Sermon: Two Sermons on Friendship - David and Jonathan
Preached on 8th June 2008
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
I am preaching two sermons on friendship on these Sundays of my residence. It's apt that they happen to frame yesterday's festival of the Friends of this Cathedral. Last week we looked at Ruth and Naomi and saw how the essence of friendship is altruism, a relationship not driven by the constraints and duties of our roles, and not looking for benefit or reward. We saw how it transcends differences of age, religion and race because at its heart lies our common humanity. I suggested that the story offers a parable of how God's love for the world must be, and how his friendship towards us makes us a society of friendship and truth.
If Ruth and Naomi give us the classic story of friendship between women, David and Jonathan are the archetypes of men who love one another. Their friendship is another instance of how love transcends difference. Jonathan is the king's son and heir; David a nobody, the ruddy, fresh-faced, bright-eyed youngest son who when Samuel comes looking for a new king, is the forgotten one, outside in the wilderness with the sheep. How he came to King Saul's notice is told in different ways. A legendary story attributed it to his prowess with the sling in dispatching Goliath the Philistine. Another put it down to his skill as a musician, able to soothe Saul when fits of depression overwhelmed him. Either way, Saul came to love him. And so did his children: his son Jonathan, and Michal his daughter, whom David married. As Saul's fortunes began to wane, David's star rose higher: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands!'. So envy, jealousy, rivalry and fear entered this complicated quadrilateral of human relationships. Today's reading tells of the first time Saul tried to kill David; later he even assaulted Jonathan as well. In the end, his own demons got the better of him, and he succumbed to despair. The tragedy of King Saul is the nearest the Bible comes to King Lear. That story is for another day.
Like Ruth and Naomi, the friendship of David and Jonathan is pivotal to a bigger narrative than simply that of two human beings. The 1st Book of Samuel has as its theme the beginnings of kingship in Israel. After the false start with Saul, God is determined (says the text) to make sure that what replaces Saul's kingship will endure this time. Only the storyteller knows the outcome, which is that David will be established as king over Israel, and that he will be the father of a dynasty. How this is to happen is not yet clear. Our reading today is a defining episode in a drama that lurches this way and that as men, women and institutions engage in a fascinating and unpredictable interplay of power, rivalry and love.
The protagonist is not David but Jonathan. It is his soul that is ‘knit' or bound to the soul of David, just as Ruth ‘clung' to Naomi. ‘Jonathan loved him as his own soul'. Then Jonathan instigates a covenant of loyalty with David, and as a mark of his love strips himself of his robe and delivers it to David, together with his armour, his sword, his bow and his belt. You could say: ‘he must increase, but I must decrease'. It is one of the most intimate and touching scenes in the Hebrew Bible. But the narrative has a larger political end in view. Symbolically, the king's son is renouncing his own claim to the throne in order to give place to David. He is pledging his allegiance to the one he knows will inherit the kingdom. Giving away his robe and regalia to his friend identifies David as the heir from this point onwards. So once the story has taken us out of this intimate and private place back into the public highway of history, events leap forward with irrepressible energy of the young warrior who can do anything because he has won the hearts not only of the king's son but of all the people. ‘David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him'; ‘David had success in all his undertakings for the Lord was with him'; ‘all Israel and Judah loved David'.
But underlying the politics of God and nations lies one of the profoundest human dramas in all literature. It's a story not simply of warrior and prince, but of two men. Perhaps we men are nervous of the kind of intimacy portrayed in this story. When Ruth declared her love for Naomi she poured out her love with commitment and passion: ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; may the Lord do so to me and more if even death parts me from you!' Well, maybe women ‘do' the rhetoric of passion and men don't. Possibly. Perhaps it's because when someone touches me, power ‘goes out' from me, as in the New Testament reading. Many men find this hard. Yet in David and Jonathan we see a friendship between men that is expressed in precisely those same terms of a covenant that endures until death. When Jonathan divests himself of his robe and his armour, he is saying to David: let there be nothing between us, nothing to get in the way of our knowing each other as undefended people, I and thou, human being to human being, man to man. The torah says of Moses that the Lord spoke to him ‘face to face, as a man speaks to his friend'. When Jonathan dies with his father at the battle of Mount Gilboa, David is inconsolable. His grief-stricken eulogy for his dead friend says it all: ‘I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women'.
The poet Santayana said that your friend was that part of the human race with whom you can be yourself. This entails a degree of unafraid openness that is beyond most of us. In our voyeuristic age where everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven, intimacy is scrutinised because of the presumption that it must have a sexual content. Ancient societies had no such anxieties. They freely drew on the extravagant, joyous language of sensual love to describe friendship because love is the highest, most intense experience known to us. In the laments, like today's Psalm 41, the worshipper pours out his heart to God because he has been betrayed by the friend he had loved, as if his lover has abandoned him: ‘yea even mine own familiar friend whom I trusted, who did also eat of my bread, hath laid great wait for me'. In the New Testament, Jesus' friendship with the man St John's Gospel calls ‘the beloved disciple', who leaned on his breast at supper, is as intimate as David and Jonathan; so Jesus bequeathes his friend and his mother to each other at the cross. When he says that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends, he raises friendship to the highest and noblest level. Your friend is the person you would die for. And because it exists for no other reason than itself, not to get but to give, it's among the most cherished gifts of a God who at creation came into the garden looking for the man and the woman because he looked for friendship. It is not good for us to be alone, whether we are human or divine.
It's possible that in the upper room, that place of friendship and truth, Jesus deliberately echoes the actions of Jonathan in our story. Like him, Jesus is the King's Son. Like him, he takes off his robe and abases himself in front of those he loves and calls his friends so that he may give them all he has. He becomes nothing, so that they may become everything. This is the meaning of the washing of feet and of the cross. The Letter to the Philippians tells how Jesus ‘laid aside his glory' and humbled himself. Self-emptying, kenosis, is the true sign of the friendship of a God who so loves the world. It costs him everything. But in Christ's exaltation, the human race is exalted too. We are crowned with him, given royal status like David, made heirs to the kingdom like him, even though we, like David, were nobodies, the last of the line, forgotten about. We owe it all to the King's Son who has found us, offered us friendship, given us his life, made a covenant with us, and loved us as his own soul. Immortal love, for ever full, for ever flowing free. When we know we are friends, we are truly at home in God's world.
(Psalm 41, 1 Samuel 18.1-16, Luke 8.41-end)