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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
The Man Who Went Out to Borrow Three Loaves at Midnight
FOR thirty years and more our Lord had been laying up materials for His future sermons. And He had started to collect His materials with something like this as one of His guiding principles:-
What surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By likening spiritual to corporal forms,
As may express them best; though what if Earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on Earth is thought?
Our Lord knowing that to be the case, and taking that for one of His guiding principles in His preaching, it came about that what we call His parables, were, in reality, not so much parables of His at all, as they were His observations of human life, and His experiences of human life, with His divine intuitions of grace and truth irradiating and illuminating them all. In our artificial and superficial way we think of our Lord as making up His parables as He went on with His sermons, and throwing them in just as they occurred to Him at the moment. But that was not His way of preaching at all. His way of preaching, and of preparing for His preaching, was a far better way than that. For, not seldom His parables were His own personal experiences, and His own immediate observations, collected and laid up in His mind and in His memory and in His heart, and to be afterwards worked up into His sermons. As we find them worked up with all the freshness and impressiveness and authority that personal experience always gives to preaching, whether that preaching is our Lord's own incomparable preaching, or such poor preaching as our own.
Our Lord, says the evangelist, was praying in a certain place. Our Lord was always praying, and in every place, and the evangelist knew that quite well. But he is a practised and a skilful writer, and what he here writes is written, every word of it, with an intended purpose. The evangelist here gives his readers this report of that day just as he had received it from an eye and ear witness of the occurrences of that day, and he introduces this most important narrative with a certain studied circumstantiality of style. There had been something quite out of the ordinary in our Lord's private devotions that day. He had been much longer absent from His disciples that day than was His wont. And, besides, when He joined them again there was something about Him that specially arrested the attention of one of His disciples. Whoever he was, that disciple went up to his Master and said to Him, Lord, teach us to pray, as Thou Thyself so often prayest. And thus it was that that happy disciple, whoever he was, got on the spot, "Our Father, which art in heaven," as his Master's answer to his request. A great reward to him and to us for his holy boldness, and for his timeous petition that day. And not the Lord's Prayer only; but that richly-favoured disciple got for himself and for his fellow-disciples and for us also, what we call the parable of the friend at midnight. Our Lord not only taught His disciples that prayer of prayers that day but-to enforce the lesson, He told them a story out of His rich treasure-house of such stories; a story that has all the freshness, and all the lifelikeness, and all the pointedness, of a personal experience. "Which of you," He said, turning to the twelve, "shall have a friend, and shall go to him at midnight, and shall say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves. For a friend of mine on his journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him?" Now there is only too good ground for believing that the carpenter's house was one of the poorest houses in all Nazareth and Capernaum. Sickness, death, suretyship, losses in business, and trouble upon trouble of every kind, had overtaken Joseph's household, till, with all their industry, and all their frugality, his household would seem to have been poor beyond any of their kindred or any of their acquaintances. So much so, that nothing is more likely than that Joseph had oftener than once undergone the very indignity that is here so feelingly described. And not Joseph only, but He who here tells this touching story was found under Joseph's roof as one of his sons, and all His days on earth He was one of the poorest of men. No. Depend upon it, He did not make up the parable of the importunate poor man at midnight. He did not need to make it up. He was Himself in all points made like that poor and importunate man. Poor and importunate, not for Himself, but for men poorer than Himself who had thrown themselves upon Him. Our Lord was an experimental preacher. Just as He was and is an experimental priest.
It is a most pathetic, but at the same time a most amusing, story. It has been said sometimes that our Lord never laughed. Perhaps not. But we both laugh and weep at once over this scene as He here sets it before us. The well-supped churl is folded up in his warm bed and is just falling asleep, when a knock comes to his door so loud that it wakens the very dogs in the street. And then his angry denial is only answered with louder and louder knocking. Till we see that the well-fed and warmly laid down householder is completely at the mercy of that dreadful neighbour of his at the door. His very love for his bed lays him open to every knock that resounds through his well-supped and well-bedded house. I tell you I cannot rise! he shouts. Ay, but he will have to rise if the man at the door only holds on. Let him only hold on knocking loud enough and long enough, and as sure as that householder loves his warm bed, so sure will the traveller in the other house get his supper. And not three loaves only. But once he is out of bed the sleepy man thrusts more loaves on the knocking man than he wants. His love for his bed makes him afraid that this noisy neighbour of his may come back again before the night is over. How many travellers did you say had come to you? And how many loaves will they need? Three? Take four. Take six. Oh, no, says the petitioner, three will do. Take four, at any rate, says the half-naked and generous-hearted householder. Take as many as you can carry, lest you should have to come back again. And he loads the man at the door with an armful of his best bread. Good-night! And he shuts his door and returns to his bed, glad at any cost to get rid of such an untimeous and unceremonious neighbour.
"Importunity" cannot be called a bad rendering exactly. Only it is not by any means the best rendering of the original writing. Nor does it by any means bring out to us the whole intended instructiveness of the scene. We must not water down our Lord's words, even when they are too strong for our feeble digestion. What our Lord actually said was not importunity but "shamelessness." "I say unto you because of his shamelessness he will rise and give him as many as he needeth." Think shame, man! the passers-by exclaimed as they heard him making that so disgraceful noise in the midnight street. The neighbours also looked out of their windows and shouted "Think shame!" at him. And they were right. For it was nothing short of a shameless knocking that the determined man made. Indeed, it was the very shamelessness, that is to say, the lateness and the loudness, of the knocking, that was the success of it. To be shameless in that way and to that degree was the man's wisdom, and hence his utter shamelessness is our Lord's very point with His disciples and with us. Never mind who cries shame, says our Lord to us. Keep you on knocking, shame or no shame. Think shame, woman! the devil said to Santa Teresa. A woman at your time of life having to make such a confession. And presumptuously hoping for pardon for such shameless sins. Think shame! Or if you will still presume to pray for forgiveness, at any rate, wait a little. Do not go to God and you still reeking with such uncleanness. Wash in the holy water first. Perform a time of penance first. "The devil never so nearly had my soul for ever, as just after another fall of mine, and when he cried, For shame, O woman, for shame." These are her very identical words to us in this matter: "Never let any one leave off prayer on any pretence whatsoever; great sins committed, or any pretence whatsoever. I tell you again that the leaving off of prayer after sin was the most devilish temptation I was ever met with."
Importunity, then, and shameless importunity, and that in midnight prayer, is the great lesson of this scripture. Indeed, the whole point of the story here told by our Lord turns upon the untimeousness of the hour when the knocking took place. The thing could never have taken place in the daytime. It is a story of midnight importunity, and it is told to teach us the great lesson of midnight and importunate prayer. Travelling, with all its accompanying incidents such as this, takes place mostly at night in the East, and importunate prayer in the West. And this lesson that our Lord gives us is quite as much to teach us to pray at night as it is to pray with importunity, and for excellent reasons. The Psalms, when we begin to attend to what we read and sing, are full of night, and midnight, and early morning, prayer. I was greatly struck, no longer ago than last night, with what I had never felt with such force before. I was reading the fifth and sixth verses of the sixty-third Psalm at family worship. I find that reading a single verse sometimes will impress our hearts at home more than a whole Psalm. Well, I was reading to them those two verses, and it occurred to me to turn them round and read the sixth verse first and then the fifth, in this way: "When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on Thee in the night watches; my soul, as often as I do that, is always satisfied again as with marrow and fatness." As much as to say-'When my soul thirsteth for Thee; when my flesh longeth for Thee; when my soul is like the man in the parable who had a hungry traveller in his house, and had nothing to set before him; then I remember the Lord. I remember His name and all that His name contains. I remember His merciful and gracious name, and I call like that loud-calling man upon His merciful and gracious name. I meditate and remember, and remember and meditate, and that in the night watches, till my soul is again satisfied as with marrow and fatness.' The sixty-third Psalm is just the eleventh of Luke before the time. The eleventh of Luke is all in the Psalms. As soon as we get all the best teaching of the New Testament about prayer, we return and find it all already in the Psalms. We would not have found it in the Psalms but for the New Testament; only, once we have the whole doctrine of New Testament prayer taught to us, we come to our full astonishment at David and his companions in prayer. With David, then, and with David's Son, both teaching us to pray, we ourselves should surely come to some success and proficiency in prayer. With these, and with such a wealth of other experiences and testimonies and examples of praying men as we possess, and of praying men at night, we should surely learn to pray. Take this home with you from Father John of the Greek Church. "When praying at night," he says to his people, "do not forget to confess with all importunity, and sincerity, and contrition, those sins into which you have fallen during the past day. A few moments of importunate repentance, before you sleep, and you will be cleansed from all your iniquity. You will be made whiter than the snow. You will be covered with the robe of Christ's righteousness, and again united to Him. Often during the day I myself have been a great sinner, and at night, after importunate prayer, I have gone to rest washed and restored, and with the deepest joy and the most perfect peace filling my heart. How needful it will be for our Lord to come and save us in the evening of our life, and at the decline of our days! O save me, save me, save me, most gracious Lord, and receive me at the end of my days into Thy heavenly kingdom."
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'The Man Who Went Out to Borrow Three Loaves at Midnight'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/t/the-man-who-went-out-to-borrow-three-loaves-at-midnight.html. 1901.
the First Week of Advent