The Christian belief system is consistent and coherent. This shows in the way that adjustments in one concept of the system often require modifications in other aspects. Increased clarity about one topic elucidates other topics. The interdependence of my beliefs was again displayed when I came across a common mistranslation of a single word in Luke’s gospel. Once I had been persuaded that the prevailing translation was misleading, I experienced shifts in the ways I view and relate to God, and how I pray and think about God’s involvement in daily life. These implications of a single word have been strong reverberations that I am grateful to experience.
The single word in this little earthquake is the noun anaideia. The word occurs in the New Testament only in Luke 11:8. Normally, anaideia is translated as “persistence” (NASB, NRSV), “impudence” (ESV), “boldness” (NIV84), “shameless persistence” (NLT), and “importunity” (KJV, RSV). The context is Jesus’ parable on prayer in which a friend goes to his neighbor-friend at night for bread. Translations take the words as describing the asking friend’s dogged determination to nag his neighbor until he receives what he has asked for. Persistence in asking is the point of the parable. That’s what I’ve always heard and thought about it. Now I think that’s misleading.
This parable seems similar to another parable in Luke in which a widow goes to a bad judge for vindication (Luke 18:1-8). The widow’s persistence in Luke 18 is a clear theme that seems to influence the translation of anaideia in Luke 11:8. Typical interpretation of the parable of the friend at night in Luke 11:5-8 is that we should be persistent by continually insisting through prayer that God pay attention to our need. This meaning is usually paired with the next statement in vv. 9-10 that we should ask, seek, and knock, not simply once, but in a continual and persistent way. This meaning pictures God as reluctant to respond to his children, and requiring that they show they really mean what they ask for by nagging God for their needs. Prayer then becomes work to progressively pry open God’s hand to release what we have asked of him.
Early Christian interpreters thought the meaning of anaideia in Luke 11:8 must be the persistence of the asking friend, a kind of disregard for shame in bold and persistent pressing for a response, despite the embarrassment of doing so. Christian writers were unique in taking the term this way. The only extrabiblical uses of anaideia to mean “persistence” occur in Christian writings in relation to this biblical passage. By contrast, no one else used the term in this way, since the uniform meaning for anaideia in 258 occurrences in the TLG database (including the LXX, Josephus, and Greek papyri) is always a negative concept that David Garland renders “shamelessness” (Luke, ZECNT, 467). The term is frequently a synonym for disgrace. Never does anaideia occur as a positive concept in the way of “persistence.”
Important in interpreting Luke 11:8 properly is to identify the “shamelessness” with the grumpy neighbor instead of with the friend who is asking and knocking. Notice that the friend asks only once; impending shame from social pressure does the rest; what will others say when they hear a neighbor has refused to help his friend in severe need? The term should be descriptive of the grumpy neighbor as a man who has no regard for his own disgrace in such a cold-hearted refusal of a friend in need to provide food for a near-starving visitor. Garland rightly points to the social shame that the grumpy neighbor would suffer for flippantly refusing his friend in need as the operative pressure moving him to action. Such coldness would be comparable to a friend refusing to lend his car to a friend who needed to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth (Garland’s contemporizing example).
I think Garland is right to distinguish the parable of the widow in Luke 18 as not about prayer in general, but in connection with eschatological distresses during which Christians must not lose hope. God is not to be likened to the bad judge, and God is not to be likened to the grumpy friend who initially refuses to give bread at night. These two parables are not mutually interpreting. Both parables display a greater-than relation of comparison. If even a grumpy neighbor will respond positively to a request, then how much more will God as a loving father respond. If even a bad judge will respond to a widow’s firm resolve, then how much more will God vindicate his people in connection with the return of Jesus (the preceding context in Luke 17).
When linked with Luke’s presentation of the Lord’s prayer to “Father in heaven” (Luke 11:1-4) and the comparisons for prayer with what even evil parents do for their children (Luke 11:11-13) the emphasis on God’s readiness to respond to his children’s requests in prayer is much stronger. This emphasis on God is commonly eclipsed by the interpretation that prayer requires human persistence. That was the primary change for me, to see God differently as a loving father, eager and willing to give everything that is truly good and needed. Second was a change in how I understand prayer as a simple ask-for-what-you-need appeal to God, by contrast to a tug-of-war that must be engaged with God before he is willing to dispense the things we have repeatedly appealed for. These are different views of God and prayer that motivate me to pray more, though with less repetition, since I am no longer nagging him to give what I need.
These large differences in my experience turned on the meaning of a single word.