Fred Buechner has a very interesting observation in his book, “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.” He talks about Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha in Bethany. Lazarus was the one who died from some kind of sickness, and Jesus showed up and raised him from the dead. This story is related as a bit of an anomaly because of what gets highlighted. It is not the raising of the dead that gets the replay, but the fact that Jesus wept when he heard of the death. It gives us the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept”. That is all. Nothing more you can add to that. It is profound in its utter simplicity, and humanity. This was not some shapeless kind of Godly love, it was personal. Lazarus is one of the few people mentioned in the Gospels whose relationship with Jesus was not that of a disciple. He was a friend.
Bethany was a hop and a skip from Jerusalem, and it seems to be where Jesus retreated when he needed to recharge and burn off steam. The dynamic was interesting. When Jesus came to your house this was the “off the record” Jesus. Messiah hat left on the umbrella stand. He came by with one thing in mind, to spend some time unofficial and off duty.
Friendship can be a funny thing. You can know people for years and be friendly enough, but here and there you will recognize a kindred spirit and instantly be the best of friends, for no reason that you could explain. Lazarus seems to have been in this camp. You would have to wonder what kind of stuff they would discuss together while breaking bread, the news of the day, personal updates, how they were feeling about this and that, some gossipy bits about mutual acquaintances. Neighbour kind of stuff, where you can just let it all hang out and say anything or nothing at all, and be understood. It is a rare treat in life, and no doubt it was a rare treat for Jesus as well. Sometimes getting down and righteous means just getting some friend time in.
It’s not the conviviality that counts. Conviviality is cheap and plentiful. There is instead, a level of frankness with a real friend that is most interesting. You can observe the most awful things about each other, and then laugh about it later. You can agree to disagree. You can be happy or sad with equanimity. You can tell embarrassing stories without being embarrassed. You can air your personal joys and griefs without getting personal.
I have a friend who is my former neighbour. Chatting over the fence quickly went on to attending each others’ family functions. I knew there was something unusual about this family when I heard them singing the doxology before a meal, in perfect harmony. They were Mennonites and a different kind of people, very given to social activism as an expression of their faith.
This neighbour was by about a week ago to borrow a tool, and put on some reruns of All In The Family from YouTube. He was making fun of Archie and his redneck ways. He was assuming of course, that I was in his camp - identifying with Meathead. Alas, no. I was thinking the opposite, how much I am like Archie Bunker. We both can say the most unfiltered kind of stuff, without batting an eyelid. We can be ham handed and blunt to a fault. I am still wondering if that is actually what he was trying to point out.
And Jesus said. And who is my neighbour? Likely the one I strive with the most over inconsequential matters of form over substance. This friend is given to different political impulses than I am. He wants to reform the world. He believes everything should be changed, and he is about as progressive as you can get. It’s positively Biblical for him. Me, I believe in the eleventh commandment, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and I don’t like politicians messing with the social weal. I think they should let well enough alone. I mostly decry the need for politicians at all. Of course, given these separate instincts, we do not back the same guy at the polls.
This leaves my neighbour incredulous. He looks at me and says, “I thought you had a head on your shoulders. I thought you were a Christian?” For me, I think his guy is the Devil incarnate. “Might even be the antiChrist” I speculate. You never know.
I was fall driving the other day, and passed through a rural municipality bounded by farmers’ fields. I had the windows rolled down and I was sorry. Those farmers had freshly manured the fields in preparation for the spring. That manure was wet and ripe, and straight to the nostrils. I momentarily thought to roll up the windows, but it was too late. Welcome to nature. It occurred to me, that the people who lived there, probably had long ceased to smell it. They had gotten used to their own stench.
And this is the thing, the reason why we perhaps need friends. We need someone else to occasionally tell us we stink, even when we don’t believe it. It is a great leveller, and perhaps the real purpose for friendship, to point out the anomalies of life without upsetting the apple cart. I do the same with my wife. I grumble about the Catholics and my wife articulates the trials of living with a Protestant. In the service, during the sign of peace, where they ask you to greet your neighbour, she turns to me with a glint in her eye. “Kiss me you fool.” she seems to signal pointedly.
It is the same with my neighbour. How do we greet each other? With an emphatic bone crusher handshake that goes to make a point. I am right. No, I am right. We’ll get to that. How are you first?
His concession has been to minimize my sins as those of ignorance.
“Hello my small c conservative neighbour.” he says, looking me straight in the eye as if to convert me. “Hello my small L Liberal” I return. We baste each other over the head in the kindest fashion possible just like neighbours do. And then we break bread and get right with the world.