By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
A fascinating narrative sequence sets up Luke’s version of “the Lord’s prayer” (11.1-4). Chapter 10 began with the commissioning of the Seventy as laborers in the harvest, seeing cities and houses of “peace” that will provide them hospitality. It continues with Jesus’ powerful condemnation of cities that refuse hospitality. After this, when the Seventy return joyously celebrating their power over demons, Jesus responds with an apocalyptic image of Satan’s fall from heaven and his own rejoicing over the revealing of God’s Way to the “simple” (Gk, nepioi) while it remains hidden from the intellectual elite. Next we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s attempt to justify himself. Finally, we have the story of Mary and Martha, from which the Lord’s prayer follows immediately.
Why might Luke place this key passage here? A clue lies in Luke’s unique follow-up to the prayer, in the story of the visitor at midnight in this week’s lectionary text (11.5-13). At the heart of both the prayer and the parable is the question of the character of the God whose reign Jesus has called disciples to proclaim and to embody.
The Lord’s prayer itself is a powerfully subversive set of assertions, as many have written, none more clearly and wisely than our friend Bob Ekblad in his book, A New Christian Manifesto: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God (see http://www.bobekblad.com/a-new-christian-manifesto-pledging-allegiance-to-the-kingdom-of-god/). What we want to focus on here is how the parable fills in the other half of “the better part” chosen by Mary in the immediately preceding verse. If Mary as a disciple was praised for sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his Word, now all the disciples are counseled to have a two-way conversation with God.
In the Roman world of Luke’s audience, “prayer” meant a set of rote rituals and words recited to placate the will of arbitrary and capricious deities. Unfortunately, it seems that many Christians have inherited this Roman sense of prayer, imagining that it is the words themselves that are important. At the opposite end of the prayer spectrum is today’s incredibly popular “prosperity gospel,” wherein people are counseled to “ask” for wealth and success in a capitalist world. Neither of these approaches is faithful to Jesus’ message in this week’s text.
In the place of these options, Jesus’ presents a story of nighttime village hospitality, picking up the themes from earlier in Luke 10. One of the biggest barriers to understanding what Jesus is getting at here is the terrible translation in 11.8 found in the NRSV of the Greek anaideia as “persistence.” This rendering suggests that God must be pestered into listening to us, and then only does so grudgingly. That is plainly not the God that Jesus is inviting disciples to engage!
The New International Version has it right as “shameless audacity.” In an honor/shame culture such as the ancient Mediterranean, “shame” was generally seen as a positive quality when possessed by women. That is, to have “shame” meant knowing one’s place: when to speak, and when to be quietly in the background. Luke’s Gospel is, thanks be to God, full of women who don’t have such shame, such as the woman of the city in 7.36-50. Thus, to be “shameless” is to risk one’s reputation by speaking up in an “inappropriate” setting. Luke’s Jesus tells us—regardless of gender identity—to embody such “shamelessness” in approaching God. In other words, the male disciples are called to act like “shameless” women in imploring God for what they need.
This God is not one who has a “secret plan” for our lives that must be ferreted out. God has not determined in advance exactly what each person’s life should be. Rather, Jesus calls us to engage God in discerning what our lives of faithfulness should look like in the specific situations in which we find ourselves. What we hear in Jesus’ follow-up to the parable is his assurance that God wants only good for us, just as a parent does for their child. God is eager to offer us exactly what we need: the presence of the Holy Spirit who accompanies and guides us as we walk the Way amid the “snakes” and “scorpions” of empire (cf. 10.19, 11.11-12). As the householder in the parable will respond with bread to the request of the shameless neighbor, how much more will the Creator God, the God of Jubilee, respond to our own yearnings for the gifts that make life joyous and abundant for all?
How might this passage speak to the situation of violence against our black siblings in a political climate of unabashed racism? Many black writers have sharply criticized the online flurry of “praying for you” messages as inadequate and even misguided. Clearly, God does not intervene to magically “fix” our social ills. If our prayer simply asks that God “do something,” it is indeed less than helpful to the cause of racial justice. But our text calls for disciples to ask, search for and seek what we truly need for there to be shalom among people and throughout creation. In this case, we suggest that our prayer not ask what God will do, but ask, search for and seek clarity from the Holy Spirit on what we can and must do. The narrative placement of our passage already suggests the answer: to be radically hospitable to all those marginalized or rejected by empire. We, of course, cannot say what that looks like in your social location, any more than you can for ours. But we are called in our local communities to ask, search for and seek out divinely-inspired responses to the cries of our black siblings for the justice of full inclusion and welcome.
We look to the difficult but fruitful work of folks in Detroit as an inspiring example. Standing with those whose water has been cut off by the City, with those black people seeking living wage employment, with those seeking dignified housing, have been many white disciples whose prayer has led them to this place. The pages of this website provide numerous specific stories of the fruitfulness of this engagement; for example, see https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2014/08/03/111/.
The God revealed in this passage is not a distant and unapproachable monarch, nor a petulant or unpredictable god of empire. Neither is God a Santa Claus who grants our wishes. Rather, our God yearns for us to be in loving and mutual relationship with God as we seek to be with one another and with all of creation. May we all seek to approach God shamelessly, trusting that God is eager to hear from us and ready to respond in ways that provide us with all that we truly need and long for.
 The New American Bible shares in this mistake.