Agape is friendship with God
The friendship of David and Jonathan offers an image of God’s free and totally personal love for each of us in Christ.
Reading: 1 Samuel 18:6-9; 19:1-7
The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:
What does divine love look like? You might be inclined to say the best comparison we have is a parent and a child: we address God as Father, don’t we? Or you might look elsewhere in Scripture and the tradition of the mystics, and see the image of bride and bridegroom standing for the Church and Christ. But when our brother St Thomas Aquinas asks this question – what love is charity? – he says that charity is friendship. Why?
We might get a clue from looking at the friendship of David and Jonathan, perhaps the most carefully drawn human friendship in Scripture. After the fashion of St Thomas, I would say there are three points about this friendship which make it like divine charity, God’s love for us. First, because of its spontaneity; second, its liberating quality; third, its unpredictability.
This friendship is spontaneous if we compare it with the kind of love Jonathan has for his father, Saul, who is also his king, or the love Jonathan shows as a commander to the soldiers who serve under him. In these contexts, Jonathan is a great lover, a conscientious and caring man. But these are all loves of duty. We ought to love our parents, we owe allegiance to our rulers, we should have concern for those in our care; in all these cases, there must be some serious disorder if we cannot exercise that love and concern. But there is no duty in Jonathan’s love for David – it is totally personal: not for the social role that David fills, just for who he is. This is also why the Scripture says that the love of Jonathan and David was greater than the love between a man and a woman – a detail that inevitably raises eyebrows. But the point is that this love is not biological necessity transformed into social convention, nor is it constrained by physical desire. It is wholly personal, wholly free.
The free, liberating quality of this friendship can be demonstrated from a consideration of the selflessness it creates in Jonathan. David is as much a threat to Jonathan as he is to king Saul. Jonathan is a good commander – but David is better. But Jonathan does not envy him. If David takes the crown, Jonathan will not inherit it. But Jonathan seeks to save David and will not stand in his way. By virtue of his generosity, Jonathan ensures a life for their friendship beyond his own lifespan: after his death, David will respect Saul’s descendants for Jonathan’s sake, despite the rival claim to power they represent in his kingdom.
Finally, this friendship is unpredictable. This is really another way of expressing what I’ve already said, that Jonathan does not have to love David, and David does not have to reciprocate; they even have positive reasons not to embark on this friendship! And yet they do. They meet, in a certain sense, as strangers, and become friends.
It is in a similar way that God comes to us. Nothing compels or constrains him, and we could not have foretold it. Yet come he does, so beautifully, so intimately to each of us, totally for me, totally for you – wholly personally to each one and yet none the less to anyone else. And we too, beyond all our own particular interests, beyond our particular location in time and space, beyond the necessities and constraints of body and society we are called to become simply his, simply God’s.
Image: “Jonathan Embraces David” from “Historiae Celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus Representatae” by Caspar Luiken, published 1712. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.