One’s choice of words determines the meaning of one’s statements. Word choice also can determine the effects of one’s words on others. For example, no one would want to return from a biopsy and be asked by one’s spouse, “What were the results of your autopsy?” Not only would the question convey an uncomfortable meaning, but it almost certainly would make the respondent uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of poor word choice in the translations of the Scriptures. Today’s Gospel reading contains an example of poor word choice that not only changes the meaning of a statement but has significant ramifications for the Church’s understanding of prayer.
The surprised host, who had an unexpected need for food at a late hour, petitioned his neighbor. At first, the neighbor refused help, but later capitulated. The Gospel summarizes this teaching on petitionary prayer by saying, “he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” (Lk 11:8) The choice of the word “persistence” suggests that Jesus recommends unrelenting entreaty as a means to obtain whatever one wants. The parable, however, does not use the word “persistence.” The word incorrectly translated as “persistence” means “avoidance of shame.”
Some aspects of ancient middle eastern culture are quite similar to aspects of our contemporary western culture. In our culture, personal appearance and good reputation are highly regarded. It’s a treasured compliment to be told, “You have a very youthful appearance.” On the other hand, it would be rather insulting to be told, “You have a very juvenile appearance.” To appear youthful is a desirable trait in our culture; to appear juvenile is to have a questionable reputation. Jesus’ culture put similarly high values on appearance and reputation. The parable of the host with a bare cupboard is based on the high valuation that honorable behavior had in Jesus’ culture.
The fellow who was surprised by an unexpected guest was honor-bound to offer hospitality to his uninvited friend despite the late hour of the friend’s arrival. As he had no food to offer his guest, he asked the help of a neighbor; he hoped his neighbor would help him avoid being shamed. The neighbor refused initially because of the late hour, but eventually relented in order to avoid shame and maintain an honorable reputation. It is no coincidence that the reluctant neighbor acted for the same reason that the needy host acted; both wished to avoid bringing shame on themselves because being shamed would ruin their reputations.
It might seem rather petty to describe God in terms of honor and shame, but it must be kept in mind that these were central values in Jesus’ culture. As honor and shame were categories by which people judged themselves and others, it was natural to apply these categories to God. In fact, the Scriptures consistently describe God in precisely these terms. In today’s first reading, for example, God acted honorably by agreeing to spare the city of Sodom if ten decent people could be found there. (Gn. 18:32) The Psalm is a hymn in praise of God’s honorable behavior. The Psalmist said, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” (Ps. 138:3) God always lives up to God’s reputation as Creator and Redeemer of all.
The parable of the needy host assures Jesus’ disciples of God’s honorable behavior toward them. Jesus asked rhetorically, “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Lk. 18:13) God will always grant God’s mercy and loving kindness to God’s faithful People. There should be no room in our minds for doubt about God’s providence. There is, however, another dimension to the faith we profess about God’s compassionate care for the world; God’s faithfulness requires reciprocal faithfulness from God’s People.
Honor and shame are relational values; they have meaning only within the context of active relationships between persons. The parable admonishes that one’s expectation of honorable, that is, decent, just, righteous, caring, loving, and faithful behavior on God’s part imposes a reciprocal obligation for similar behavior toward God and others.
The parable says that it is absurd to expect from God (or others) what one is unwilling to give. Devout entreaties for Divine help made by a person who is uncaring, unjust, or merciless are as nonsensical as describing the dominant feature of one’s back yard as a mound behind the house made of compost. There is a crucial difference between a mound made of compost and a house made of compost. In the same manner, there is a crucial difference between a person who is just and a person who just wants something.
God has promised to be unfailingly faithful, true, generous, and kind. To return to God anything but the same faithfulness is to be like Friedrich Nietsche who boasted that a bad conscience is easier to deal with than a bad reputation (hint: bad conscience and bad reputation are inseparable). The parable of the host caught off-guard reminds us that God’s reputation is above reproach and, therefore, our reputations and consciences should also be above reproach.