Words like “importunity” have never rolled easily off my tongue. As a boy I used to read the little summary at the top of each chapter in the King James Version or the American Standard Version, and when I came across one mentioning “the importunate widow,” I didn’t know what that long word meant. I had never heard it used in everyday conversation (still haven’t), but I guessed that it meant troublemaker because in the parable that word referred to, the judge said the woman troubled him. Eventually, though, I became a little more familiar with “importunity,” which is in the text of Luke 11:8 and which seemed to mean something like tenacity; so I understood the widow in Luke 18 a little better.

Memories of that earlier bewilderment came back to me later as I studied Luke 11 in connection with our congregation’s 1996 “theme” — Lord, Teach Us to Pray. In this chapter one of Christ’s disciples made that very request. Jesus responded by first giving the disciples a sort of model prayer, quite similar to one he had presented before, as recorded in Matthew 6. Then he gave the illustration of going to a friend at midnight to borrow food at a time when a number of factors would make the friend hesitant to honor that request. But Jesus indicated that the friend, though reluctant, would get out of bed and supply the requested food anyway, not because of friendship but because the would-be borrower just wouldn’t go away until he got what he wanted.

Recent Bible translations differ on words to replace “importunity.” Most that I have checked say “persistence,” while at least a couple use “boldness” or words to that effect. Surely there are elements of both in Christ’s meaning, but both leave me with a vague uneasiness. Was the Lord teaching that our requests would be granted simply because we were bold enough to make them and persistent in repeating them? I doubt it.

Even scholars in Greek differ on the exact meaning of the word. One says “barefacedness.” Another suggests “impudence.” But a third, I think, hits the nail on the head with “shamelessness.” That’s how the borrower would have had to approach his friend, with a desire so earnest that it overrode both his pride and his fear of embarrassment and kept him repeating his urgent plea. The same attitude and perseverance was exhibited by Abraham in his pleading for Sodom and the cities of the plains, and by some who asked for physical healing by Jesus.

When we can approach God with such humility, earnestness and perseverance, especially on behalf of others, his tender answer will come not out of irritation but out of willingness to provide for his children who thus pray. And as we exercise the holy privilege of prayer as a group, perhaps we should recall Solomon’s counsel: “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.”

–Travis Allen (reprinted, with minor changes, from the April 1996 Gospel Tidings).

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