Our mutual friend

Published on 28 Nov 2019
An illustration to Our Mutual Friend which shows Bella and John Rokesmith, the 'secretary'

Theodora Hawksley reminds us that the challenge to ‘stay awake’, asks us to look for Christ in the face of those who walk among us.

The story begins with the discovery of a body in the Thames. John Harmon, a young man returning to England to inherit a fortune, has been drowned. The fortune passes to Noddy and Henrietta Boffin, a childless couple who adopt Bella Wilfer as their heir, a young woman as stunningly beautiful as she is stunningly mercenary. The experience of poverty in early life has taught her to covet riches and to pursue them single-mindedly. It is small wonder then, that she repels the quiet affections of the Boffins’ secretary, Rokesmith, with utter revulsion. But, over time, his fidelity begins to affect her, and then to change her. She marries him. And very eventually, we discover that John Rokesmith is none other than John Harmon, not drowned after all, and returned to inherit his fortune and the hand of the woman he was always meant to marry: Bella Wilfer.

There are many such stories, about gods disguised as wayfarers or kings dressed as paupers, donning disguise in order to test the respect of their subjects or the affection of their intended. But there’s something about Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend that might remind us of the parable of the sheep and the goats, which comes from the same part of Matthew’s gospel as the gospel we hear for the first Sunday of Advent. At first, the parable of the sheep and the goats reads just like so many other stories – the king in disguise, the big reveal, the just desserts. But there’s something of the John Harmon and Bella Wilfer about this gospel, because it’s not the story of a test, but the story of an education. The point of the whole exercise is not to catch us out, but to teach us how to love. It is Bella’s first noticing, then valuing the Secretary’s unflagging devotion to her – even at her most unattractively selfish – that wakens something purer in her, and begins to loosen her grip on her newly acquired riches. The gowns and carriages and company she coveted begin to seem tawdry compared with his simplicity and steadfastness. As she begins to love him, she becomes more loving, and more loveable.

This is the admirabile commercium, the wonderful exchange: John Harmon becomes the poor secretary Rokesmith in order to lead Bella to discover true riches, the only way he can. And this is the truth at the heart of our Christian faith too, which begins with the Incarnation and the moment that Jesus chose to be born in a humble stable. It is not about Jesus disguising himself as a beggar in order to test us, but Jesus becoming poor, and identifying always and unbrokenly with the poor - why? Because it is easy to love those who love us (Luke 6:32), but it is only by learning to love the unattractive, the wicked and the enemy that our hearts are expanded to the dimensions of divinity. And we only learn to love by loving. It is by noticing, valuing and learning to love God in the poorest that we are slowly transformed, and become more loving and more loveable.

Jesus becomes poor in order that he might teach us, the only way he can, what genuine riches are. What greater riches, than to love and be loved for who we are and not what we possess? What greater riches than to love God with a heart like God’s? This is what it means to ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world.’ Inheriting the kingdom is not passing the test and receiving a key to a vault with a pile of treasure in it. Inheriting the kingdom means the long, slow process of learning to love by loving, and thereby receiving the kind of heart that can love as God loves.

This is not just the story of Advent, but the whole story of salvation: God becoming like us, so that we can become like God. But, as with all incarnations, this challenge of learning to love comes to us not in general, but in particular: in particular people who challenge us to expand our hearts. So look out for those people this Advent. You may meet them again one day.

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