Friendship, says C. S. Lewis, “is born at the moment when one [person] says to another “What! You too?” You love this thing that I love? And so it was for one of my oldest friendships.

In our boyhood and teen years, R- and I shared a love of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Middle Earth framed our imaginations and animated many of our conversations. R- and I played sports together, hung out together, and got away with stuff together. But the tender bond, the deep understanding, and the mutual affection we shared grew from our imagined citizenship in Tolkien’s mythic land.

Strictly speaking, we don’t need friendship in the same way that we need air or water. Our biological survival depends upon these things. Without friends our hearts would continue to beat. And yet, we need friends to live. I mean really live. After all, living is more than merely surviving. 

To thrive we human beings need a felt sense that the life we actually live—with its ups and downs, joys and heartaches, wonders and terrors—is worth living. Greek philosophers, the Wisdom books of the Bible, and contemporary social scientists agree that friendship is one of the chief cornerstones of a meaningful life. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus made a point of calling his followers friends. (15:15) So we can and should reasonably expect that Jesus would have something to teach us about true friendship. Actually I think that he does. And yet, sometimes he goes about it in a pretty round about way.

Take this for instance. Jesus once said, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” (Luke 16:9)

On the face of it, this just doesn’t sound especially, well, Jesus-y. Or wise. Or true. It sounds distressingly like Jesus is suggesting that we should buy friends. Even worse, we should buy friends with ill-gotten gains.

Strictly speaking, we can buy so-called friends with things other than money. Power, status, celebrity, physical appearance, a slavish willingness to please can all be means to purchase allegiance, applause, or approval. 

The problem is that we are not offering our real self to anybody. And we are not reaching out to the real self of anybody else. We’re making a transaction that’s good only so long as what we have to offer is in demand.

Most of us would call acquaintances like this fair weather friends. They’ll stick with you as long as there’s something in it for them. But as soon as you run into real trouble or you’re down on your luck, they’re quick to say that they hardly knew you. And let’s face it, that’s the kind of friendship we would be offering to others.

Relationships like this simply can’t “welcome you into the eternal homes.” These acquaintances are not interested in nurturing your soul. They don’t touch your true self.

So what on earth is Jesus up to here? Well, honestly, commentators have been scratching their heads about it for ages. And I can see the point of those who say that Jesus is actually telling us what true friendship is by telling us what it is not. True friendship is not a transactional relationship. It’s a gift.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself here. So let’s step back and look at some of the broader context. For starters, Jesus has been sharing a baffling parable with the crowd. It goes like this:

A rich man learns that his portfolio-manager is ripping him off. So, the rich man calls his manager in and gives him a pink slip. Scrambling to soften his own landing, the manager runs around town to all the people who owe this rich guy a debt, letting them know that he has cooked the books in their favor. He has shaved the amount of their debts, figuring they’ll owe him one later. The rich guy finds this out. Instead of getting angry, he splits a gut laughing and takes the manager out for a drink. The manager’s his kind of guy. That sort of shrewdness is how you get ahead in this world. And so it looks like these two are going to be getting ahead together. (Luke 16:1-13)

To see what Jesus is getting at, remember that parables do not list a set of rules for living your best life now. They are not analogies featuring characters who are supposed to be stand-ins for God or Jesus. Frequently, they are more like riddles designed to make us reexamine our habitual behaviors and our assumptions about God, ourselves, and our neighbor.

We should also remember that Jesus is steeped in Scripture. He knows what they say about friendship. And he recognizes that his listeners are familiar with those teachings, too. 

Specifically, Jesus’s own teaching style owes much to the Wisdom books. And Proverbs is a rich resource for how to think about true friendship. My sense is that Jesus’s puzzling story about a dishonest manager was meant to stand in sharp contrast to what his hearers would recognize as the teachings of their faith.

Proverbs tells us that “a friend loves at all times.” (17:17) You can count on them no matter what. 

By contrast, some people will pretend to be your friend or will be friendly when you’re on a roll. But when the going gets tough, they’re gone. “Some friends play at friendship/ but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.” (Proverbs 18:24)

A true friend cares about your soul. When you’re in pain, they seek to comfort you. “Like vinegar on a wound/ is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” (Proverbs 25:20) 

Alternatively, if you’ve gone off the rails or missed the mark, friends love you enough to tell you hard truths. “Iron sharpens iron,/ and one person sharpens the wits of another.” (Proverbs 27:17) They’ll never simply tell you what you want to hear because only the truth will set you free. “Whoever flatters a neighbor/ is spreading a net for the neighbor’s feet.” (Proverbs 29:5)

Jesus’s says that the heart of friendship is this. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) True friendship is a gift of one’s true self for the sake of the true self of the other.

And if you’re wondering how to find a friend like this, I think Jesus would say that it starts by being a friend like that. He told his friends, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” (John 15:16)

This will not always work out. Not everybody is going to love you back. Still, from time to time, you’ll stumble onto someone. You’ll find yourself saying, “What! You too?” And you’ll go about changing lives together.

You can check out my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places here. These days I’m working on a book about discipleship. To contact me about speaking at your event, leading a retreat, or touching base with your book group via Zoom or in-person, click here.