Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

128. Three Loaves at midnight (Luke 11:1-13)*

There are certain fairly definite links between the mission of the Lord's seventy preachers and this next section of Luke's gospel. It was customary for the rabbis of that age to send out certain of their disciples on preaching tours. In such a busy life these workers were given exemption from the normal time-consuming devotions in which the Pharisees gloried. Instead they were taught mini-prayers to be used in lieu of the more elaborate religious exercises usually prescribed. Evidently John the Baptist had adopted this pattern also, for on a certain occasion when Jesus was praying in some holy place one of his disciples asked that they might be taught pattern prayers of the kind John had bequeathed to his disciples.

Jesus promptly responded with the prayer which all the world now knows as the Lord's Prayer (Study 61). There are a number of variations from that prayer which he had already taught to earlier disciples. The verb forms are different from the version in Matthew 6, and the doxology is omitted. It is not easy to be sure just why these changes were made.


The Lord went on to teach an important lesson about the spirit in which his disciples were to pray. He told the story of a poor man faced with the problem of providing hospitality for a friend who had arrived in the middle of the night. Travel by moonlight, to avoid the fatigue and discomfort of the day's heat, was by no means uncommon. Having nothing to set before this unexpected arrival, the man pounded on the door of a friendly neighbour, imploring the loan of food. Normally this neighbour could be counted on to be fairly helpful, but now time and circumstances were all against a comforting response. "The door is shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot rise and give thee." It is a picture of a small humble home, and all the floor space taken up by a sleeping family. In the morning, yes! But how unreasonable to expect a domestic upheaval in the middle of the night. Why can't this clamorous fellow go somewhere else?

But the knocking at the door continues, interspersed with a ceaseless succession of pleadings and cajolings. There is no sign of any remission. So at last the sleepy householder bestirs himself to rise and clamber over sleeping forms to go first to the cupboard and then to the window to hand out the food. There is no lack of goodwill in him, and once the provoking disturbance in the home has been endured, he is willing enough to supply not just the three cakes originally asked for, but whatever the man might feel in need of to meet the wants of his unexpected guest.

There is an easy obvious lesson about this story. If the man had allowed himself to be put off by the initial reluctance of his neighbour friend, there would have been no remedy for the situation. As it turned out, nothing but good resulted from his importunity. The hunger of the traveller was abundantly satisfied, and the friendship of the two neighbours intensified through help given and help received.

Is it possible that, with the mission of the seventy a very recent experience, Jesus was looking ahead to the problems which would beset his disciples when they had the much greater responsibility of taking the gospel to the Gentiles?


The one who has come in his journey (the Greek phrase means literally: "out of the way") in the darkness of night is a fitting enough symbol of God-seeking Gentiles who, if they would learn God's Truth, must come to Christ's preachers for help. These in turn would need greater resources than they normally had at their command. Therefore in his parable Jesus bade them be urgent in beseeching God, their best (only?) neighbour friend, for an adequate supply of heavenly food for these needy ones.

But if this is the meaning, in the parable God is represented as shut up in His own home, concerned only with His own family, Israel, and unwilling to help! This pictures the situation as born Jews would most naturally see it. Was not Israel the chosen race? Why then should He or they concern themselves about spiritually aimless helpless Gentiles?

The answer Jesus supplied in the parable is: "God is your friend; whatever you may be inclined to assume regarding Him, He is both able and willing to succour these benighted Gentiles through you, my ministers; He will supply you not only with adequate food in Law, Psalms, and Prophets, but He will also give you freely whatever additional help you may feel in need of in this worthy task. "How much more shall your Father (who never sleeps) give from heaven the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?" It was precisely this aid and wisdom which God did supply to His evangelists in the great work of taking the gospel to the Gentiles.

A lesson for today

The lesson stills holds for those who witness for Christ in the twentieth century. Today there is no clamant need, to cope with which the humble disciple feels only a desperate inadequacy. These circumstances have been replaced by a numbing sense of disappointment and depression because the message, bravely propounded, makes so little impact. Yet in some sense the Lord's assurance still stands true: "How much more shall your heavenly Father give a Holy Spirit to them that keep on asking Him." Not that the inexperienced preacher of today may expect to stand up with all the courage and power and persuasion of Peter at Pentecost, nor that he may take off as a missionary overseas, preaching eloquently in a language he has never learned. But even so his faith and unflagging importunity for God's help may yet become the key to unlock the shut mind of some who apparently have no inclination at all to heed the message.

In all kinds of seemingly ordinary ways-which a man may later be more inclined to call divine guidance or the ways of Providence-opportunities may be given for personal testimony to faith concerning the kingdom of God. Yet how difficult it is to believe the lord's promise: "Every one that keeps on asking keeps receiving." (But contrast Lk. 13:25; Mt. 25:10). And he spoke these words, which are well illustrated in the parable, primarily to encourage importunity concerning our personal inability to help those who are "out of the way." "If we do not want what we are asking for enough to be persistent, we do not want it ^ery much" (Leon Morris). It is important also to learn that the answer is not necessarily the thing that has been sought.

Notes: Lk. 11:1-13.

Place In the OT the Hebrew word nearly always means an altar or holy place. In quite a few passages the idea carries over into the NT: Mt. 27:33; 28:6; Jn. 4:20; 11:48; 14:2,3; 18:2; Acts 6:14; 7:33, 49; 21:28.
Importunity. The Greek word means, literally, "without shame." There are other fine Biblical examples: Lk. 18:lff (Study 143); Mt.9:27-29; ;20:30-34; 15:22,28; Gen. 13:4; 18:23-33; 32:24-29; Ps. 55:17; Is. 62:6,7.
The "lend" of v. 5 is replaced by "give."
Your heavenly Father. In the Lord's Prayer: "your Father which ism heaven." Here, "your Father which is from heaven." And now by all means consider Mal. 3:10.

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