Radical Friendship


The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. (Matthew 11:19)

Very often, a friend is someone who eats with you. Even if you aren’t dressed – or even washed – for the occasion, a friend will eat with you. A friend doesn’t have to look, speak, think, love, vote, pray, or even smell like you, but a friend will eat with you. John Swinton says, “The form of friendship here is radical in that it transcends the relational boundaries that are constructed by contemporary tendencies to associate with others on the basis of likeness, utility, or social exchange.”[1] Swinton’s claim is worth considering in light of our increasing polarization and our deepening isolation from people unlike ourselves as we retreat into “silos.” These “silos” or “bubbles” are maintained not only by our own preferences and tastes, but also by social media, by the forces that shape and divide neighborhoods, and by those who would exploit our conscious and unconscious prejudices for political gain.

Swinton places friendship at the core of the church as “the continuation of the incarnation.”[2] The friendship Swinton is talking about is radical in that it is not based on shared interests, utility (what you can do for me), or “chemistry.” It is the sometimes risky reaching out of person to person, recognizing and honoring the fundamental dignity and humanity of each. Enacting this radical friendship makes the church the church. It is “doing Jesus.”

Christian Living in the Mature Years

The radical friendship that Jesus practiced and that Swinton recommends to the church today is both an individual and a communal practice. It can be a challenge to extend friendship to persons who are marginalized, stigmatized, or just so seemingly different from us that we don’t know where or how to begin. When the gulf between persons appears overwhelmingly large, communities often have resources that individuals alone may lack. Swinton writes primarily about congregational welcome, inclusion, support, and friendship for people living with mental illness, dementia, and other cognitive challenges, but his model is relevant for churches that want to deeply welcome any marginalized people and their families, such as people re-entering society after incarceration, refugees, people living with HIV, and other chronic conditions. Swinton isn’t recommending expensive or comprehensive new ministries. Any such outreach (which may include inreach) can start small and can stay small. In his book, Swinton describes congregations that offer radical friendship to a single person or to a single family and documents their experiences of challenge, growth, disappointment and reward along the way.

When extending friendship to people who are marginalized by conditions such as dementia or mental illness, Swinton emphasizes how important it is to prioritize the person – the very human person – over the diagnosis. People with dementia forget, but more to the point, they can also be forgotten. It is liberating to be remembered. It is not just people with dementia who forget and not just people with dementia and chronic mental illness who are forgotten. In a society that values us primarily as interchangeable units of production, we are all forgotten and all in need of remembering and being remembered. In a society that is fragmented and in which we as individuals are broken, we are in need not only of remembering, but also in need of re-membering.

Not only individuals, but also – maybe especially – communities need to be re-membered. Communities are re-membered when persons at their margins are re-membered into the community in their full humanity. Ultimately, friendship is a communal practice, and when friendship is at the heart of Christian praxis, it is the body of Christ that is remembered and re-membered.

Recommended reading: Swinton, John. Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People With Mental Health Problems. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

[1] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 39.

[2] Ibid.,  51.

Today’s blog was written by Donna Whitney. Donna Krupkin Whitney is a retired neurologist. She is currently a candidate for the Masters of Divinity degree and the Kelly Miller Smith Certificate in Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a candidate for ordination at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

Today’s Bible Lesson

Connecting in Community

by Wayne Reece

This bible lesson originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Christian Living in the Mature Years.


BACKGROUND: MATTHEW 5:17-20; 22:34-40

Jesus walked among the crowds who had come to hear this new rabbi who was traveling the countryside. He told them about God’s blessings for those who made themselves available to God’s ways. He told them that if they followed him, they would have to be like salt that flavors and preserves what it touches. Jesus’ followers must also show the light of the good news in their lives like a light that is set on a hill, like a beacon that illumines and warns (Matthew 5:13-16).

Then Jesus assured the onlookers that he was not going to desecrate the teachings found in the law of Moses or in the challenges of the prophets. In fact, those Scriptures that had been part of the Hebrew heritage and culture for centuries were the same ones that Jesus himself had learned from childhood.

“The law and the prophets” is a Jewish term for the Hebrew Scriptures, including the five books of the Law (the first five books of our current Old Testament) and the prophetic utterances that God’s messengers spoke on behalf of God (Matthew 22:40; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Romans 3:21).

Implied in Jesus’ words was the fact that he was not undermining their kosher laws or their understanding of the importance of the Ten Commandments. He was not doing away with the sacredness of the sabbath or the promises that God made to the Hebrews in the wilderness or to their nation when they reached the Promised Land.

At this stage of his ministry, as he was trying to establish his teachings among the throngs, Jesus said that he was not concerned with abolishing the Law and the prophets but “fulfilling” them. He wanted to make their meaning full and complete. Throughout his sermon on the mountain, we see how he filled the Scriptures full of meaning. He reminded the people that the jots and tittles (the tiniest marks on the letters that spell out the Law) would not pass away because of his teachings. In fact, those who listen intently and follow faithfully will be “great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).

Jesus believed that he stood in the footsteps of Moses, the Law receiver, and the prophets’ challenges to the faithlessness of their times. Jesus wanted the people to accept him for what he offered them–– teachings that were greater than those of scribes and Pharisees. His teachings of salvation went beyond the words of the Law and prophets and emphasized the spiritual dimensions of the people’s thoughts and actions.

The religious leaders of the time used the words of renowned rabbis from throughout the centuries to give weight to the commandments and the rest of the Law. They tried to anticipate all the ways that people could or could not follow the Law. In addition to the 613 commands in the Law, they added rules, traditions, and examples.

In this context, Jesus declared new thoughts about the old laws. Even though he emphasized that he was not going to abolish all of those laws, in verses 21-48 he gave the old laws new thrusts. In a sense, he showed that anger in one’s heart is worse than or can lead to murder. He stated that persons who lust in their heart have “already committed adultery.” Jesus reinterpreted other commands in new ways.

One night a family was doing their daily devotions when the mother asked, “How many commands did God give to Moses?” The youngest son quickly answered, “Too many!” Some of the people in Jesus’ time probably thought this, as well. Too many laws to remember. Too many commands to follow.

Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, a lawyer (a man who helped interpret the divine law and laws) came to honestly ask a question or to trap Jesus into blaspheming God and the Law. He asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:25-37 also record this or a similar encounter.)

This question-and-answer period was a turning point in the confrontation between Jesus and the Temple. As we have seen, these religious leaders had much to lose if Jesus won the battle of reinterpretation of the Law. They loved to discuss and argue minute implications of the Law and which parts might be most important.

Believing persons thought they could honestly say that they had fulfilled all the parts of the Law. Maybe the lawyer was one who thought he was more righteous and holier since he knew the Law and kept it faithfully. However, without hesitation, Jesus answered the lawyer that the greatest of the laws was not any of the traditional Ten Commandments.

Instead, he quoted a Scripture passage that was familiar to every faithful Jew: Deuteronomy 6:4-9. These words are called the Shema (which means “hear,” the first word of the section), words that they said and prayed twice each day. Through these words, people were saying that they believed the Jewish God was the only God, a God that they were to love with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” God declared that the people were to teach these words and commitments to their children, as they walked with them and tucked them into bed at night. They also wrote these words and placed them in a mezuzah, a receptacle near their door. Each time they passed through the door, they touched the mezuzah reverently as they remembered the import of the words.

By putting primacy on this familiar passage, Jesus emphasized one’s personal commitment to love God with our whole being. The heart, the soul, and the mind are not different parts of the human body but different ways to think about the whole person in relation to God.

We are to love God with as great a love as we can exhibit, a love that goes beyond words of laws but shows itself in acts of love and compassion. The Christian thinker C. S. Lewis proclaimed that “when I love God more than I love my earthly dearest, then I shall love my earthly dearest more than I do now.” In other words, a full and complete love of our God will show itself most obviously as we show our love to and for other persons.

This thought leads us to the second part of Jesus’ answer to the lawyer. Even though the man asked for the greatest of the commands, Jesus answered with a second command from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He said that it was “like” the command from the Shema, which places it with equal and inseparable importance. We do not love God first and then as another task love our neighbors. Instead, to love God is to love others and vice versa.

The writer of 1 John wrote, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen . . . . Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (4:20-21). Love of God and love of others are enmeshed and intertwined. We cannot show one without the other.

I have had persons tell me that since they do not love themselves they do not need to love other persons. This kind of statement shows two things: a self-hatred in a time when we are supposed to have high self-esteem and a rationalization that tries to let them off the hook to love themselves or others.

Jesus was trying to show disciples and followers of all times that though laws are important to follow in a just society, love transcends all laws. Even though we might not be bound tightly by divine law, we are bound by the love that Jesus proclaimed with his life and the love that we must show one another.

KEY VERSE You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)

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