More thoughts on “making friends”

by Phil Johnson

From a devotional given at the annual Pietisten Picnic on Vashon Island, Wash., August 11, 2013.

I am pleased to be here beyond what I can tell. The reasons are many. To begin I want to say three things.

First, to all of you here who make possible the creation of Pietisten and to those who do the work that ends up in this journal that people receive twice a year, you are doing an absolutely wonderful job. Thank you so very much.

Second, thank you for stepping in almost four years ago to pick up the baton and keep Pietisten alive. May God continue to bless you for that.

Third, it is a great pleasure to continue to be associated with Pietisten in its new life. I speak for myself and for many friends, specifically those here today, former and still active editors Tom Tredway and Arv Adell, and Art Mampel. The same for Glen Wiberg with his “Sightings in Christian Music,” David Hawkinson, Elder Lindahl, and Bob Bach, who continue to contribute.

While on the subject of veterans of this Pietisten conversation, I have greetings from Karl Johnson of San Andreas, Marilyn Ford, Dave and Marion Swanson, Nels Elde, Charlie Elowson, Bob Elde, Bob McNaughton, Eric and Jennifer Ecklund-Johnson, Don Teed, and many more who would like to be here. Art Anderson, who wrote a column in each issue for decades, sends his greetings. He is no longer able to contribute, but his spirit is four square behind us all.

In light of one of the Pietisten premises, “To engage with friends in an open conversation and to expand our friendships,” I want to talk with you about the story Jesus told in Luke 16:1-9. I came upon this story because of a mistake I made. For a recent issue I wrote an article entitled “Jesus weighs in to lighten things up” because of his advice to avoid going to court if you can. Jesus said in his playful way that I cannot imitate: “‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.’”

I thought that Jesus said, “make friends” on the way to court, and I wrote the article based in part on that error. I think making friends is implicit in his advice about avoiding court. So, even though the text does not actually say make friends and though it has reminded me how easily a reader like myself can get off the track, I do not withdraw my conclusion in that article. Making friends is not excluded.

Elsewhere, Jesus does indeed say “make friends.” This appears in Luke 16:1-9. Here Jesus says to the disciples,

“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”

So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?”

He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.”

He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?”

He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.”

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends [emphasis mine] for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

What do you make of this? Here is where we find “make friends.” Can you believe that the owner commends the squanderer and that Jesus proclaims this moral or proverb? Even if it might be good advice to make friends by means of dishonesty, most people think that would be morally unconventional to say the least. This is another great story. It’s a story that stretches us with respect to Jesus’ moral teaching.

We can begin exploring this nugget by observing that, along with a number of other stories by and about Jesus, this story shows us that Jesus sees life around him with an ironic and realistic eye. He is not surprised by the ambiguities of human life. Ambiguities that make it impossible to be ultimately “right.”

There is more to life than right and wrong. In a Sufi poem “Never Lose the Way” it says: “While on this hunt, don’t go astray, worrying if every little thing is good or bad.” I find myself preoccupied judging right and wrong in my own actions. Should I spending some time writing? Or should I go for a walk? Or should I call a friend or should I take a trip? What’s right? What’s wrong? Perhaps you know that inner debate. It’s a debate that leads us astray.

We know Jesus made friends with tax collectors and sinners. He bragged about it. He was a willing and welcome guest in their homes. He recognized that we humans are all pilgrims making our way through real lives full of hazards, pestilence, hardship and death. He was a pilgrim. He had compassion on himself and on ordinary people in the mix of life. He didn’t require people to become good before he would have anything to do with them.

Suppose we apply Immanuel Kant’s ethical “categorical imperative” to the story. It goes like this quote: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” How does the manager’s action stack up to this moral standard? Should it be a universal law to commend a crooked manager? How does the advice of Jesus stand up? Should it be a universal moral law to, as Jesus recommends, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth?” I don’t think Kant would think so.

Jesus told the story to his disciples. Imagine a possible scene. The friends (perhaps thirteen, all told) have just finished eating. They are in a quiet spot, a nice grove with some rocks and logs to sit on, and Jesus spins this tale in which charges of squandering are leveled.

“Squandering.” What a great word. This character has been wasting money and goods. He’s been throwing parties and buying expensive clothes for himself and the like. He has been reckless and foolish; the evidence proves it and he does not deny it.

Some disciples probably laughed during the squandering manager’s tale and, likely, some were shocked. Some were in disbelief. Apparently Jesus could come up with a story like this on the spot. Jesus could look past the squandering done by the manager and sympathize with his plight.

Moral stories are supposed to make the point that crime does not pay. In this story more dishonesty effectively cures the situation and all parties are pleased. It’s sort of like two minuses multiplied make a plus. Luckily for the squandering man his master asks for an accounting. He could have been dismissed immediately and the door locked after him.

Whatever one might say or think about this complicated parable, a central matter is the inestimable value of friends and the blessings of being a friend. Friendship has been at the heart of our Pietisten tradition and it was at the heart of our heritage. The joys and energies of friendship have carried us through life and provided deepest satisfaction. So, it is a premises of ours to engage with friends in open conversation and to expand our friendships.

Not everybody enjoys sociability. Friendships are personal. There is no reason I can see to judge a hermit or a recluse negatively. Lives of solitude bless us. We have the heritage of the desert fathers to mention just one such source of blessing. Expanding friendships is not a moral obligation. It is an invitation.

When I was in seminary I came across the book The Broken Wall, by Marcus Barth. It is a commentary on Ephesians. Ephesians 2:14 is a key passage. It reads: “For he (Paul means Jesus) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Break down the wall of hostility. Hostility is easy to come by. The wall can go up the minute we are in traffic, or when we feel threatened. Friendship breaks the wall down. Jesus broke down the wall of hostility with the Samaritans when he and the disciples spent two days as the guests of the Samaritans in Sycar. Jesus must have realized that though he could talk about God’s universal love and believe God’s love included Samaritans, it was a whole other thing to know Samaritans personally as friends.

Bob McNaughton, long time pastor in Cromwell, Conn., and a faithful reader of Pietisten, visited Minnesota earlier this summer. He said people who want diversity can make it real by making friends with a Jewish person, a Muslim person, a Korean person, a Chinese person, a homeless person, a gay person — in short, people with whom making friends takes us across a boundary. To do so enriches one’s own life and makes a crack in the wall of hostility and when that happens, it enhances civil life.

A thankful heart is key to everything. We have much to be thankful for. We aren’t very powerful as the world goes. We are small. But our hearts need not be troubled. I like the poem that Alexander McCall Smith’s character, old Angus Lordie, says at the end of the novel Expresso Tales. How much more true of Pietisten is what Angus says of Scotland?

It is a mark of a successful celebration That one should have little recollection of the cause;
As long as the happiness itself remains a memory.
Our tiny planet, viewed from afar, is a place of swirling clouds
And dimmish blue; Scotland, though lodged large in all our hearts
Is invisible at that distance, not much perhaps,
But to us it is our all, our place, the opposite of nowhere;
Nowhere can be seen by looking up
And realizing, with shock, that we really are very small;
You would say, yes, we are, but never overcompensate,
Be content with small places, the local, the short story
Rather than the saga; take pleasure in private jokes,
In expressions that cannot be translated,
In references that can be understood by only two or three,
And the fellowship of those whom you know so well
And whose sayings and moods are as familiar
As the weather; these mean everything, They mean the world, they mean the world.

Can we lower the wall of hostility? Can we expand our friendships? It’s one of our premises. Wouldn’t it be nice to have another 1,000 Pietisten subscribers? Friends, I hope you will join me in saying Amen.

And now may the wondrous peace of Christ be with us all in our going out and our coming in and may we all come at last to our Good Father’s house to go no more out forever.


[*Bob Bach wrote out this benediction as he heard it given by the late pastor Aaron Markuson.]