The parable of the Friend in Need (or the Friend at Midnight) appears in the Gospel of Luke immediately after Jesus gives his disciples the “Lord's Prayer” and is clearly a continuation of his teaching on how to pray. Three cultural aspects help explain the details of the parable. First, in the ancient Near East, ovens were fired and bread was usually baked in the early morning hours before the heat of the day – so by nightfall there might well be no bread left in a home, and people would borrow from their neighbors if more was needed.
Second, and also because of the heat of the days, it was not unusual for people to wait till evening to set out on a journey and to arrive at their destination later in the night. Finally, Near Eastern custom was such that if someone arrived at one’s home after a long journey, it would be regarded as shameful not to offer the person food. This seems to be the situation in which the man in the parable finds himself, so he goes to his friend’s house late at night to request food for his guest.
The obvious lesson in the parable is that of persistence in prayer, something Jesus taught on multiple occasions, and in other parables such as that of the Persistent Widow. But perhaps we may find other lessons in this particular parable as well. For one thing, we see in the action of the friend that he was doing everything he could do himself – going to a friend’s house, even late at night, and asking tirelessly until he received a positive answer.
The Greek word which is translated “boldness” or “persistence” in some translations, regarding how the man continues to ask his friend’s help, is well translated as “shameless audacity” in the NIV – it really does convey an attitude that goes beyond simple persistence to a level which might even seem audacious or rude. This, Jesus tells us, is the kind of persistence we should have in prayer — a confident boldness we also see in the story of the woman of Syrophoenicia who persisted in asking Jesus’ help till he rewarded her for exactly this attitude (Mark 7:25-30, Matthew 15:21-28 and see also Hebrews 4:16).
But we should also remember a final detail of this parable: that it is not based on the friend needing bread for himself, but for someone else. So an additional lesson we can draw from this story is that we can often be the answer to someone else’s need. That is what intercessory prayer is all about, and this small parable reminds us to pray for others not only tirelessly, but also with true boldness.