The sleeper’s first response is a not-really-awake “don’t bother me,” followed by a more organized list of reasons for them to get lost: “The door is already locked, my children are with me in the bed, and I can’t get up to give you anything” (Luke 11:7). (pp. 222-223)

Capon knows that we will probably find absurd this idea of a sleeping (i.e., dead) God, but he points us to the hidden resurrection language present in the parable: “I cannot get up [anas­tas] and give you anything,” “even if he will not rise [anastas],” “he will rise” [eger­theis: “rouse himself]. These words derive from the root words anastenai and egeirein—both of which are used in the New Testament to refer to resurrection. This appeal to ety­mol­ogy seems pretty thin to me, but Capon loves to play with Scripture in this way (maybe Origen was one of his instructors in seminary), so let’s play along.

This parable tells us, therefore, that it is out of death, not out of life, that God rises to answer our prayers. And note well that he rises not in response to the reasonableness (or the moral uprightness) of our requests but for no good reason other than to raise the rest of the dead. (p. 223)

“Out of death God rises to answer our prayers”—I find this image wonderfully evocative. Call it allegorical, theological or imaginative exegesis, but it represents a serious attempt to read the whole of Scripture through the hermeneutical lens of the Crucified.

Capon is skeptical for a couple of reasons of the persistence in prayer interpretation. First because it seems to conflict with the Lord’s clear teaching on prayer in the Gospel of Matthew:

And when praying do not babble repetitious phrases as the gentiles do; for they imagine that they will be listened to by virtue of their prolixity. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt 6:7-8)

In our parable the very reasonable reasons and justifications offered by the importunate friend are met with a peremptory “I’m dead; go away.” Are we to suppose that Jesus is teaching us that “God will rise to our help simply because we go on repeating the same arguments” (p. 224)? When put that way, it sounds a bit silly. Jesus knows that his Father is not one with whom we need to bargain, cajole, pester or importune. He does not need to be nagged into loving us—he has loved us in his Word before the foundation of the world. He does not need to be informed of the desires of our hearts—he knows them before we ask. Nor does he need to be badgered into responding to our petitions—in his mercy he always responds. Our Father’s desire for us, though, intends a good infinitely more important than our present and temporary happiness:

No, God rises from his death in Jesus not to satisfy our requests, reasonable or unreasonable, unexpressed or overexpressed, but to raise us from our own deaths. All we need to offer in order to share in the joy of his rising is the shameless, selfless admission that we are dead without him, and the faith to confess that we are also dead with him and in him. The whole parable, there­fore, is a conjugation of prayer according to the paradigm of death and resurrection—a footnote to the Lord’s Prayer, if you will, in which Jesus tells us that even the daily bread he taught us to pray for comes only out of death. (p. 224)

Why is it that God seems to say “no” to so many of our petitions? Is it really because we are not persistent enough, not faithful enough, not whatever enough? Is this the kind of God to whom Jesus bids us to pray with confidence and hope? Surely not. Our Father does not clock our praying. He does not wait to answer our prayers until we have impressed him with our persistence, tenacity, and ascetical expertise. He is certaining not waiting for us to “name it and claim it.” It’s past time to toss aside our pseudo-piety and to be honest, both with ourselves and with others, about the “success” rate of our petitions. The fact is, we Christians are not healthier, happier, or more prosperous than non-Christians. We aren’t even nicer people. Our persistent praying does not guarantee us miraculous healings or grant us privileged protection from pandemics, tornadoes, and psychopathic killers. As Capon remarks, “too many sincere, persistent prayers have simply gone unful­filled” (p. 225). Does this therefore mean that God does not care? Does it mean that we should not pray for our necessities, healing from disease, and mitigation of our sufferings? Surely not. We continue to pray because we trust our Savior and his revelation of his Father whom he has made our Father. In the end it is this trust—not our answered prayer success rate—that enables us to survive the disappointments and horrors of our lives.

Yet God does seem to say no to our petitions and intercessions fairly frequently, especially the important ones. As far as I know, Capon does not directly address this question, so I turn to Herbert McCabe—they strike me as kindred souls. We should not be embarrassed, insists McCabe, to come to our Father and present to him our needs and desires, no matter how commonplace and vulgar. He wants us to do precisely that:

We might, to start with, note that, when we pray, we should not be in too much of a hurry to think about God. We should think about ourselves and what we need. And we should present this before God. If you want to know why you should pray; the short answer is that God wants you to. And not because he craves for your attention and wants you to flatter him, but because he loves you and wants what is best for you and because praying is very good for you. Of course your prayer doesn’t do anything for God, still less could it change God. God is just totally and absolutely and uncondi­tion­ally in love with you and stays that way without a shadow of alteration. Prayer is good for us first of all because in prayer (I mean real prayer: asking for what we want) we understand more deeply that we are children of God and that he is our loving Father. And there is nothing selfish about that. It is normal human behaviour. What would you think of a child who never asked her parents for anything? What would her parents think of her? Would they think her to be unselfish? Or would they think her to be a dreadful little prig?1

But why does our Father not answer our prayers? Why isn’t every day Christmas? McCabe’s answer may surprise: “There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer; and God never gives us less than we ask.”2 We have all, I suspect, heard the platitude “God always answers our prayers and sometimes his answer is no.” This is only trivially true, for hidden within that apparent “no” is always the eschatological “yes.” The supreme good the good God wills for us transcends our contingent needs and desires. As Jesus declares, the Father desires to give the Holy Spirit to all who ask. “For it is precisely resurrection,” Capon writes, “that the Father and the Son have appointed as the principal gift of the Holy Spirit” (p. 226). Must we not therefore say that prayer for the Spirit underlies all our petitions to God, even if we do not understand that they ultimately resolve into prayer for the Spirit? Our Father wills to meet us in the death of his Son and by the Spirit raise us into his immortal Trinitarian life:

This Lukan passage on prayer, then, far from being a pious sop—far from being a promise of spiritual comfort to make up for an inveterate failure to deliver material gifts, whether in full, on time, or at all—this conclusion to the parable of the Friend at Midnight is nothing less than a proclamation of the heart of the Good News. We have died. We do not have to ask for death, or seek it, or work ourselves up to it. We have only to accept the death we already have, and in the clean emptiness of that death we will find the life that all along has been hid for us with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). We are safe, not because of the reasonableness or persistence of our prayers but because he lives in our death. Entombed together with him in baptism, we have already been raised up together in him through faith in the working of God who raised him from the dead (Col. 2:12). While we were dead in our tres­pas­ses, he made us alive together in Christ—by grace we are saved—and he raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:5, 6). And all of that now. Not just hereafter, and cer­tainly not just a week from some Tuesday. . . . We have a friend in our death; in the end, he meets us nowhere else. Prayer is the flogging of the only Dead Horse actually able to rise. (p. 226)

Every prayer is answered by Pascha.

 

Footnotes

[1] Herbert McCabe, God, Christ and Us, p. 104. Also see my article “Can We Cajole God?

[2] Ibid., p. 9.

(Go to “Parable of the Closed Door”)

This entry was posted in Bible, Robert Farrar Capon, Spirituality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Importuning the God of Resurrection

  1. This is BEAUTIFUL. And so relevant for me today. Thankyou.

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The passage doesn’t say “persistence” but “shamelessness” in Greek: persistence is a translation gloss, or perhaps bowlderisation. The point is not repeated requests waking him up because he won’t go away but the sheer fact of waking up his household in the middle of the night to ask. I am wondering if the point of the parable is the humiliation of having to beg from a neighbour to feed a guest – is it the evident seriousness and desperation (given how shameful the predicament is) that gets the neighbour out of bed, rather than having to yell repeatedly so the neighbour won’t get any sleep until he does?
    The remaining short sayings are not about getting what one asks for, but not being punished for asking.
    Is the message not “keep nagging until you get it” but “don’t be too afraid or ashamed to ask”?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nice observation, Ian. Capon touches on shamelessness in this passage:

      Look at the way Jesus actually puts it (Luke 11:8): “I tell you, even if he will not get up [anastas] and give you the bread because he is your friend, yet on account of your shamelessness [anaideian] he will rise [egertheis] and give you as much as you need.” What is this shamelessness but death to self? People who lead reasonable, respectable lives – who are preoccupied first and foremost with the endless struggle to think well of themselves – do not obtrude upon their friends’ privacy at midnight. And why don’t they? Because that would display them as thoughtless beggars and make them look bad. But if someone were dead to all that – if he could come to his friend’s house with nothing more than the confession that he was a total loss as a host (or anything else) – then precisely because of his shamelessness, his total lack of a selfregarding life, he would be raised out of that death by his rising friend.

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      • Calvin says:

        That makes no sense. A person with “a total lack of a self regarding life” wouldn’t care about having a guest at all. Nor would a similarly benighted guest care about being fed – it is only his self regard that makes him view his hunger as something worthy of being assuaged. Moreover he would have no reason to show up asking for anything nor any reason to expect that anyone else would give it.

        Frankly, the more I hear about Capon the more profoundly creeped out I get. He sounds almost antihuman in his desire to relate absolutely everything to killing yourself. If the starting point of our faith is not that life is good, absolutely, and death is quite simply bad, an enemy to be overcome, then what is it?

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          The householder has abandoned his own self respect and self regard, and humbled himself in front of his friend through the absolute need to care for his guest who has come to him needing feeding.

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          • Calvin says:

            Untrue. The householder would not care about feeding the guest unless he first wanted to be the sort of person who feeds his guests, no matter how inopportune. Further, the guest would not want to be fed unless he were the sort of person who regards his own need for food as legitimate and worth imposing on some other guy in the wee hours of the morning. So neither has.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Calvin, does the Apostle Paul creep you out, too?

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          • Calvin says:

            Yes. More especially when he seems to loathe incarnate existence, and more existentially when he seems to write under the impression that the end of the world is right around the corner. Sometimes I wonder if all I’m reading are the failed predictions of a Jewish apocalyptist two thousand years dead.

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          “Self regard” in this case is referring to regard for one’s pride, status, dignity and loss of face, and any desire to place oneself before one’s neighbour, not some kind of suicidal nihilistic despair. I am not sure you if you are reading what is written or what you want it to say for the purposes of arguing against it.

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        • GC says:

          Hi Calvin, I think this article by David Armstrong on The Green Knight might be useful in understanding what Capon might be meaning by “death”. In case, I would be interested in some of your thoughts about it.
          https://popularcultureandtheology.com/2021/09/20/die-before-you-die-the-mystery-of-christ-in-sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/?fbclid=IwAR1iQ9znz01jPKlrYL2OeJbYdXgqNUu_V8LlNpA6mk6NSF-5uqb8ylFE3xE

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          • Calvin says:

            I read the article, including the bit at the end regarding Gawain’s decision to get beheaded now by the Green Knight as opposed to later, running from his destiny, and find myself unconvinced. A person who had undergone a true “ego death” would be completely apathetic towards either outcome, because he fundamentally would not value himself or his opinions on anything else in the slightest way. He would not care about dying, nor about the prospect of being raised, and indeed would be completely impossible to motivate to any kind of action whatsoever. The ideal ego dead person would sit motionlessly in place until he died, caring nothing for his own fate nor that of his kingdom to be.

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          • GC says:

            I see, but I think that the death he is talking about there is more similar to a process of destruction that is at the same time a process of purification. What I mean by this is that type of process that a person with addiction might have to undergo in order to live better. Imagine someone that is addicted to nicotine, that has been so for quite many years and that because of many different reasons (the culture he grew in, the movies he watched, etc.) came to associate smokers to strong and cool people and non-smokers with “uncool” people such that many of the times he feels blue smoking a cigarette in the right conditions will give him a boost of confidence that he enormously enjoys to feel. Part of what it would mean for that person to quit smoking will be to destroy that image he has of cool smokers and that image he has of himself (call it his self-image) of being a smoker, and so of being a cool person and not an “uncool” person (otherwise he keeos thinking that every non-smoker is necessarily a person with a miserable life, he probably will not persist in his attempt to quit). In order to quit smoking he will have to become a different person. And it seems to me that the process of becoming a different and healthier person implies a process of destruction of the person he was and of the self-image he had of himself (to which, one might say, he was enslaved). I am not 100% sure but I think that what people in this tradition mean by the “ego death” is a process of destruction of the latter kind. What they take to be an ego is not what many pyschologists take it to be, but for them an ego is a contingent “accrual” of a whole of mental and physical dispositions (as it is the case for the mental and physical dispositions that underlie the smoker’s disposition to smoke, for, if he had not smoked for many years, he would not have been disposed to smoke, say, 15 cigarettes a day as, say, he is actually disposed to). But notice that if the smoker quits smoking it will not be the person that smokes that will be destroyed, but only the “ego” that that person embodied at that time, that self-image that person willingly or unwillingly found himself to embody at that time. For some further suggestions look at the last paragraphs of Justin Shaun Coyle’s article here on this blog. Hope this might have been somewhat helpful

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  3. Beth Freeman says:

    “Out of death God rises to answer our prayers” is still echoing in my heart! Thank you for sharing this.

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