Why friends?

The Lectionary – prescribed readings for the day – offers us passages from Ecclesiasticus at the moment.  This is a bit like the book of Proverbs, or Ecclesiastes  – it’s about Wisdom and how to gain it (or her, since she’s female in the Hebrew Scriptures).

And there’s a lot about friendship in Ecclesiasticus – as subject which Kimberly has been blogging about too.  The author, ben Sirach, writes powerful words, such as ‘A faithful friend is a secure shelter; whoever finds one has found a treasure‘ (6:14) or ‘throw a stone at a bird and you scare them away; abuse a friend and you break off your friendship‘ (22:20).

He values friendships and urges us to nurture them.  I’m haphazard about this, and I’m always so grateful for friends who will just pick up the threads after a long gap, and renew the closeness and sharing without any recriminations. 

But as so often with ancient texts, you suddenly get a slant on things that makes you think they inhabited a very different world from ours.  How about 22:23:  ‘Win your neighbour’s confidence while he is poor, and you will share the joy of his prosperity;  stand by him in trouble, and you will be his partner when he comes into a fortune‘?  This is a world of mutual self-interest, where in the absence of a welfare state or banks, you need friends to see you through.

Or is it so different a world?  How many people try to renew a long-standing ‘friendship’ when someone wins the Lottery?     Jesus, as always, turned all this on its head:  ‘If you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit it that to you?  Even sinners do as much. .’  (Luke 6:33).  

Ben Sirach also seems to suggest that the best friends for one who fears the Lord are people like him (6:17).  If this means that they share his faith, then I’m not sure I agree.  Some of my closest friends, who speak the truth to me, and care disinterestedly for me, are not Christian, or indeed members of any faith community.  But they, too, are what ben Sirach calls ‘an elixir of life’.

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