Last week’s blog introduced classroom peer pressure as a familiar concept in our westernized, modern culture to illustrate Bible-time Jewish culture. This week I’ll use this to illustrate when ancient Jews traveled, the pressure of having guests.
First, a brief reference to how our interpretations of Christ’s parables are impeded by our cultural mindsets. Summarized: we all read into everything what we’re familiar with. But Christ’s parables were told from such a different cultural mindset. What was obvious to them isn’t obvious to us.
Now in Luke 11:5-7, Jesus was asking, “Can you imagine going to a neighbor, asking for help to entertain a friend and getting this response?” The Oriental responsibility for his guest is legendary. The Oriental listener/reader cannot imagine silly excuses about a closed door and sleeping children when the adequate entertainment of a guest is the issue.
I’m using the same source I’ve used different times now, regarding cultural differences. Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes shows a lot of important background behind this passage. I’ll touch the tip of the ice burg here. Contemporary literature analyzing this text often refers to a need to travel by night. This is true for areas of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. It’s not true for Palestine. Not since the Mediterranean typically gives the land desired breezes. Night traveling was unusual also considering how dangerous it could be. The Romans improved traveling a lot in ancient times with road patrols. But compared to our world today, it was still statistically quite unsafe. At least in remote locations, and particularly at night time.
Now for the “normal”’s of that era:
A guest is given one unbroken loaf…often more than he will eat…. Village women cooperate in bread baking, and it is known who has baked recently. There may be some bread left in the host’s house, but he must offer…a complete unbroken loaf. To feed…a…loaf left from another meal would be an insult. The host must serve his guest and the guest must eat…whether the wayfarer is really hungry or not…. the issue is not food…but rather food adequate for the occasion.
About the unity and expectations of the villagers:
The crucial element…is that the guest is the guest of the community, not just of the individual. This is…even in the complimentary language to the guest. He is told, “You have honored our village,” and never, “You have honored me.” Thus the community is responsible for his entertainment…. borrowing has been developed there into a fine art…the host is asking the sleeper to fulfil his duty…refusal is unthinkable.
Also, consider briefly an off-topic subject: a common misconception in my blog, The Christmas Story. Logically, relatives would feel even more responsible to guests than just to any fellow Jewish traveler. So, there’s no way Mary and Joseph would’ve asked to stay in an “inn” like what we’re familiar with. Not when Joseph was coming back to “his own town” where he must’ve had at least distant relatives (Luke 2:3-4). Read this blog to clear up your doubts on this subject.
Getting back to today’s text. In Luke 11:5-8 Jesus said, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” This word “impudence” has often been wrongly translated as persistence. It should be translated as “sense of shame,” but as a good sense of shame.
Shame is an extremely important quality in Eastern culture…. Some areas of life are governed by law, but much…is controlled by the “shame” (negative) that is avoided because of the individual’s inner “sense of shame” (positive). The first is negative…to be avoided at all costs; the second is positive and is to be encouraged.
I noticed this even in modern-day Israel. Their lack of shame in various circumstances seemed quite different to me. That’s partly because we Canadians are known to be polite, always saying “sorry.” But when the Jews and Arabs didn’t show any shame it didn’t strike me as at all rude. It just seemed practical, professional, confident and/or efficient; like politeness minus any potential for shame.
I wish I could cover all the author’s logic in my source on this subject, but it’s too long. Except to say it’s quite moving, how their cultural expectations and poetry structures all confirm what Jesus is teaching here. This parable was meant to strengthen our faith. Jesus wasn’t teaching us to repeatedly beg God here. He was teaching “his impudence” refers to God’s good “sense of shame” (as the “sleeper” in the parable). That God will answer our requests because God won’t be shamed. It’s not our “impudence” (as the persistent, requesting “host”).
In contrast, persistent prayer is being taught in the parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8). This judge, having no fear of God or respect for men, is contrasted with God, not an analogy for God. The woman must nag him. But this is also meant to encourage us. Because when the judge still gives in, it’s even more convincing. That God (being loving, in contrast to the judge) will answer. Which is why, when God withholds what we ask, we can rest assured it’s because he loves us.
Will you be encouraged by these parables?
The above map is from Reader’s Digest Jesus and His Times