Holy Week 2024: Jesus and David Part 4 – Jonathan and the Beloved Disciple


Holy Week 2024: Jesus and David Part 4 – Jonathan and the Beloved Disciple

Published: 3rd April, 2024

A reading from the First Book of Samuel

In the morning Jonathan went out into the field to the appointment with David, and with him was a little boy.  He said to the boy, “Run and find the arrows that I shoot.” As the boy ran, he shot an arrow beyond him.  When the boy came to the place where Jonathan’s arrow had fallen, Jonathan called after the boy and said, “Is the arrow not beyond you?”  Jonathan called after the boy, “Hurry, be quick, do not linger.” So Jonathan’s boy gathered up the arrows and came to his master.  But the boy knew nothing; only Jonathan and David knew the arrangement.  Jonathan gave his weapons to the boy and said to him, “Go and carry them to the city.”  As soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other and wept with each other; David wept the more.  Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you and between my descendants and your descendants forever.’ ” He got up and left, and Jonathan went into the city. [1 Samuel 20.35-42]

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Friendship has a complex and even a contested place within Christian tradition. This is probably not something that worries most Christians all that much, because most people whether Christian or not will generally assume from a common-sense perspective that friendship is a straightforwardly good thing. And yet we can all think of situations in which friendship can become difficult and complicated. Parents of teenagers may worry about the company their children keep. Sometimes we find ourselves in the position of having conflicting loyalties. And so there is a strand of thinking within Christian tradition, perhaps even the dominant strand of thinking, that takes a sceptical or even outright negative attitude to friendship.

This tradition seems to have begun with St Augustine, and developed particularly within monastic settings, but has also been taken up by protestant writers in more recent times. The argument goes something like this: as Christians the only special, particular love that we are to have is our love for Jesus; towards everyone else we owe a universal benevolence. Developing particular friendships, by definition, means that we devote love to one person that we do not devote to another, and very often our commitment to our friend will get in the way of commitment to our Lord. So the argument goes.

It’s easy enough to feel the simple logic of this argument. And it’s also easy to see why it may have been attractive in a monastic setting: we all know how prone human society is to the problem of cliques, and so it’s not hard to imagine that particular friendships within a monastic community could become divisive and disruptive in the life of that community.

But it seems to me that there are a couple of pretty fundamental problems with this argument: one biblical, the other perhaps more philosophical.

If we take the biblical approach first, we might consider that there are some beautiful examples of particular friendships in the bible. The story of David and Jonathan is one. The language that describes their relationship is extremely moving; their tears and kisses we would be more likely to associate with a romantic relationship than with a friendship, although friendships too can sometimes have a kind of romantic quality. The relationship between David and Jonathan is a relationship that flourishes in a situation of threat, but which will eventually succumb to that threat as David is driven out of the court of King Saul, Jonathan’s father, and into the life of a wandering outlaw. The bible does not condemn this connection between David and Jonathan in any way. It is clearly a part of the development of the character of David as a hero in the history of the people of Israel.

Once again we can see here an aspect of the life of Christ prefigured in the life of David. Think of the disciple in John’s gospel known simply as “the disciple Jesus loved”. Think of the way in which this relationship comes to the fore in circumstances of threat, namely on the night of Jesus’ arrest, at the Last Supper. What are we to make of this relationship? Surely Jesus loved all His disciples? Well yes, but there is only one who is described as “the disciple Jesus loved”. The Beloved Disciple strongly suggests that Jesus Himself had a capacity for particular friendships, and did not see this as a moral problem. It is also striking in John’s gospel that the Beloved Disciple does not appear to have been a cause of jealousy or division: in the gospel set for today, Peter asks the Beloved Disciple to find out who is to betray Jesus, because he is in a position of intimate physical proximity with Jesus at the table. There is almost a deference in Peter to the particular relationship the Beloved Disciple enjoys with the Lord.

And moving beyond the specific examples of particular friendships positively portrayed in the bible, there is also the fact that friendship is used by Jesus as a way of explaining His mission and His coming Passion and Death. “I no longer call you servants… I have called you friends… No-one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. There is nothing here to suggest that Jesus finds friendship a morally problematic category.

The idea that we find in Christian writers as varied as St Augustine, Thomas a Kempis and Kierkegaard, that Christians should avoid particular friendships and instead aim for a universal, disinterested love, reminds me of something that Julian Lennon said about his father John: “Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces?” Or to make the same point in a more positive way, here’s another very different quote, this time spoken by the fictional character Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s much-loved novel, Brideshead Revisited: “to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom”. How can we possibly know what it means to love everyone before we have worked out what it means to love someone? Particular friendship at its best is how we begin to learn the wisdom of universal love.

And here once again we need to remember that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.

As fully human Jesus must learn to love in a human way. “I call you friends”, He tells His disciples. There is the Beloved Disciple, there is the apparent intensity of His connection with Mary Magdalene. Jesus the man shows no sign of a cool disinterested universal benevolence. He very definitely has His friendships and attachments. We ourselves must love in a human way. We cannot aspire to universal love without first understanding particular love; if we try to do this we will usually end up either cold or platitudinous or both. We are finite, bounded creatures, and whilst we might aspire to universal love we must accept our limitations in humility, just as our Lord did, and strive to be good friends to those the Lord has given to us and to whom the Lord has given us.

But as fully divine Jesus is also able to love as God. His capacity for love is infinite; for Him there is not the choice between deep and intense particular connections and a generalized, cold and platitudinous profession of love for everyone. There is a way of reading John’s gospel that sees the Beloved Disciple as a way for the reader to place themselves within the narrative. The Beloved Disciple can be you; the Beloved Disciple can be me. We can read John’s account and imagine ourselves in the position of this unnamed disciple, resting on Him, close enough perhaps even to hear the beating of His compassionate heart.

Thinking about the Beloved Disciple in this way teaches us an important truth. As human beings we are limited, we are finite, it is very hard for us to love in anything other than a particular, finite way. But if we think about the intensity and quality of particular human friendships at their best, and then imagine the infinite capacity for love that resides in Jesus as fully divine, we come to realise that each one of us is in a way the Beloved Disciple.  We come to realise that the distinction between particular love and universal love is profoundly changed by the Incarnation: human and divine love are united in Christ.

“No-one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. That capacity for particular friendship revealed in Jesus’ earthly life is something that is extended to each one of us. “I call you friends”, He says. In these days of Holy Week may we seize on this offer of His friendship. And let us pray too for the gift of the Holy Spirit, that what we are blessed to learn of love in particular friendships and in family life we may learn to apply to this world that the Lord Jesus came to save, to whom, with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and unto ages of ages. Amen.