Courage and Friendship

Indeed, whatever things you say in darkness will be heard in the light, and whatever you whisper in a private room will be proclaimed from the roofs. but I tell  you, my friends, don’t fear those who kill the body and afterwards can do nothing more. I will show you whom to fear.   Fear the one who after killing you has the authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear that one.

Luke 12: 3-5

In today’s gospel we see Jesus addressing his disciples about the fear and even terror they face as their enemies, the religious leaders of the people, lie in wait for them on their journey to Jerusalem. He points out to his disciples that it is their hypocrisy that really drives the Pharisees to such antagonism. Jesus has become, as Simeon told Mary in the Temple so many years before, the one through whom “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:35). It is in their reaction to Jesus, that the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is laid bare. Jesus tells his disciples, and so us, that we are to “keep away from” any source and temptation to such hypocrisy.

It is not really as if religious hypocrisy, at least, is a great threat for the disciples, because to be a follower of Jesus at that moment is to risk your very life. The hypocrisy would come in denying what they know to be the truth. In a so-called “Christian” country like the United States the danger of religious hypocrisy is much greater. As the Pharisees insist that it is Jesus rather than their own duplicity that is the threat, so those who actually have the power in a society are very apt to suggest that it is they who are under threat. What is under threat is their place of dominance and control. Yet, they will inevitably create scapegoats of the others, of the minorities and the oppressed and claim, in a totally contorted fashion, to be their victims. It is the very nature of humanity to seek to rise from a position of weakness and oppression to one of status and power. Jesus, however, is always warning us to beware once that happens. For, it is far too easy to forget that we, as the Hebrews, were each in our own way once aliens and slaves in Egypt. At that point, we can begin to act as if we have superiority and power over “the others.” We have forgotten that the Christian is not the one who is to take the first place, but rather the last. As St. Paul reminds us in the passage from Romans, we are not justified as a wage due us for our work and efforts, but we, as all people, are loved by God even as we are sinners and undeserving. Hypocrisy is the forgetting of who we really are and where we come from.

So all the characters in the gospel today are under threat. Jesus and the disciples are journeying inexorably to the place where the forces of evil are intent on destroying them. And the Pharisees are so threatened at being revealed for who they really are, that they are prepared to do anything, including murder, to maintain their secrets. Our secrets, those that we are aware of and those that are unknown even to ourselves, are the source of much our own evil and violence. They are the source of our evil and violence because they are the source of our deepest fears. When Jesus says, don’t fear those who kill the body and afterwards can do nothing more,” he is telling us to avoid our life’s being controlled by human respect, by making how we are seen by others our primary concern. Judgment, he says, will be based on our ability to present ourselves to God in the naked truth of who we are. To live with a great abyss between who we really are and who we present ourselves to be to the world is a major cause of anxiety.

Anxiety is epidemic in our day, at least in American culture. If what is becoming a majority of a population needs to be medicated to make it through the day, it is time to ask ourselves if there is not something profoundly mistaken about the pervasive cultural demands that constitute our consciousness. To hear first person accounts of those who suffer from anxiety disorder is to hear them relating an experience of already living in Gehenna. Many of our young people are so frightened at what they must face, that they can’t get out of bed in the morning to go to school. They experience demands on them that far exceed their capacities. They experience the hopelessness and anxiety of spending their entire lives without ever being able to live out who they themselves truly are. We now have a capacity, through medication, to make it possible to live such a dissociative and “hypocritical” life. Medication can suppress that in us which strains to be authentic. It can allow a broken culture to designate falseness as normal and authenticity as abnormal. Anxiety is not merely physiological. It is the sign that something is profoundly wrong with our mode of living. In light of today’s gospel, it may well be a sign that we have not kept away from the leaven of the Pharisees.

In the midst of this teaching about hypocrisy and fear, Jesus addresses his disciples as friends. Although, as we know, Jesus does this several times in John’s gospel, this is its only appearance in the synoptics. “But I tell you, my friends, don’t fear those who kill the body and afterwards can do nothing more.” As Jesus encourages his disciples to resist the basic human temptation to build a life around our fears of what others think of us, he begins by reminding them that they are his friends. Perhaps it is the case, that without friends we could never come to integrity and authenticity. From Adam and Eve on, we hide ourselves because we are ashamed. It is not at all easy for us to believe and to trust that as sinners we are loved and saved. This is the profound, not only spiritual but also psychological, wisdom of Paul’s teaching on grace. We are loved even in those places where we cannot love ourselves.

To speak of friendship is, of course, to speak of many levels of relationship. We have friends with whom we like to socialize, and friends who are collaborators and co-workers. And, by the grace of God, most of us have one or two or at most a few friends with whom we dare to be exactly who we are — even daring to be in ways we do not control and of which we are unaware. This, I think, is one place where we begin to learn the courage of which Jesus speaks in today’s gospel. Recently I was speaking with someone who was speaking around an experience of relationship with one who was very close to her. She was anxious and troubled about her feelings and thoughts, but  she was not able to name them. As we spoke around and about them, slowly bringing their emotional content to light, she began to experience them differently and less judgmentally. Her “horror” that she could think and feel this way began to dissipate in favor of a more hopeful perspective. At any given point in our lives, there is much about ourselves that we do not want to become aware of. A true friend is one who offers us a place where we can be, at least to a far greater degree, less afraid of ourselves.

To read today’s gospel is to hear and to picture Jesus turning to his very frightened disciples and saying to them “But I tell you, My friends.” He is not only telling them not to fear others, but he is providing a space where they can feel that fear lessen. As a younger, not merely young, person I suffered from much anxiety. As I look at that experience in retrospect, I realize that at its core was a fear of my very own life as it was. The world had its expectations and demands of me, and I was not at all assured that I was up to those demands. There seemed to me to be an actually frightening gap between who I was and who I was required to be. That only changed as others, quite unexpectedly and even shockingly, turned to me and addressed me as “My friend.”  The larger world is mediated to us through those who are close to us. The gift that each of us has been given to give to the world is always a vulnerable one. It is the gift of friendship that, by receiving and loving the gift we are, gives us the courage to offer our gift, as small as it seems to us, to the world. The intimacy of friendship is not at all solipsistic. When we befriend and love another, when we receive and appreciate the gift they have received, we enable them to give that gift as a gift to the world. Any good that I may do for anyone is also being done by those who have called me and loved me as friend. The “courage to be” comes, in no small part, by those whose friendship and “perfect love” cast out the fear that is always threatening to cripple us. We are able to give the gift we have received because our friends have revealed it to us by loving us in all those places where we could not love ourselves.

By the joys of friendship, Epicurus meant a full range of human interactions ranging from intimate and often philosophical discussions with his dearest companions—the kind he enjoyed at the long dining table in the Garden—to impromptu exchanges with people, known and unknown, in the street. The education or social status of those with whom he conversed mattered not a whit; in fact the height of true friendship was to be accepted and loved for who one was, not what station in life one had achieved. Loving and being loved affirmed one’s sense of self and conquered feelings of loneliness and alienation. It kept one sane.

Daniel Klein, Travels With Epicurus, p. 30

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