Article Information

Ernest van Eck1

1Department of New Testament Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa

This contribution is dedicated to Andries van Aarde – my Doktorvater, friend since 1985, and current ‘neighbour’ at the Faculty of Theology (University of Pretoria). In all of these years he has been an example of what general reciprocity entails, and a0nai/deian was never experienced. As such, he exemplifies God’s generosity and goodness.

Correspondence to:
Ernest van Eck


Postal address:
TPS 15, Box 12320, Hatfield 0028, South Africa

Received: 26 Jan. 2010
Accepted: 14 Apr. 2010
Published: 07 June 2011

How to cite this article:
Van Eck, E., 2011, ‘When neighbours are not neighbours: A social-scientific reading of the parable of the friend at midnight (Lk 11:5–8)’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 67(1), Art. #788, 14 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v67i1.788

Copyright Notice:
© 2011. The Authors. Licensee: OpenJournals Publishing. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

ISSN: 0259-9422 (print)
ISSN: 2072-8050 (online)
When neighbours are not neighbours: A social-scientific reading of the parable of the friend at midnight (Lk 11:5–8)
In This Original Research...
Open Access
Introductory remarks
History of interpretation
Integrity and authenticity
   • Where does the parable end?
   • The authenticity of Luke 11:5–8
A social-scientific interpretation of Luke 11:5–8
   • Interpretations of the parable employing aspects of a social-scientific reading
   • Luke 11:5–8: A social-scientific reading
      • An emic reading of the parable
      • Etics
      • Reading the parable
      • A parable of Jesus?

This article presents a social-scientific interpretation of the parable of the friend at midnight. As starting point, attention is given to the history of the interpretation of the parable, as well as to its integrity and authenticity. A social-scientific reading of the parable is then presented. The parable is read against the socio-economic and political backdrop of first-century Palestine village life in which friendship, hospitality, limited good and reciprocity played an important role. The interpretation of the parable hinges on the understanding of a0nai/deian [shamelessness] Luke 11:8. Therefore, special attention is given to honour as a pivotal value in first-century Palestine. The parable tells the story of an alternative world, a world wherein neighbours are kin and practice general reciprocity. The gist of the parable is that when neighbours do not act as neighbours, then nothing of God’s kingdom becomes visible.

Introductory remarks

The history of the interpretation of the parable at midnight (Lk 11:5–8) shows that most scholars read the parable in terms of its literary context in Luke 11:1–13, concluding that he parable should be understood as a teaching of Jesus on prayer. When one reads the parable in its literary context, one can hardly come to a different conclusion. This is, however, also the case with many interpreters who consider the literary context of the parable as secondary and interpret it as an independent tradition. This clearly shows the extent to which the literary context of the parable has influenced its interpretation. Another common feature of most interpretations is that the neighbour is seen as a metaphor for God. This reading has led many interpreters to assert that the difficult a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 refers to the shamelessness of the host. In what follows it is argued that the parable, when read within the cultural and historical context of the historical Jesus (first-century Palestine), has nothing to do with prayer; that the neighbour in the parable does not serve as a reference to God and that a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 refers in a negative manner to the neighbour of the parable (and not the host).

In the reading of the parable it is argued that its literary context in Luke is secondary and that the integrity of the parable should be delimited to Luke 11:5–8. After an emic reading of the parable is presented it is indicated that, from an etical perspective, the parable evokes several cultural values that were part and parcel of the first-century Mediterranean world – namely, honour and shame, hospitality, friendship, reciprocity, patronage and clientism, limited good, and first-century village life (or the relationship between city and village). These cultural values are described and then the literary use of a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 is traced in the available literary evidence.

A social-scientific reading of the parable is then presented. It is finally argued that the parable, although only attested in Luke, most probably goes back to the earliest Jesus-tradition.

History of interpretation

The earliest interpretations we have of the parable of the friend at midnight (Lk 11:5–8) are allegorical interpretations,1 which were typical of parable interpretation up to the famous work of Jlicher at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Bruce (1886), one of the earliest parable scholars to break with the allegorical interpretation, understood the parable to be didactic in character, teaching perseverance in prayer. This interpretation of Bruce in a certain sense opened up the way for most scholars who have interpreted the parable in terms of its literary context in Luke 11:1–13: sandwiched between Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Lk 11:1–4) and three short ‘ask-receive’ sayings that relate to prayer (Lk 11:9–13), the parable – according to most scholars – focuses on the result of persistent asking (praying). Also, since the same topic is to be found in the parable of the unjust judge (Lk 18:1–8), these two parables have often been viewed as parallel parables (or ‘twins’) in Luke2, and have therefore been read together (see, e.g. Boice 1983:157–166; Buttrick 2000:185–187; Donahue 1988:185–187; Fitzmyer 1985:910; Hendrickx 1986:215–233; Jeremias 1970:159 3; Schottroff 2006:188–194; Snodgrass 2008:440 4). The interpretation of the parable in terms of its micro and macro context has thus clearly influenced the understanding thereof.5 This fact becomes even clearer when one looks at the history of the parable’s interpretation – a majority of interpreters understand the parable as a teaching of Jesus on prayer.6 A few examples: the parable teaches that one can speak freely with God who, as a perfect friend, will always supply in all our needs (Buttrick 2000:187; Manson 1949:267; Mertz 2007:561–562); ‘the believer can pray with confidence and assurance’ (Forbes 2000:79); persistent inconvenience is sometimes necessary to motivate a neighbour, but not needed when something is asked from God (Hendrickx 1986:218; Perkins 1981:185); the shameless boldness of the man at the door is an example of how Christians can ask God for the Holy Spirit (Donahue 1988:185); God responds to persistent prayers and his children should therefore be encouraged to pray unrelentingly and persistently – even though it may seem impertinent – as God will respond (Hultgren 2000:232–233; Boucher 1981:114); God wants us to be unrelentingly persistent in our prayers (Kistemaker 1980:148–150; Stiller 2005:92); the parable encourages perseverance in praying – and indirectly also encourages boldness in praying – because God, who is not like the sleeper, hears prayers and responds7 (Snodgrass 2008:437, 447–448; see also Boice 1983:157–165; Groenewald 1973:104–110); the parable teaches that one should practice bold and unabashed forthrightness in prayer (Blomberg 1990:276); and also that God is the householder and is more willing to give then we are to receive when we pray perseveringly (Lockyer 1963:266).

Schottroff (2006:189), who reads the parable from an eschatological perspective, also comes to more or less the same conclusion: the subject of the parable is prayer and the gift of God is the gift of the Holy Spirit, for if a friend and neighbour (who is quite annoyed by a midnight visit) will give bread, how much more will God hear your prayers.8

A minority of scholars, who also focus on the parable in its literary setting, have come to different conclusions regarding the meaning of the parable (e.g. Capon 1988:68–83 9; Fleddermann 2005:28; Hunter 1960:128; Jngel 1962:169–172). Fleddermann, for example, proposes that the parable should be read as a parallel to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25–37) as both parables teach that one is always obliged to respond to human need – like the host – even if it means violating all social norms (Fleddermann 2005:281). According to Hunter (1960:128), the parable teaches us to count the cost and to sacrifice everything for God’s cause, so the parable is not only about the willingness to hear Jesus’ teaching, but also the willingness to practice it. Jngel (1962:169–172), in his turn, reads the parable as a challenge to its hearers to discern the nature of the kingdom of God by participating in its reality (like the neighbour did).10

Scholars that read the parable independent from its context in Luke have come to more diverse conclusions regarding the meaning of the parable. According to Bultmann (1963:174–175), the original meaning of the parable is irrecoverable, but that (most probably) the general intent of Jesus was an exhortation to prayer for the coming of God’s reign. Dodd (1961:19) – in his typical eschatological reading of the parables – sees the parable as a parable of crisis that depicts the correct response to a sudden crisis of need, thus clearly relating it to the Parousia. Cadoux (1930:155) reads the parable against the background of the charges leveled against Jesus – that he was dividing the nation by incorporating the Gentiles into the kingdom of God. The parable should then be understood in relation to Jesus’ efforts to restore the right use of the court of the Gentiles and as such the parable is related to Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Jeremias (1970:158), who sees the context of the parable in Luke 11:1–13 as secondary, links the original meaning of the parable to the customs of hospitality in first-century Palestine – just as unthinkable as it is that a Palestinian peasant, who knows exactly what accepted hospitality in a village entails, would not help his neighbour who is in dire straits, even more so with God. Thus the disciples can know that in the tribulation that is to come, God will not ignore their needs. As such, the parable is not concerned with the shamelessness of the host, but ‘with the certainty that the petition will be granted’ (Jeremias 1970:159).11 Crossan (1973:83–84), finally, sees the parable as a parable of action: the advent of the kingdom demands an adequate and definitive response, even if this means also accepting the bothersome inevitability of what must done. However, the ‘what must be done’ is not spelled out by Crossan.

From the above, it is thus clear that most scholars see the parable as a teaching of Jesus on prayer. When one reads the parable in its literary context, one can hardly come to a different conclusion. But this conclusion is, however, not only to be found here, as many interpreters – who consider the literary context of the parable as secondary and interpret it as an independent tradition – also seem to reach this conclusion, showing the extent to which – since the interpretation of Bugge – the literary context of the parable has (subconsciously) influenced its interpretation. Another common feature of most interpretations is that the neighbour is seen as a metaphor for God. This reading, again, has lead to many interpreters’ assertion that the difficult a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 refers to the shamelessness of the host.

In what follows, it will be argued that the parable, when read within the cultural and historical context of the historical Jesus (first-century Palestine), has nothing to do with prayer, that the neighbour in the parable does not serve as a reference to God and that a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 refers in a negative manner to the neighbour. The interest of this reading is thus not Luke’s application of the parable, but what Jesus most probably wanted to convey when he told the parable.

Integrity and authenticity

Where does the parable end?
In terms of the macro narrative of Luke, the parable of the friend at midnight is part of Luke’s travel narrative (Lk 9:51–19:27) – a Lukan creation – in which Jesus instructs his disciples on a variety of topics. Its more immediate context is Luke 11:1–13 (also a Lukan creation). Luke has sandwiched the parable between his version of the Lord’s Prayer (Lk 11:1–4) and three short ‘ask-receive’ sayings (Lk 11:9–13) – with persistent prayer as topic – a typical Lukan theme12 (see e.g. Fitzmyer 1985:910). The parable in Luke 11:5–8 is linked to the Lord’s Prayer (Lk 11:1–4) by the request for bread that is present in both the Lord’s Prayer and the parable. The three sayings in Luke 11:9–13 that follow directly after the parable are linked to (and elaborate on) Luke 11:5–11: the first saying (Lk 11:9–10) elaborates on the theme of persistence in prayer, the second saying (Lk 11:11–12) repeats the form of the parable and the third saying draws the conclusion implied by the two sayings preceding it (Herzog 1988:196–197). Put differently, the three sayings in Luke 11:9–13 (taken from Q) stress the need for ‘asking’ and ‘knocking’, a recollection of the action of the host in the parable in Luke 11:5–8 (Donahue 1988:186).

That Luke 11:1–13 is a Lukan creation also becomes clear when compared to Matthew. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer (Lk 11:2–4) follows a request directed at Jesus by one of the disciples to teach them how to pray. In Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9–13) is part of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon of the Mount and is therefore not introduced by a request to teach the disciples to pray. Luke 11:9–13 (as Herzog has indicated), is linked to the parable, elaborating on it. In Matthew, the saying in Luke 11:9–13 is found in Matthew 7:7–12 (close to the end of the Sermon on the Mount) – where Jesus teaches on a variety of topics such as: the judging of others (Mt 7:1–6), the narrow and wide gates (Mt 7:13–14), a tree and its fruit (Mt 7:15–23) and the parable of the wise and foolish builders (Mt 7:24–27). In Luke 11:9–13, the emphasis is on asking for the Spirit; in Matthew 7:7–12 the saying cluster is ended by a call of Jesus relating to the greatest commandment. Clearly, therefore, as is often the case, Matthew and Luke have used Q (in this case Q 11:9–13) in a way that suits their respective narrative strategies and theology. Moreover, since Q 11:9–13, as well as the Lord’s Prayer (Q 11:2–4), are both attested to as individual sayings, it is clear that Luke 11:1–13 is a Lukan construction and that the parable in Luke 11:5–8 is either a Lukan construct13 or a separate tradition stemming from Jesus taken up by Luke and incorporated into Luke 11:1–13 (as part of a teaching on prayer).

Scholars differ with regards to the integrity of the parable. Some scholars treat Luke 11:5–13 as a unit with Luke 11:9–13 as the application of the parable.14 The majority of scholars interpret the parable as consisting of Luke 11:5–8, some in its literary context,15 others as a separate tradition.16 Interestingly, the majority of this latter group of scholars – who see the context of the parable in Luke 11:1–13 as secondary – also link the meaning of the parable to some or other aspect of prayer. The reading of the parable that is to follow delimits the integrity of the parable to Luke 11:5–8.

The authenticity of Luke 11:5–8
Does Luke 11:5–8 go back to Jesus, or is it a creation of Luke or Q? No scholar sees the parable as a Lukan creation and in the history of the parable’s interpretation it only seems to be Fleddermann (2005:265–282) that sees the parable as a Q construct. Most scholars interpret the parable in its Lukan context as a parable of Jesus, accepting with it (subconsciously perhaps) the fact that the contextual fit of the parable in Luke 11:1–13 predetermines its meaning.

Scholars that consciously interpret the parable as an authentic Jesus-tradition apart from its secondary context in Luke are: Bultmann (1963:175), Cadoux (1930:155), Dodd (1961:19), Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar (1993:327–328), Herzog (1994:194–214), Jeremias (1970:158–159) and Scott (1989:88–91). All of these scholars agree that the parable most probably originated with Jesus and some are of the opinion that the parable’s meaning has been obscured by Luke’s contextualisation.

Since the parable is only attested to in Luke, the criteria of early, multiple and independent attestation cannot be employed when identifying the parable as stemming from Jesus or not. The criterion of coherence will therefore have to play a major role in the decision-making process. To apply this criterion in a responsible way, the first task will be to read the parable in the cultural and historical context of the historical Jesus. The meaning of the parable that evolves from this reading will then have to be compared with the values of Jesus that can be indicated in sayings that do pass the criteria of early, multiple, and independent attestation (see Van Eck 2009:3–4). This will be done further on.

A social-scientific interpretation of Luke 11:5–8

Interpretations of the parable employing aspects of a social-scientific reading
Only a few scholars thus far have attempted a reading of the parable using the social-scientific approach. These scholars place the parable in the context of rural village life and focus on the cultural codes of honour and shame, and hospitality and friendship, in the first-century Mediterranean world.

Scott (1989:89–91) sees the parable as a story of reversal – a0nai/deian refers to the neighbour, meaning shamelessness. The neighbour does not act out of friendship (honour), but out of shamelessness. Because he has a proper sense of shame, he acts in a way that will not bring shame on him and his family. As such, the parable serves as a model for envisioning the kingdom of God (see also Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:273). Hertzog, following Scott, interprets the parable as an example of ‘the moral economy of the peasant’, which ‘Jesus identified as one place where the values of the reign of God could be found’ (Hertzog 1994:194). Jesus, as a pedagogue of the oppressed, used parables as subversive speech to undermine the social structures that exploited and oppressed the peasantry. In the parable, a0nai/deian is the element that subverts the first-century Palestinian cultural value of friendship. Friendship, in the time of Jesus, had become entangled in a web of patron–client relationships. The peasants in the villages, in defiance of the values of the elite, embraced a0nai/deian by extending hospitality even to strangers (because it was the honourable thing to do). The sleeping neighbour is not motivated by the social value of friendship, but by his a0nai/deian. He acts honourably because he does not want to shame himself, his family and his village (Herzog 1994:209). But by doing this, the sleeping neighbour, engaged in a limited act that challenged the efforts of their oppressors to dehumanise them and reduce them to creatures whose lives were obsessed by the desire to just survive. As such, the peasants ‘participated in a “shameless” social order where their small, but continual, redistributions of wealth and food foreshadowed a different order for human relations – one molded by justice and mutual reciprocity’ (Herzog 1994:214). Bailey (1976:128–133) reads the parable in terms of the honour–shame culture of the first-century Mediterranean world. Just as the sleeper will respond to avoid shame (or escape disgrace), so much more will God (see also Nolland 1993:624–627). The sleeper is a man of integrity and therefore gives the petitioner more than he needs (Bailey 1976:133). The parable teaches ‘that God is a God of honour and that man can have complete assurance that his prayers will be answered’ (Bailey 1983:119).

Luke 11:5–8: A social-scientific reading

An emic reading of the parable
The parable is a story about a peasant villager who, in the middle of the night (mesonukti/ou; Lk 11:5), receives a visitor (fi/lov; Lk 11:6) that was travelling through the village. Because he had nothing to offer his visitor to eat (Lk 11:6), he goes to one of his neighbours (fi/lon, fi/le; Lk 11:5) and asks him for bread (in order to be able to serve his guest a meal). The neighbour, who is in bed with his children, at first does not want to be bothered (mh/ moi ko/pouv pa/rexe Lk 11:7) and makes some excuses as to why he cannot get up and help the man at his door (fi/lov; Lk 11:8). Eventually, however, he gets up and gives the petitioner or host whatever (as much as) he needs (o#swn xrh#|zei; Lk 11:8). The story ends by stating the reason for the neighbour’s change of mind: he gives the host what he needs not because he is his friend (fi/lon; Lk 11:5), but because of his a0nai/deian (Lk 11:8).

The story of the parable is short and clear, except for one aspect. To whose attitude does a0nai/deian refer: to the host’s or the neighbour’s? Also, what, precisely, is the attitude being described with a0nai/deian?

From an etical perspective, the parable – as a high-context text17 – evokes several cultural values that were part and parcel of the first-century Mediterranean world – honour and shame, hospitality, friendship, reciprocity, patronage and clientism, limited good, and first-century village life (or the relationship between city and village). This will now be discussed. An analysis of the possible meaning of a0nai/deian is also given.

Honour and shame: In the first-century Mediterranean world, the pivotal social value was honour. Concern for one’s honour permeated every aspect of public life. Honour was the fundamental value: it formed the core and the heart of every aspect of society (Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:369). Simply put, honour refers to the positive value of a person in his own eyes, as well as to the positive appreciation of that person in the eyes of his own social group (i.e. the process of claim and acknowledgement). Honour is thus linked to ‘saving face’, and to ‘respect’ (Malina & Neyrey 1991:25–46; see also Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:369–372; Neyrey 2004:261) and also indicated a person’s social standing and status – as long as a person acted in the way that was expected of him or her, such as person was seen as honourable. A host, for example, was expected to treat a guest in a prescribed way. When these ‘rules’ were followed and adhered to, the host was seen (by the guest and his social group) as an honourable person. It was thus all about playing the role one was given.

Shame, on the other hand, could be either negative or positive – when someone did not adhere to the rules and expectations of one’s group (e.g. family or village), such a person was shamed (dishonoured, the state of publicly known loss of honour), because he or she did not act in the way that was expected. Positive shame meant ‘to have shame’, that is, to have the proper concern about one’s honour (i.e. the ‘sensitivity to one’s own reputation [honour] or the reputation of one’s family’ [Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:371]). This sensitivity to the opinion of others was a highly desirable quality. Someone who lacked this sensitivity and therefore did not mind acting in ways that he or she knew would be unacceptable in the eyes of the community or the village he or she was part of, was seen as a shameless person (see Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:371).

Hospitality: In first-century Palestine, where there was no system of inns and hotels as there is in our modern world, hospitality played an important role.18 According to Malina (1993:104–107; see also Malina & Pilch 2008:213–215), hospitality in the first-century Mediterranean world was mainly the process of receiving outsiders and changing them from strangers to guests. Hospitality, however, was also extended to friends as a normalcy: ‘it is part of friendship to offer hospitality’ (Schottroff 2006:189; see also Bailey 1976:122; Buttrick 2000:185–187; Kreuzer & Schottroff 2009:169–170; Scott 1989:87; Snodgrass 2008:44; Waetjen 2001:7). In the words of Hultgren: ‘Hospitality was considered a sacred duty throughout the Mediterranean world of antiquity, even when the visitor was a stranger’ (Hultgren 2000:229).19

Thus, a stranger (or friend) arriving in a community (village) served as a challenge to the community – the host had to protect the honour of his guest and had to show concern for his needs. The guest, in turn, was embedded in the honour of his host, as well as in the honour of the host’s group (for e.g. the village; see Malina, Joubert & Van der Watt 1996:34). An unexpected guest thus was considered a guest of the entire village, which means that the entire village was responsible for his lodging (Bailey 1976:122; see also Buttrick 2000:185–187; Waetjen 2001:705). Everyone in the village, therefore, was bound to help the host to serve his guest a meal (Bailey 1983:123). Because of this, a host could call on others in the village to help him. When treated in an honourable way, the guest would afterwards spread the praises of the host and the community with which he stayed (Malina 1993:106).

Friendship: In the first-century Mediterranean world, friends were defined as persons who treated each other as if they were family. Friendship was voluntary and what bound friends together ‘was their mutual concern for each other’s honour and because honour was the highest value, a friend would supply whatever was needed to uphold the honour of a friend’ (Herzog 1994:208). Friendship meant that friends could rely on one another, it implied true commitment. ‘Without batting an eyelash, people would help each other for friendship’s sake and even go out of their way for each other’ (Malina et al. 1996:32; see also Kreuzer & Schottroff 2009:167). In the words of Moxnes (1988):

Friendship carried many obligations, but first and foremost the moral obligation to help a friend when he was in need. In order to be an honorable man one must fulfill one’s obligation to one’s friends.

(Moxnes 1988:62)

With all of the above taken into consideration, Malina and Rohrbaugh (2003) give the following ample definition of friendship:

The chief characteristic of a friend is that he … seeks the well-being of his friend. And a ‘good’ friend is one who has a recognized honour rating, that is, one who is ‘worthy’. Of course, friendship is a reciprocal affair, with friends mutually seeking the well-being of each other.

(Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:364)

Also, if two people that did not know each other (person A and B) had a mutual friend (person C), it meant that person A and B were also friends (see Malina et al. 1996:30). In Jewish society, friendship and being good neighbours were also seen as one and the same thing: neighbours were friends (Scott 1989:90). Sirach 6:17 (in Scott 1989:91), for example, states in this regard the following: ‘Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for so he is, so is his neighbour also’. This is also the gist of Proverbs 3:28–29:

Do not say to your neighbour, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’ – when you have it with you. Do not plan harm against your neighbour who lives trustingly beside you.

(NRSV; see Scott 1989:91)20

Friendship in first-century Palestine thus consisted of an interlocking web, or network, of relationships – meaning that one could have friends you did not even know it.

Reciprocity and patron–client relationships: In first-century Palestine, the exchange of goods took place in the form of reciprocity. Malina 1986:98–106 (see also Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:388–390; Neyrey 2004:253, 2005:469–470; Stegemann & Stegemann 1999:34–37) identifies three types of reciprocity in the first-century Mediterranean world: generalised, balanced and negative. Generalised reciprocity (to give without the expectation for return) took place within the sphere of the family or household (family, kin, or clan), in the form of child rearing, hospitality, gifts, and brotherly love. It was altruistic and showed extreme solidarity to one’s kin-group.

Balanced reciprocity (the idea of quid pro quo) either took place between persons with the same (equal) status, or between persons of unequal status. In the case of the former (neighbours, fellow villagers, friends) it served mutual interests and took the form of, for example, bartering, assistance and hospitality. The latter was typical of patron-client relationships in first-century Palestine21 – socially fixed relations between social unequals:

in which the lower-status person in need (called a client) has his needs met by having recourse for favors to a higher-status, well-situated person (called a patron). By being granted the favor, the client implicitly promises to pay back the patron whenever and however the patron determines… By entering a patron-client arrangement, the client relates to his patron as to a superior and more powerful kinsman, while the patron sees to his clients as to his dependents.

(Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:388)

Patron-client relationships thus describe the vertical dimension of exchange between higher and lower-status persons (Neyrey 2004:249).

Negative reciprocity (exploitation, the unsocial extreme) served self-interest at the expense of the ‘other’. The first-century Mediterranean world was an aristocratic society and therefore patronage and clientism formed part and parcel thereof. In first-century Palestine the rich (e.g. the Herodians and Jerusalem elite) competed for clients, in order to increase their honour. In Judea and Galilee the rich (‘haves’) were mostly from the urban areas and controlled the economic and political resources of society, so becoming patrons for the urban poor and the village peasants (the ‘have nots’) seeking for favours from these elite. The elite, in their turn, seeking to aggrandise their family’s position and honour and status, competed to add dependent clients (as having few clients was seen as shameful). In this way formal and mutual obligations ‘degenerated into petty favor seeking and manipulation – clients competed for patrons, just as patrons competed for clients, in an often desperate struggle to gain economic or political advantage’ (Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:389). This situation led to an extensive and extractive relationship between patron and client (elite and peasant). The elite were concerned with plundering rather than developing – taxation existed for the benefit of the elite, they exploited resources for their own benefit, the focus was primarily on trade and elite were always looking for control over land (mostly by expropriation and the creation of debt; see Eisenstadt & Roniger 1984:208). So, for many peasants in first-century Palestine, it was a case of subsistence leading, inter alia, to loans (especially because of taxes) and the consequent expropriation of lands. In short, patronage and clientism in first-century Palestine was at the best of times – although it may have had a ‘kinship glaze’ over it (Neyrey 2004:250) – a system dominated by the elite (patrons) and their values, a system that was set up in order to ensure the preservation of their privileged positions by the exploitation of the poor (see Moxnes 1991:244). The purpose of patron-client relationships was to exercise power over others, a core value of advanced agrarian societies (see Herzog 2005:55; Hanson & Oakman 1998:72).

Limited good: Peasants in first-century Palestine lived at the level of subsistence,22 a situation reinforced by the peasant’s perception of limited good. This perception of limited good, according to Foster (1967:304), consisted of the peasant’s perception that ‘all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness, honour, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety’ always existed in limited quantities and were always in short supply. The pie could not grow larger, so a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else (Malina & Pilch 2008:217). Because of this, peasants believed that when an individual or a family improved themselves (in terms of, for example, honour or possessions) it was always at the expense of others, thus threatening the entire village, or even society as a whole (in Herzog 1994:204). An honourable man, therefore, would only be interested in what was rightfully his – any kind of acquisition outside or above this was seen as stealing (Malina & Pilch 2008:217).

The ‘rich’ were therefore seen by the peasantry as thieves – being rich was viewed as exactly the same as being greedy. Being ‘poor’, on the other hand, was essentially not being able to defend what was yours – to be poor was to be powerless and vulnerable to the greedy who preyed on the weak. ‘The terms ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, therefore, are better translated ‘greedy’ and ‘socially unfortunate’. Fundamentally, the words describe a social condition relative to one’s neighbours’ (Malina & Pilch 2008:218).

The backdrop of the parable: The first-century Galilean village: When one reads the parable in its original setting (i.e. the third decade of the first-century CE), the backdrop of the parable is that of rural village life. Villages in first-century Galilee were what one might call nucleated villages – located in the midst of fields (that included the smallholdings of individual peasants and the common land that belonged to the village), sometimes adjacent to the ever growing large estates in Galilee (Applebaum 1976:363; Herzog 1994:203–204). Villages in first-century Palestine were organised along kinship, or quasi-kinship lines, comprising of members of one (or more) extended families (Oakman 2008:149). Though some of the villagers were not kin, they were still considered to be neighbours or friends (see Lk 1:38 [oi( peri/oikoi kai\ oi( suggenei~v]; Lk 15:6 [tou\v fi/louv kai\ tou\v gei/tonav]; Lk 15:9 [ta\v fi/lav kai\ gei/tonav]) and mutual help was expected towards one another in the form of general reciprocity (Oakman 2008:149). Economic exchange thus took place within the familial, or quasi-familial, context (generalised reciprocity; Oakman 2008:149). This also meant that hospitality was extended towards friends and people known to villagers (Lk 8:3; 10:38; 11:5; 24:28–29).

In Palestine it was customary to travel during the day, because of the sea breeze from the Mediterranean and breezes on elevated terrain like that of Upper Galilee. A person arriving in the middle of the night in a Galilean village was thus somewhat unexpected23 (Bailey 1983:121; see also Hultgren 2000:228; Schottroff 2006:188–189 24).

Another aspect of village life alluded to in the parable is the baking of bread. The women in the villages baked bread for a week (not for the day), using a community oven with some kind of rotating schedule (Bailey 1976:122; see also Huffard 1978:157; Scott 1989:87). Because of this schedule, everyone in the village knew who had freshly baked bread.25 The kind of bread that the women baked was in the form of small rolls (three of which were considered adequate for a meal; Jeremias 1970:157; Huffard 1978:158).26

A)nai/deian: Almost all interpreters of the parable agree that the interpretation of the parable hinges on the understanding of the word a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8. The problem with understanding the meaning of the word a0nai/deian is that it is further complicated by its link to the question of whom it refers to in the parable: the host or the neighbour?

One group of scholars argue that the a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 refers to the host, in which case the meaning of a0nai/deian could be negatively rendered as ‘importunity’, ‘persistence’, ‘shamelessness’, or ‘unselfconsciouslessness’ (Funk et al. 1993:327; Donahue 1988:185; Kistemaker 1980:150; Lockyer 1963:264–266), ‘disgraceful conduct’, ‘insensitivity’, or ‘rudeness’ (Snodgrass 1997:510, 2008:443–444), ‘troublesome or determined persistence’, ‘raw nerve’ or ‘brazen tenacity’ (from the Hebrew chutzpah; Hultgren 2000:227).27 Almost all of the scholars mentioned above also read the parable in its Lukan context and therefore see the neighbour as a symbol of God. Because of this, a0nai/deian cannot refer to the attitude of the neighbour, as such an interpretation does not pay much of a compliment to God and leads to a ‘theological morass’ as it pictures God as a reluctant grouch who only answers prayers out of divine shame (Buttrick 2000:186). So this understanding presupposes that, although the host acts in an importune and shameless (negative) way, it is exactly because of this attitude that his request is adhered to. As such, his actions should be understood as positive.28

Another group of scholars – including Bailey (1983:132), Jeremias (1970:158), Herzog (1994:209), Malina & Rohrbaugh (2003:273) and Scott (1989:89–91)29 – are also of the opinion that the word a0nai/deian means ‘shamelessness’, but that it refers to the neighbour in the parable. According to Jeremias, it would have been inconceivable to Palestinian peasants (rooted in the values of village life) that a neighbour, even if he was woken up in the middle of the night, would not be willing to fulfill his obligation of hospitality through the use of excuses. A neighbour who acts like this would be shamed and as a result he and his family would lose face in the village.30 This is also Bailey’s understanding of a0nai/deian – according to Bailey (1983:128–129), the understanding of a0nai/deian as ‘persistence’ is not supported by the parable as the parable gives no evidence to repetitive calling. The parable, because of its origin in the Palestinian context, included Aramaic words and phrases, which, when they were translated into Greek, were changed; the word for ‘shame’ in Aramaic, namely kissuf, was translated as ai)dw/v, adding to it the alpha privative. The word ai)dw/v itself does refer to ‘shame’ in a negative sense, but by adding the alpha privative, the translator rendered it as a0nai/deian in the sense of ‘avoidance of shame’ (Bailey 1983:132). In short, a0nai/deian refers to the attitude of the neighbour as shamelessness. Thus, by means of the parable’s translation, the negative a0nai/deian [shamelessness] changes into a positive quality ‘appropriate to a parable teaching something about prayer’ (Bailey 1983:130).This is also the opinion of Herzog. The neighbour’s adherence to the code of honour and his desire to avoid shaming himself, his family, and his village motivates him to ‘get up and give him [the host] whatever he needs’ (Herzog 1994:209). The same goes for the interpretation of Malina & Rohrbaugh (2003:272–273):

Western commentaries notwithstanding, there is no evidence that the Greek word rendered ‘importunity’ (RSV) or ‘persistence’ (NRSV) ever had those meanings in antiquity. The fact is that the word means ‘shamelessness,’ the negative quality of lacking sensitivity (as sense of shame) to one’s public honour status… Thus the petitioner threatens to expose the potential shamelessness of the sleeper. By morning the entire village would know of his refusal to provide hospitality. He thus gives in to avoid public exposure as a shameless person.

(Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:273; see also Hultgren 2000:231; Scott 1989:91)

Both of the above interpretations of a0nai/deian are problematic. Firstly, identifying a0nai/deian with the host, when taking the cultural scripts of hospitality and friendship of first-century Palestine into consideration, is clearly an ethnocentristic reading of the parable. In terms of these cultural scripts, the action of the host simply cannot be interpreted as negative. How can that which was considered to be normal be interpreted as negative? It is only because of the Lukan context of the parable – when Luke 11:5–8 is interpreted in terms of Luke 11:1–13 – that the action [a0nai/deian] of the host is linked to prayer (and to his attitude when ‘praying’). This begs the question as to whether one can get to the meaning of a0nai/deian if the parable is read in it Lukan context. Did the parable in its original context, for example, have prayer as its topic? Moreover, there are good grounds to argue that the characters in the parables of Jesus did not point to God, but rather to the kingdom of God (see Van Eck 2009:9).

But identifying a0nai/deian with the neighbour also has it problems. Scholars that opt for this possibility see a0nai/deian as negative – translating it with ‘shamelessness’ (the negative quality of lacking sensitivity to one’s public honour status) – but then still interpreting the actions of the neighbour in a positive way when explaining that the neighbour’s desire to avoid shaming himself, his family and his village is what motivates him to adhere to the request of the host. He thus acted according to the expectations of his group (the village), even if he did not want to, meaning that he actually ‘had shame’ – that is, the proper concern for his honour. In short, he acted positively because of his sensitivity to the opinion of others – a highly desirable quality in the first-century Mediterranean world. Scholars who opt for this interpretation thus set out to interpret a0nai/deian from a negative point of view [‘shamelessness’], but end up interpreting a0nai/deian in a positive way [as ‘having shame’].

The biggest dilemma with both of these interpretations is that a0nai/deian has always been used in a negative and pejorative manner without exception, from the eighth century BCE up to the period of the Church Fathers. A few examples will suffice: in early Jewish writings (see, e.g. Sir 23:26; 25:22 31; 26:11; 40:30; Josephus [JW 1.84; 6.199; Ant 13.317; 17.119]) and in the LXX (see, e.g. Dt 28:50; 1 Sm 2:29; Pr 7:13; 25:23; Ec 8:1; Is 56:11; Dn 8:23), a0nai/deian is used negatively. This is also the case in Graeco-Roman writings (Homer [Od 22.424]; Archilochus [Archil 78]; Sibylline Oracles [Sib Or 4.36]; Sophocles [El 607]; Herodotus [Hdt 6.129; 7.210]; Aristophanes [Fr 226]; Plato [Phdr 254d]; Herodianus [Hdn Gr 2.453]; Aristotle [Topica 150b]; Plato, [Laws 647a32]; Demosthenes [Oration 21, Against Meidias; Oration 62 33; Oration 24, Against Tiniocrates 6 34]; Menander Comicus [Fragmenta 1090.1–2]; Plutarch [Moralia fragments 31.2 35; Isis and Osiris 363F–364A36 ]); Dio Cassius [Roman History 45.16.1]). Early Christian writings (see Hermas [Vis 3.3.2; Vis 3.7.5; Mand 11.12]; Basil [On the renunciation of the world 31.648.21 37]), as well as the later Jewish writings (b. Berakot 31b; Midr Pss 28.6), also use a0nai/deian in this negative sense. Finally, the negative use of a0nai/deian is also well attested to in the writings of the Church Fathers, with several references to a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 specifically. Without exception, the attitude of the host has always been negatively described with the words ‘shameless’ or ‘importunity’ (see e.g. Tertullian [The five books against Marcion]; Tatian [Diatessaron]; Origen [Commentary on Matthew]; Augustine [Letter to Anicia Faltonia Proba, the widow of Sextus Petronius Probus, 412 CE]; Chrysostom [On the epistle of St. Paul the apostle to the Ephesians38; Homily XXVII: Hebrews xi. 28–31; written at Rome in 384 CE; Homily XXII: Matt. VI. 28, 29]; John Cassian [The Conferences of John Cassian: The first conference of Abbot Isaac, On Prayer, Chapter XXXIV]; Ambrose [Three books on the duties of the clergy, Book I, Chapter XXX]).

Thus, in all of the above examples, a0nai/deian and its cognates (a0nai/deia, a0nai/de/steron, a0nai/deu/samenov, a0naidh/v, a0nai/dw/v, and ai)dw/v), are translated with either ‘shamelessness’, ‘impudence’, ‘immodesty’, ‘effrontery’, as ‘someone who acts with insolence’, ‘unverschmtheit’, or ‘dreistigkeit’ (see Bauer 1952:99; Herzog 1994:202; Liddell & Scott 1968:105; Snodgrass 2008:438–440)39. It thus becomes clear ‘that the meaning of anaideian remained consistently censorious from the classical through the Hellenistic and early church periods40‘ (Herzog 1994:202; see also Bailey 1983:125–12641).

Taking this negative meaning of a0nai/deian seriously, Herzog (1994:212–213) argues that the meaning of a0nai/deian (and its related forms) fit into two major categories – greed (e.g. 1 Sm 2:29, LXX; Sir 23:6; Is 56:11) and attitudes that challenge and break socially constructed boundaries or behaviors (e.g. Dt 28:50, LXX; Bar 4:15; Sir 25.22; 26:10–11; 40:30; Josephus, Ant 17.118–119; Pr 7:10–27; 21:29; Jr 8:4). With regard to the latter category, he states: ‘In every case, the words refer to attitudes that disregard boundaries and social conventions or to behavior that violates socially and religiously sanctioned boundaries’ (Herzog 1994:212–213). This remark of Herzog’s, as well as the consistent negative use of a0nai/deian in available literature, should be taken seriously when interpreting the parable.42

Reading the parable
First-century Palestine, the world in which Jesus told his parables, was an advanced agrarian society under the control of the Roman Empire. This society was divided into the ‘haves’ (the rulers/elite), that lived in the cities and the ‘have-nots’ (the ruled/peasantry), who worked the land – the main ‘economic’ activity of advanced agrarian societies.43 Although comprising only 2% of the population, the elite controlled most of the wealth (up to 65%) through the control and exploitation of the land, its produce, and its cultivators (the peasantry, whose labour created the produce). This was done by means of imposed tributes, taxes and rents. The Roman tribute consisted of the tributum soli (land tax), and the tributum capitis (poll tax). To this annual tribute – that obviously came from the peasantry – was added a second level of tribute and taxes levied by Herod Antipas. Antipas lived a lavish and consumptious life and undertook several building projects (especially the building of Tiberias and the rebuilding of Sepphoris) – the wealth required to support this type of lifestyle and these building projects obviously also came from the peasantry. Antipas and the Herodian elite claimed the so-called surplus of the harvest; to this was then added tribute and taxes. This left the peasantry in Galilee in a situation where their level of subsistence functioned in a very narrow margin. The situation of the peasantry in Judaea was the same. In Judaea it was the responsibility of the priestly aristocracy (centred in the temple in Jerusalem) – under the watchful eye of the Roman appointed prefect Pilate – to maintain order and collect the Roman tribute. The temple elite in Judaea were no different from the elite in Galilee – to keep their base of power (the temple system) intact they added to the Roman tribute their own tithes, offerings, and contributions during festivals. Even the peasants of Galilee were subject to this specific demand, although they lived outside the jurisdiction of Judaea.

This, then, was the situation of the peasantry in Palestine in the time of Jesus. Taxation was exploitative: Rome assessed its tribute and then left Antipas and the temple elite free to exploit the land to whatever degree they saw fit. The elite thus lived at the expense of the non-elite – shaping the social experience of the peasantry, determining their quality of life, exercising power, controlling wealth and enjoying high status in the process. Social control was built on fear and the relationship between the ruling elite and the ruled peasantry was one of power and exploitation. Because of this the peasantry was suspicious and hostile towards city elites and the hierarchy of the temple. And, over and above this exploitation from the elite, the peasantry also had to cope with drought, famine, floods, overgrazing, overpopulation and scarce land (Scott 1989:86). All this left the peasantry ‘on the edge of destitution and often over the edge’ (Borg 2006:227).44

This situation had a negative impact on traditional village life and traditional village values – village families were hard-pressed to provide their own families with something to eat because of the pressure of debt and taxation, meaning that they were under tremendous stress to survive, which impacted heavily on the relationships between families (Herzog 1994:207). Some villagers, who previously felt responsible to help their neighbours in times of shortage, were no longer willing to do so. ‘Local feuds, which could have been easily resolved in normal times, now often erupted into insults, fistfight[s], and family feuds … villagers … were at each other’s throats’ (Horsley & Silberman 1997:55). Secondly, some of the peasants began to cultivate ties with powerful patrons (Herzog 1994:207). The elite were obviously more than willing to enter into patron–client relationships with the poor and the peasantry as, although these relationships had a ‘kinship glaze’ over them (Neyrey 2004:250), it consisted in essence of what was referred to above as negative reciprocity – the exploitation of the peasantry (the serving of self-interest at the expense of the ‘other’). These relationships enabled the elite to enhance honour and status, to display their wealth and power, to secure loyalty and, above all, to build dependency. From the side of the peasantry, however, these patron–client relationships enabled them to secure something more than just subsistence living. It helped them in their struggle for survival, even if this help was experienced as exploitative. Some peasants also started to mimic their Roman overlords and the Jewish temple elite by setting up patron-client relationships with co-peasants and villagers. The Roman overlords and the temple elites used patronage to their benefit, so, from their point of view, hospitality shown by the peasantry (in terms of generalised reciprocity) gained nothing in return. The little the peasantry had would have been put to better use if it was saved for hard times (Herzog 1994:213–214). This also became the point of view of some villagers: because of the hard times, some people saw the way forward in the principle of ‘balanced reciprocity’; it was, however, seen as an even better thing to build dependency (even if it meant that co-villagers were exploited in the process). In this way, the exploited became exploiters themselves – self-interest turned the ‘own’ into the ‘other’.

Finally, and very importantly for our reading of the parable, the scarcity of goods challenged the traditional value of hospitality. Showing hospitality became more and more difficult in a situation where, at the best of times, there simply was not enough for one’s own survival (Herzog 1994:207). Some villagers, therefore, were no longer willing to subscribe to this sacred duty and village value. Some villagers, however, reacted in a positive way to their situation. They reduced their consumption of food, or ate poorer foods and sought to strengthen kinship ties and village friendships (Herzog 1994:207). To survive, some villages developed a system that spread the risk as widely as possible – the problems of one family became the problem of all the families in the village (Scott 1989:86); balanced reciprocity between villagers (e.g. barter, assistance and hospitality), that normally took place on a quid pro quo basis, was replaced by generalised reciprocity (giving without expectation for return). So villagers gave without expecting something in return, as in many instances there simply was nothing to return. In this way, the reciprocity that (normally) took place within the sphere of the family or household (family, kin, or clan) became the norm for village life, with these villagers regarding their neighbours and friends as they did their family and kin.

The parable of the friend at midnight presumes these socio-economic conditions; that is, ‘people who live from hand to mouth and have no provisions beyond those for today’ (Schottroff 2006:189). The parable also exemplifies both the positive and negative reactions to this situation as described above. A peasant villager, in the middle of the night (mesonukti/ou; Lk 11:5), has an unexpected visitor that is his friend (fi/lov; Lk 11:6). Because he is his friend, the host considers him as family. The visitor knew he could count on his host, since both of them (being friends), were concerned for each other’s honour. His friend would supply whatever was needed to uphold his honour. Friendship after all meant that friends could rely on one another and it implied true commitment, especially when a friend was in need. Moreover, hospitality was extended to friends as a normalcy, it was part of friendship to offer hospitality.

The host, however, had nothing to offer his friend to eat (Lk 11:6). But this was not a problem, as, in his village, an unexpected guest was considered to be a guest of the entire village, which meant that his honour was not the only one at stake – the honour of the whole village was also at stake. The entire village was responsible for putting a meal on the table for his friend and, because of this, he could call on others in the village to help him. But on whom should he call? He will go to his neighbour whose wife, according to the rotating schedule of their village, had baked bread in the community oven the previous morning, meaning that he would have freshly baked bread that he could offer – thus honouring his friend. After all, in his village, friendship and being good neighbours were seen as one and the same thing: neighbours were friends. He thus had a friend to call on that was as much responsible to help him as a friend as he, as host, had the responsibility to look after his friend. Moreover, his guest was also the friend of the one he was going to call upon, even if they did not know one another. Because the host was friends with both, they were friends too.

After identifying the neighbour and friend that could help him, the host went to his house. He knew the door was already locked and that his neighbour was most probably already in bed with his family, but this did not matter. What mattered was that both of them, as friends, had to help a friend. When he arrived, he called out to his friend: ‘Friend (fi/le), lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend (fi/lov) of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him’ (Lk 11:5–6). This calling out to his sleeping neighbour was done according to the custom of village life so that the sleeping neighbour could recognise his neighbour’s voice. No villager knocked on his neighbours’ door, only strangers did (Huffard 1978:156). Also, by calling him friend and by telling him that he had a friend as unexpected visitor, he made it clear that his request was based on their friendship and that their honour was at stake. Even more important, because a guest was the guest of the whole village, the honour of the entire village was at stake.

In terms of the social values of friendship and hospitality in village life, the request of the host was ‘scarcely riveting or revolutionary’ (Catchpole 1983:413). It was a normal request that simply had to be met. This explains the abrupt request of the host: ‘Lend me three loaves’. The directness of the request implies closeness, not rudeness (Derrett 1978:83–84). Also, in terms of friendship, his use of xrh~so/n (lend; Lk 11:5) did not mean that he would ‘pay him back’ with three loaves as soon as his wife baked her next batch of bread; it rather acknowledged the mutuality involved in their friendship (Herzog 1994:208).45

The neighbour’s reaction, however, is negative: ‘Do not bother me (mh/ moi ko/pouv pa/rexe); the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything’ (Lk 11:7). The way we understand these excuses made by the neighbour is very important for our eventual interpretation of the parable. The request of the host was literarily an invitation to a friend (fi/lov and fi/le; Lk 11:5) to help him honour another friend (fi/lov; Lk 11:6). Also, as indicated by Derrett (1978:83–84), it was a proof of friendship to ask as if the thing requested were the property of the asker. In essence, therefore, the host is not asking for three loaves of bread; he is asking a friend to honour a friendship. In the words of Herzog (Herzog 1994:201): ‘the sleeping neighbour is not being irritated by his neighbour but is being honoured by being asked to contribute to the meal’. And, in terms of friendship, ‘jolted doors and sleeping children were minor obstacles easily overcome’ (Herzog 1994:202).

The neighbour, therefore, is not making excuses. He is saying, in a polite way, that he does not consider himself a friend of the host. Therefore, he is not willing to get out of bed to do what is normal where friendship is involved. Some in the village, in the face of their difficult situation to provide something for their own families to eat (because of the pressure of debt and taxation), may have opted for a system that spread the risk as widely as possible. It is their choice. He is also aware that, in an effort to survive, some in the village – including the host at his door – have decided to practice generalised reciprocity (to give without expectation for return) and by implication consider neighbours and friends as kin. He has decided not to make that choice. The little he has can better be used in looking after his own family and the extra he (may) have, he will rather keep to be able to ensure the well-being of his own family. He is therefore not interested in friendship and being hospitable and because of this, he is not willing to get out of bed.

But this is not the end of the parable. The neighbour is not finished. He is not willing to help as a friend, but he has an offer to make. He thus continues from behind the jolted door: ‘What I am willing do, not as your friend, but because of my a0nai/deian, is to get up out of bed and open the door and give you o#swn xrh#|zei (as much as you need)’. Just as in the case of the neighbour’s first reply, his second reply must be read carefully. The neighbour has no shame; he is shameless in every way possible, making his attitude that of a0nai/deian. He knows that his conversation with the host is not private, as by this time many of the other villagers are listening to the conversation between him and the host. And he knows that many of those listening have the same attitude as that of the host. But he does not care. After all, these are times of survival.

Therefore, what he is willing to do is to make the host a client. Mimicking the Roman overlords and the Jewish temple elite, he is setting up a patron–client relationship with the host. We have seen that the Roman overlords and the temple elites used patronage to their benefit (and indeed they did benefit!) Hospitality shown (in terms of generalised reciprocity) will benefit nobody – i.e. he will get nothing in return. He is, however, willing to go for balanced reciprocity – i.e. he also wants to benefit from the transaction, like other patrons. These are his rules and the host can take them or leave them. And yes, he has a0nai/deian, something with which he is quite comfortable that the rest of the village are also taking note of – this will, at least, inform them of what to expect when they come calling at his door in future. They know what the rules will be. And of course they are welcome – the more clients, the more the benefit will be. In short: one of the exploited has become an exploiter himself – self-interest has turned the ‘own’ into the ‘other’.

Not many parable scholars will agree with this reading of the parable. This reading, however, takes serious cognisance of the fact that the meaning of a0nai/deian has been used in a negative sense from the eighth century BCE onwards up to the period of Church Fathers and that in every case of its usage it refers to ‘attitudes that disregard boundaries and social conventions, or to behavior that violates socially and religiously sanctioned boundaries’ (Herzog 1994:212–213). The above interpretation of the actions of the neighbour concurs with this use of a0nai/deian. Support for this reading also comes from Oakman (2008:94–95), the only other scholar who interprets a0nai/deian in the way described above:

The neighbour’s importunity is often seen as the point of the similitude, but I take the second autou of 11:8 to refer to the man in bed, not the man at the door. Besides, a truly shameless man would not be at the door at midnight out of sight of everyone. The meaning of the parable does hinge upon the word anaideian. Egyptian papyri strongly urge the meaning ‘shameless desire for personal gain’. The point then is: The man in bed may not get up at midnight to provide for an embarrassed neighbour, but to keep the other in debt he certainly will. The ‘friend’ will make a loan at midnight on this basis.

(Oakman 2008:94)

This reading also takes seriously the fact that the contextual fit of (at least some) of Jesus’ parables in the Synoptics predetermine their ‘meaning’, as is indeed the case with Luke 11:5–8. Because of its context in Luke (Lk 11:1–13), as the history of the interpretation of the parable has shown, the meaning of the parable is linked to some or other aspect of prayer. But this was not the intention with which Jesus told the parable; it is Luke’s application of a parable of Jesus, in order for it to fit into his theological intent. Again it is important to take note of the following remark of Hedrick (2004):

What is at issue … is where … the reading of a parable begin(s) … If one is interested in the evangelist’s understanding of the parable, reading begins with the literary context, but if one is interested in the parable in the context of Jesus’ public career some forty years or so earlier than the gospels, reading begins with the parable and ignores the literary setting. Those who begin with the literary setting proceed on the assumption that the literary context of the parable in the gospels (usually around and after 70 C.E.) accurately reflects the social context in the public career of Jesus (around 30 C.E.) ... Jesus’ intention of the parable in the social context of first-century life preceded the writing of the Gospels.

(Hedrick 2004:xvi)

Removed from their original sociocultural setting and retold in new contexts, the parables of Jesus lost something of their radical nature and power (Waetjen 2001:716). In the case of Luke 11:5–8, its new context has changed its initial meaning quite extensively. It is therefore necessary – if we at least want to come close to what Jesus intended with his parables – to read his parables against the socio-cultural, political and economic situation in which Jesus’ public ministry took place. This reading takes this situation seriously.

The above reading of the parable also takes the point of view – that the characters used by Jesus in his parables do not point to God – seriously, asserting that the characters point rather to the kingdom of God (see Van Eck 2009:9). When God is seen as the metaphoric equivalent of the neighbour in Luke 11:5–8, it leads to many difficulties when interpreting the parable (see again 2), as, when one takes this as point of departure, the parable gives expression to the vertical relationship between God and man. However, if the parable is taken out of the secondary context provided by Luke, and the neighbour is not equated with God, the possibility opens up to read the parable as focusing on horizontal relationships between man and man – on what honourable actions are, as well as the principle of generalised reciprocity between two peasants vis--vis the principles of balanced or negative reciprocity.

With all of the above said, one question remains: What was Jesus’ intention when he told the parable? What message did he want to convey with the parable? First of all, Jesus did not advocate balanced reciprocity, but generalised reciprocity, an aspect of Jesus’ teaching that has been illuminated convincingly by Oakman (1986, 2008:66, 94, 97, 103–105, 157–160). Q 6:27–28 (Lk 6:27–28; Mt 5:43–44), Q 6:29 (Lk 6:29; Mt 5:39–40), Q 6:30 (Lk 6:30; Mt 5:42a), Q 6:31 (Lk 6:31; Mt 7:12), Gospel of Thomas 6:3 and Q 6:34–35 (Lk 6:34–35; Mt 5:42b; Gospel of Thomas 95:1–2 (see also Lk 14:12–14; Mt 18:23–34) all attest to the fact that Jesus advocated general reciprocity. Jesus, secondly, redefined kinship (see Van Eck 1995:296–342). According to Jesus, true kinship was not defined by blood, but by obedience to the will of the Father (Mk 3:31 [Mt 12:46–50; Lk 18:19–21]; GThom 99:1–3). Being part of this new family meant abundance (Mk 10:28–30; Mt 19:27; Lk 18:28–30). In the words of Loader (2005):

Jesus’ radical sayings about family are more subversive than is usually recognized … it is a challenge to the [patriarchal] household system which underpinned social structure in the ancient world as basis for the systems of control, economy, production, and patronage.

(Loader 2005:142)

Jesus thus advocated a ‘kinship economy’ (operating in the realm of generalised reciprocity) between people that were not kin in the normal sense of the word, but kin in terms of fictive kinship (see Stansell 2002:359). Like fathers, who know how to give their children good gifts (Q 11:11–13 [Lk 11:11–13; Mt 7:7–8]; GThom 2:1–4; GThom 92:1; GThom 94:1–3), his followers had to give without expecting something in return (see Lk 6:30–38; 10:33–36; 12:33; 14:13–14; Mt 18:23–34).

These two aspects of Jesus’ teaching are clearly detectable in the parable. For some villagers, the reciprocity that (usually) took place within the sphere of the family or household (family, kin, or clan) became the norm for village life. Villagers regarded their friends and neighbours in the same way as they did their family – as kin. When neighbours are neighbours, in this sense, the kingdom becomes visible. However, when neighbours do not act as neighbours, nothing of God’s kingdom is visible.

The parable thus tells the story of a different world, of the way things ought to be, of ‘life as ruled by God’s generosity and goodness’ (Hoover 2001:92). The parable offered its hearers an alternative world to the world created by aristocratic society (the Roman and religious elite; Hoover 2001:98; Borg 2006:167). For Jesus, this alternative world was the kingdom: a world wherein neighbours are kin and practice general reciprocity. As such, the parable questions the a0nai/deian of the neighbour, his participation in a world created by the oppressing elite and his enforcement of the elite’s oppressive mores by acting against his friend and neighbour (Bessler-Northcutt 2004:56). A just village and just neighbours would resist the moral corruption of Roman occupation by refusing to treat one another as the Romans had hoped they would (Bessler-Northcutt 2004:58). In short, the parable ‘makes it painfully clear what is needed for peasant and village is to act with integrity’ (Bessler-Northcutt 2004:60), integrity that visualised a different world within a world of oppression and exploitation. When neighbours exploit neighbours, they are not part of the kingdom. This was not the way to act.

A parable of Jesus?
With the above mentioned in mind, it seems that the question as to the authenticity of the parable can now be answered. Although the parable does not pass the criteria of early, multiple, and independent attestation (it is only attested in Luke), it does most probably go back to Jesus. In terms of the criterion of coherence, the parable displays typical values that Jesus supported and that can be (and have been) identified by using the criteria of early, multiple, and independent attestation – his advocating of general reciprocity, his understanding of those becoming part of the kingdom as becoming like real brothers and sisters (in the sense of fictive-kin) and the kingdom as a different world than the world created by aristocratic society. The gist of the parable is clearly connected to these values. Thus, the parables actually picture Jesus as a social prophet who spoke of a society wherein the elite did not exploit the non-elite and a society wherein the peasantry ‘accept each other … no longer see[ing] themselves in agonistic conflict with each other … [and] no longer defending their given and limited positions’ (Scott 2001:134). For this reason, it can be argued that the parable most probably does go back to the earliest Jesus-tradition.


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1.Many of these earlier interpretations understood the parable in terms of prayer: ‘the bread represents some form of spiritual benefit, the friend represents Christ, and the petitioner represents a believer’ (Snodgrass 2008:441). Augustine interpreted the parable in terms of the difference between man and God: man gives because sometimes he has to; God gives because He wants to. In the patristic period, most interpreters saw the three loaves as referring to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Luther opined that the parable teaches that all believers are beggars before God, and Bede (see Kissinger 1979:40) saw in the parable a teaching on the evil of money: there is nothing wrong when man makes use of the fruit of the earth, but he is to be reprimanded when putting trust in money.

2.See especially the parallel between mh/ moi ko/pouv pa/rexe (Lk 11:7) and dia/ ge to\ pa/re/xein moi ko/pon (Lk 18:5).

3.Jeremias (1970:159–160) also links Luke 11:5–8 and 18:1–8 to Q 11:10 (Lk 11:10; Mt 7:8).

4.Levison (1925:460) is one of the few that explicitly denies any relationship between Luke 11:5–8 and Luke 18:18.

5.See, for example Snodgrass (2008:444), who argues that to understand the troublesome a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 (see below), ‘one must reach outside vv. 5–8 for the solution’.

6.See, for example, Blomberg (1990:276), Boice (1983:157–165), Boucher (1981:112–114), Buttrick (2000:185–187), Donahue (1988:185), Fitzmyer (1985:910), Forbes (2000:72–79); Groenewald (1973:104–110); Hendrickx (1986:218); Hultgren (2000:232–233); Kistemaker (1980:148–150); Levison (1925:456–460); Lockyer 1963:264–266); Manson (1949:267); Mertz (2007:556–563); Oesterley (1936:225); Perkins (1981:194); Smith (1937:148); Stiller (2005:92); and Snodgrass (2008:437).

7.‘If among humans a request is granted even when or because the request is rude, how much more will your heavenly Father respond to your requests’ (Snodgrass 1997:513)?

8.‘This is the very strength of the parable: that through its depiction of persistence in a situation of solidarity it invites us to persistence toward God’ (Schottroff 2006:190).

9.A somewhat different reading of the parable is the interpretation of Capon (1988:68–83). According to his interpretation, the parable is a parable of grace that allegorically refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection. The neighbour (Jesus) will get up [e)gerqei|\v] – a reference to Jesus’ resurrection – because of the a0nai/deian [shamelessness = death] of the host.

10.See also Via (1967:53) who read the parable as a language event and comes to more or less the same conclusion: the parable calls for a decision to act in the same way as the neighbour.

11.When one reflects on the interpretations of Cadoux, Dodd and Jeremias, Herzog (1994:197–198) is correct in his remark that these scholars’ interpretations, although they see the Lukan context of the parable in Luke 11:5–8 as secondary, still are ‘subtly anchored to Lukan moorings’.

12.Luke’s emphasis on prayer can be seen most vividly in his redactional activity with relation to Jesus and prayer – Luke has seven references to the prayer life of Jesus that are not present in Matthew and Mark (Lk 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 9:28; 11:1; 23:24).

13.Fleddermann (2005:265–282) is one of the few scholars that takes this approach.

14.Scholars who see the purpose of the parable in Luke 11:5–8 as being unfolded in Luke 11:9–13 are, for example: Buttrick (2000:185–187); Groenewald (1973:104–110); Lockyer (1963:264–266); Schottroff (2006:188); and Stiller (2005:92).

15.See, for example: Boice (1983:157–165); Boucher (1981:112–114); Donahue (1988:185–187); Hultgren (2000:225–226); Kistemaker (1980:148–150); Mertz (2007:556–563); and Waetjen (2001:706).

16.See, for example: Bailey (1983:119); Bultmann (1963:175); Herzog (1994:194–214); Jeremias (1970:158); and Scott (1989:86–93).

17.‘The New Testament … consists of documents written in what anthropologists call a ‘high context’ society where the communicators presume a broadly shared acquaintance with and knowledge of the social context of matters referred to in conversation or writing. Accordingly, it is presumed in such societies that contemporary readers will be able to ‘fill in the gaps’ and ‘read between the lines’’ (Elliott 1993:11; see also Hall 1994:79). The main problem for modern readers of the Bible therefore is ‘that we do not know what we do not know. The spare descriptions of context in the Bible often leave us without the essential ingredients for understanding the message’ (Rohrbaugh 2006:567 [Author’s emphasis]).

18.In the New Testament, only two references are made to ‘inns’ – Luke 2:7 [katalu/mata], and Luke 10:34 [pandoxei~on)]. The former [katalu/mata] was not an inn in the strict sense of the word. A katalu/mata was more of a large furnished room attached to a peasant house, and is best translated as ‘guest room’ (see Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:376). A pandoxei~on, on the other hand, was a commercial inn. These places had a dubious character: everybody was welcome, monies had to be paid for lodging, and the female workers at the inn offered sexual favors to guests as a rule (see Zimmermann 2007:545).

19.See also Snodgrass (2008:441): ‘A foundational assumption is the strong sense of responsibility for hospitality in the ancient world, which was part of the virulent shame and honour system of the ancient world’.

20.For more examples of friendship in the Old Testament (e.g. Ps 41:10; 55:14; Pr 17:17; 18:24; 27:5, 9, 10), see Kreuzer and Schottroff (2009:169).

21.Moxnes (1991:242) defines patron-client relationships as follows: ‘Patron client relations are social relationships between individuals based on a strong element of inequality and difference in power. The basic structure of the relationship is an exchange of different and very unequal resources. A patron has social, economic and political resources that are needed by a client. In return, a client can give expression of loyalty and honor that are useful for the patron’. Seneca (Benefits 1.2.1) goes as far to call it ‘a practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society’.

22.Peasants who owned and farmed land had economic obligations that severely limited their prospects for moving above the level of subsistence. Obligations were internal and external. Internal obligations were made up of produce for subsistence, seed for planting the next crop, feed for livestock, and the reservation of some produce to use as trade (for acquiring equipment, utensils, or food the family did not produce). External obligations consisted of social or religious dues (e.g. participation in weddings or local festivals), tithes, and taxes. With regard to the latter, peasants in Roman Palestine paid taxes of 35%–40%; and, with all the other obligations factored in, a peasant family most probably only had as much as 20% of their annual produce available for subsistence (see Malina & Rohrbaugh 2003:390–391; Oakman 2008:148–149).

23.Scholars like Buttrick (2000:185–187), Kistemaker (1980:148–150), Lockyer (1963:264–266) and Oesterley (1936:221) differ from Bailey by arguing that it was actually customary, in first-century Palestine, to travel at night in order to avoid the intense heat of the day. Bailey (1983:121), however, has indicated that night travel was only customary in the desert areas of Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

24.Schottroff (2006:188–189) is also of the opinion that the visit was unexpected (‘unusual’), but for different reasons than Bailey (1983:121) – the reason for the unexpected visit, according to her, is that the traveler most probably did not find room in a Iodging place and therefore was forced to go farther.

25.Levison (1925:457) believes that each peasant family baked bread every Friday before Sabbath and then as often as needed during the week. Because no peasant family could afford to bake new bread until the old bread ran out, they would not bake bread on a regular schedule. Oesterley (1936:221) agrees with Levinson, adding that the supply of bread was kept in a basket until the supply ran low; only then was it time to bake another batch. Jeremias (1970:157) thinks that the wife of each family baked each day’s supply of bread before sunrise (see also Boucher 1981:113; Lockyer 1963:264–266), and that it was generally known in the village who still had bread left.

26.Bailey (1976:122; see also Hultgren 2000:229) is of the opinion that larger loaves were baked, one of which would be more than enough for a guest. The kind of bread that was baked does not really matter in the interpretation of the parable. What is important is that the host, as a sign of honour and hospitality, had to put in front of his guest more than he could eat (see

27.See also Cadoux (1930:34–35); Crossan (1973:84); Fitzmyer (1985:912); Jlicher (1910:273–275); Liefeld (2000:251); Manson (1949:268); Oesterley (1936:221–222); Perkins (1981:194−195); Schottroff (2006:190); Smith (1937:147); Snodgrass (2008:442,732); and Wenham (1989:181).

28.See, for example, Waetjen’s (2001:703–721) interpretation of a0nai/deian. According to Waetjen, Jesus’ use of a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 is the first positive use of this term - meaning ‘good shamelessness’ (Waetjen 2001:717). He continues: ‘Impudence, effrontery, and dishonourable conduct are divinely legitimated in the pursuit of justice in all the arenas of social life’ (Waetjen 2001:717). God does not respond on the basis of reciprocity or friendship. The ideology of reciprocity based on friendship, and the world of honour-shame culture, is being undermined as the petitioner resorts to shameless conduct in order to obtain bread. As such, the parable subverts our view of the world.

29.See also Culpepper (1997:236); Derrett (1978:840); Fridrichsen (1934:40–43); Huffard (1978:156); Johnson (1979:123–131); Jngel (1962:156); Marshall (1986:465); Nolland (1993:622); Paulsen (1984:27); and Perrin (1967:128–129).

30.Levison (1925:460), who reads the parable in its Lukan context, is also of the opinion that a0nai/deian refers to the sleeping neighbour. His reason for this reading is as follows: if a0nai/deian refers to the neighbour seeking help it pictures God (who is represented by the sleeping neighbour in the parable) as someone that can be badgered into submission. To solve this problem, Levison suggests that a0nai/deian should be translated with ‘strengthen’, picturing God as one that would come to the aid of the believer in his or her time of need by strengthening the believer. Herzog’s critique of Levison’s reading is right on the mark: ‘Although this sleight of hand solved his theological problem, it did not solve the more basic lexical issue’ (Herzog 1994:203).

31.‘There is wrath and impudence a0nai/deia; (no sense of shame) and great disgrace when a wife supports her husband’ (Sir 25:22, transl. in Snodgrass 2008:438).

32.‘Does not, then, the lawgiver, and every man who is worth anything hold this kind of fear in the highest honour and name it ‘modesty’ [ai)dw/v]; and to the confidence which is opposed to it does he not give the name ‘immodesty’ [a0nai/deia] and pronounce it to be for all, both publicly and privately, a very great evil?’ (Plato, Laws 647a, transl. in Snodgrass 2008:439).

33.‘No one has ever been so lost to shame [a0nai/deia] as to venture on such conduct as this’ (Demosthenes, Oration 21, Against Meidias 62; transl. in Snodgrass 2008:439).

34.‘It seems to me that, so far as effrontery [a0nai/deia goes, such a man is ready to do anything’ (Demosthenes, Oration 24, Against Tiniocrates 6; transl. in Snodgrass 2008:439).

35.‘This is the extremity of evil. For when shamelessness [a0nai/deia] and jealousy rule men, shame [ai)dw/v] and indignation leave our race altogether, since shamelessness and jealousy are the negation of these things whereas shamelessness [a0nai/deia] is not a counterfeit of shame, but its extreme opposite, masquerading as frankness of speech’ (Plutarch, Moralia fragments 31.2; transl. in Snodgrass 2008:439).

36.‘God hates a0nai/deia’ (Isis and Osiris 363F–364A).

37.‘Humility is the imitation of Christ, but high-mindedness, boldness, and shamelessness [a0nai/deia] are the imitation of the devil’ (Basil, On the renunciation of the world 31.648.21; transl. in Snodgrass 2008:439).

38.‘Limit it not, I say, to certain times of the day, for hear what he is saying; approach at all times; ‘pray,’ saith he, ‘without ceasing.’ ( 1 Th v. 17.) Hast thou never heard of that widow, how by her importunity she prevailed? ( Lk xviii. 1–7.) Hast thou never heard of that friend, who at midnight shamed his friend into yielding by his perseverance? ( Lk xi. 5–8.) Hast thou not heard of the Syrophœnician woman ( Mk vii. 25–30.), how by the constancy of her entreaty she called forth the Lord’s compassion? These all of them gained their object by their importunity.’ (Chrysostom, On the epistle of St. Paul the apostle to the Ephesians).

39.Another interesting example of the negative connotation of a0nai/deian is the stone in the Areopagus on which the accuser stood who demanded the full penalty of the law against one accused of homicide; this stone is called the li/qov a)naidei/av, clearly a negative use of a0nai/deian (see Liddell & Scott 1968:105)

40.See also Snodgrass (2008:443): ‘No positive use of this word – referring to a good sense of what is shameful and a desire to avoid it – occurs except where Christians have adapted it after the beginning of the second century in dependence on Luke 11:8’.

41.For evidence of the negative connotation linked to a0nai/deian in the papyri, see Bailey (1983:125–126).

42.This meaning of a0nai/deian clearly does not fit easily into a reading of the parable in its Lukan context. To solve this problem, the early church interpreted a0nai/deian in terms of Luke 18:1–8; rendering it either as ‘importunity’, or ‘tried to retain the scent of its scandalous past by translating it as ‘shameless boldness’’ (Herzog 1994:202). See also Derrett (1978:84), who tries to solve the pejorative meaning of a0nai/deian in Luke 11:8 by arguing that the word’s meaning had shifted from an invariably pejorative, to a more neutral meaning of ‘boldly’ or ‘unselfconsciously’. Herzog (1994:202) is correct in his evaluation of Derrett’s point of view: ‘the preponderance of the evidence suggests otherwise’. It is exactly this evidence that should be taken seriously when the parable is interpreted.

43.The elite never worked the land, since they had contempt for manual labor (see Sirach 38:25–34; Cicero, Duties 1.150).

44.This situation of the peasantry in first-century Palestine is aptly described by Herzog (1994:206) as follows: ‘The peasant village in Palestine during the early decades of the first century was under increasing stress. The cumulative effects of Herodian rule, combined with the rigors of Roman colonialism and the demands of the Temple hierarchy, had taken their toll. The monetization and commercialization of the local economy had led to increasingly predatory relationships between elites and peasants … there is evidence for rising debt and defaults on loans; accompanied by the hostile takeover of peasant small-holdings and the reduction of peasants to more dependent economic statuses. These practices can be traced back to the fact that elites made loans to peasants and held their land as collateral’.

45.This is also the point of view of Herzog (1994:201): ‘the assumption that the host is simply borrowing bread that he will readily return is questionable. The contributions to the meal are not loans but direct gifts, provided to fulfill the ritual obligations of the village and maintain its reputation’ (see also Levison 1925:457). A host therefore always asked directly for what was needed, since no social distance existed between villagers. See also Buttrick (2000:185–187); Jeremias (1970:157); and Kistemaker (1980:149): who are of the opinion that the host intended to borrow the bread and ‘return it at once’. These scholars clearly do not take the norms of village hospitality in first-century Palestine into consideration in their respective interpretations.


Crossref Citations

1. In the kingdom everybody has enough – A social-scientific and realistic reading of the parable of the lost sheep (Lk 15:4–6)
Ernest Van Eck
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies  vol: 67  issue: 3  year: 2011  
doi: 10.4102/hts.v67i3.1067