Sirach today gives some advice on friendship. He has some wise things to say.
Friendship was an important concept in social relations during the Hellenistic period and is referred to several times in Sirach (9:10; 11:29-14:2; 22:19-26; 37:1-6). In Greek literature of the time, a friend was one who remained true in times of distress and could therefore be trusted with one’s official or private interests and affairs. Today’s reading brings to an end a section of instructions and admonitions which test one’s resolve, integrity, and capacity for making judgements in keeping with wisdom piety. (Harper-Collins Study Bible, edited)
True friends are discerned not by how much money they have but whether they will continue to stand by one in times of difficulty and misfortune. Such friends are rare and their value is beyond estimation.
The word ‘friend’ is one we tend to use very casually and we call people friends with whom we have only a relatively superficial acquaintance. Or we term as friends people who are useful in getting things we want. A genuine friend, with whom one can open oneself completely and in whom can have total trust, is not easy to find.
Some of the points made today are worth considering:
- Friends are won by our speaking kindly and being courteous to people. Why do some people seem to have lots of close friends and others have very few? Perhaps one of the main reasons is here. To find a friend one has first to be a friend.
- People with whom you are friendly can be many but a close adviser and confidant will be “one in a thousand”. As we said, the word ‘friend’ can be used very loosely. It is genuine friendship that we are speaking of here.
- “Take them on trial and be in no hurry to trust them.” True friendships, which are based on genuine love, take time to develop. Mutual attraction is not enough.
- Sirach gives a few examples of what we would now call "fair-weather" friends:
"One kind of friend is only so when it suits him but will not stand by you in your day of trouble…
"Another kind of friend will fall out with you and to your dismay make your quarrel public (one thinks of bitter divorce proceedings)…
"A third kind of friend will share your table but not stand by you in your day of trouble;
when you are prosperous, they become your second self and lord it over your servants, but if ever you fall on hard times they will turn against you and will hide themselves from you…" Good examples of genuine friendships are when one spouse is stricken with a serious and long-term illness.
- Sirach advises us to keep clear of those who are hostile to us (but we also have to remember the Gospel injunction to pray for them and be ready to forgive them and be reconciled with them)…
but at the same time to “be wary of your friends", that is, those who call themselves friends but who, in time of stress, are likely to ditch you…
Finally, Sirach speaks of the true friend, a treasure more valuable than anything money can buy:
"A faithful friend is a sure shelter, whoever finds one has found a rare treasure. A faithful friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring their worth. A faithful friend is like life-saving medicine, the elixir of life, and those who fear the Lord will find one." True friendship is based on love and, where there is love, God is inevitably present, for God is love.
Finally, an astute piece of advice:
"Whoever fears the Lord makes true friends, for as people are, so are their friends." This last phrase may mean “one’s friends are as dear to one as oneself” but also “one’s friend will inevitably be, like oneself, a God-fearing person”.
When we live in truth and integrity, we live in God; and we are likely to make friends whose lives are also based on truth and integrity. There can really be no other kind of true friend.
Probably, the greatest tragedy in life is never to have had really close and intimate friends. The sign of a true friend is the emptiness that comes on permanent separation because of death or some other irreversible reason.