Scripture: Luke 11:1-10
He was known simply as “Father Abraham” to many in the movement. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel arrived in the United States in 1940 as a refugee from Nazi Europe. In Germany where he had studied and taught, and in Poland, the place of his birth and home to his family, many were proclaiming Jesus an Aryan and tearing out from their christian bibles the pages of the Old Testament—because it was a Jewish book. His daughter Susannah reflects that it must have seemed miraculous to him then, just several years later, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would place the Exodus – that most Jewish of stories – and the prophets of Israel at the very center of the struggle for Civil Rights.
Marching out of Selma on the way to Montgomery in March 1965, arm in arm with Dr. King, (the future) Rep. John Lewis, and others, Rabbi Heschel likely felt like he was walking out of and into the pages of scripture. His daughter thinks that for him, however, Selma was Exodus in a new way. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in the hopes of a dream, God’s dream that this time around Pharaoh might join the Israelites in their pilgrimage to freedom. The rabbi had written himself that “[t]he tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert and together stood at the foot of Sinai”.
Importantly, for Rabbi Heschel and for those who made the journey, the march was not simply a political demonstration—it was a religious occasion; it was prayer. When he came home from that march, he famously wrote, “For many of us the the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
If we are to rightly understand Jesus’ teachings on prayer as recorded in the gospel of Luke, then I think we must certainly understand prayer in this way. That is, I think we must consider prayer in the way of Exodus, in the way of the Jewish prophets, in the way of Rabbi Heschel and his Hasidic forebears, in the spirit of Selma and every movement, before and since, oriented in the direction of freedom, radical welcome, and a world transformed by holy justice.
Jesus’ disciples have asked for instruction—“Rabbi, teach us how to pray…” Jesus’ response is thoroughly Jewish. Some have observed that the so-called “Prayer of Jesus” shares in both form and content with other Jewish prayers, prayed down the centuries to today. As with those prayers, the prayer that Jesus passed onto the disciples refuses to separate the personal from the political. And to make sure that we don’t miss this point, Jesus notably adds to the prayer a parable.
Some may interpret the parable that Jesus tells – a story about one who comes to their neighbor at midnight asking for three loaves of bread only to be rejected – as Jesus telling us to pray harder and more often. But if you’re anyone like me, such moralisms seem unhelpful at best and spiritually toxic at their worst—and they also don’t, I think, make particularly good literal sense either. In the context of Jesus’ teachings immediately surrounding this parable and throughout Luke’s gospel, there is little reason to actually believe that Jesus is here likening God to a friend who does not want to be bothered with the cares of others. To the contrary, Jesus directly speaks of the Holy One, not as a neighbor reluctant to share, but rather as Father-Mother-Parent God, ever generous, forgiving, and abounding in steadfast love (e.g., 11:2, 11-13).
On a closer reading, then, it seems to me that Jesus’ parable of the neighbor at midnight is less about our requests to God and more about the power of our prayerful protest. Less about begging our daily bread from God and more about living into a world in which all have more than enough to share. Less about the indignities of pleading our case before God and more about together manifesting a kin-dom, by the power of the Spirit, in which the dignity and belovedness of all is upheld. In other words, let me persist in suggesting that Jesus’ parable of the neighbor at midnight is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel might say, about “praying with our legs”—that is, about praying with our bodies and our lives.
It is as if Jesus is, in the way of Exodus, assuring us that even if the Pharaohs of the world will not be moved by compassion or decency, then at least our persistence and determination will move them. God’s dream for the world manifests in our persistence.
I believe that the persistence at work in Jesus’ parable is the same spirit of persistence that moved Senator Elizabeth Warren to speak out against the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General in 2017, as she cited the testimony of Coretta Scott King against him in 1986. It is the same spirit of persistence that led one to exclaim afterward: “She was warned. She was given an explanation, but nevertheless, she persisted.”
The persistence at work in Jesus’ parable is the same spirit of persistence that moved in Puerto Rico three years ago today (July 24) when Governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned following twelve days of massive street protests over corruption and arrogance.
It is the same persistence that moved out of Selma, Alabama, in 1965 on the way to Montgomery, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arms with an inter-religious and multiracial coalition of others, who infused their movement with a biblical sense of hope and justice, who paired prayer with protest.
It is the same spirit of persistence that delivered Frederick Douglass out of bondage in the year 1838, who years after his escape from slavery told others, “We want practical religion—religion that will do something. When I commenced praying with my legs, I felt the answer coming down”. Or, in another version of this saying often attributed to him: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs”.
God’s dream for the world manifests in our persistence. It very well may be true that as Professor Robin D.G. Kelley suggests, there is no promise of liberation, only struggle. And yet even amidst this struggle to which there may be no end in sight, the traditions of Jesus and the prophets, the stories of Exodus and Easter all testify that there is also a Holy Spirit that is everlasting and enduring, a spirit of freedom that persists.
The prayer that Jesus taught was always just the beginning—always just the outline of a dream:
Of God’s kin-dom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
A dream in which God’s name is made holy in our sacred regard for each other and all of creation.
A dream in which all have bread for the journey,
in which no thing and no one is unforgivable,
in which every debt is canceled.
God’s dream for a world in which everyone is spared the indignities of a criminal legal-system.
God’s dream of a world in which hearts are opened like doors and all are free.
Jesus’ prayer was always just the beginning—always just the outline of a dream, but it is a dream to which we can give our whole lives, that we might receive and experience life in return. May it be so. Amen.
- Kelley, Robin D.G. 2022. “There Are No Utopias.” Interview by Rund Abdelfatah & Ramtin Arablouei. Throughline, NPR, February 24, 2022.
- American Jewish World Service. 2009. “Susannah Heschel, ‘Following in my father’s footsteps: Selma 40 years later.” Originally published November 2, 2009.
- Baird, Justus. 2016. “Praying with my Feet”. Sefaria, January 30, 2016.
- Heschel, Susannah. 2015. “What Selma means to the Jews.” The Times of Israel, January 18, 2015.
- Jewish Women’s Archive. n.d. “Abraham Joshua Heschel.” Accessed July 27, 2022.
- Quote Investigator. 2021. “Frederick Douglass: I Prayed That God Would Emancipate Me, But It Was Not Til I Prayed With My Legs That I Was Emancipated.” November 23, 2021.
- Sarras, Niveen. 2022. “Commentary on Luke 11:1-13.” Working Preacher. July 24, 2022.