Quite a few of us grew up in evangelical churches and were raised on a diet of fiery preaching and gospel hymns. One of the most popular hymns of that genre is âWhat a friend we have in Jesus.â
Jesus was rich in friends and found great joy in them. Indeed, his choice of friends attracted the criticism of his enemies. In Matthew 11, he was accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners. However, the most significant mention of friendship in the gospels occurs in John 15: âNo longer do I call you servants â¦ but I have called you friends.â It is significant that of all the gospels only John remembers that at the Last Supper, Jesus declared his disciples to be not servants but friends. John seems to have been more interested in Jesusâ friendships than the other gospels, and this may be because the author of John was perhaps Jesusâ closest friend â the âbeloved disciple.â We usually identify this beloved disciple as John, but in fact, the gospel does not give him a name.
Johnâs gospel is also unique in giving us two other stories about friends of Jesus. First, John tells us of the close friendship Jesus seems to have enjoyed with Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus. Second, John passes on to us the somewhat disturbing story of Maryâs impulsive gesture of pouring expensive perfumed ointment on Jesusâ feet and then wiping them with her hair.
Undoubtedly, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Jesusâ good friends. Jesus was in their home on at least two other occasions. In the tenth chapter of Lukeâs gospel, we are told that a âwoman named Martha opened her home to himâ and that she had a sister named Mary. Even though Luke does not identify the village as Bethany or tell us that they had a brother named Lazarus, this appears to be the same Martha and Mary of whom John speaks. And of course, Jesus came when Lazarus died and raised him from the dead.
Friendship occupies a middle ground between familial love on one hand, and romantic love on the other. The common interests that help create friendship can make friendship an easier relationship than some of our familial relationships. The passion that brings together lovers can make a romantic relationship easier at the beginning, although this seldom lasts. Friendship is different from kinship in that we choose our friends on the basis of common interests or common experiences. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says that while lovers long to look into each othersâ eyes, friends stand side by side looking toward the common interests that drew them together and made them friends in the first place.
In families, we are conscious of our place and the complex relationships created by birth order, parenting, and so on. In romantic relationships, we may also be on our best behavior, hoping and praying that our love is returned by the one we love. In contrast, friends are people with whom we can be ourselves. They are willing to overlook our foibles and even find them endearing.
What are we to make, then, of Maryâs shocking gesture of pouring expensive ointment on Jesusâ feet and then wiping them with her hair? Whatever this act meant, it was profoundly disconcerting then and now. John attributes Judasâ discomfort to his greed. In the parallel story in Luke, Simon the Pharisee is embarrassed because of the reputation of the woman who anoints Jesusâ feet. We may perhaps have similar reactions. Like Judas we may be outraged by the seeming waste of expensive perfume, or like Simon we may be concerned about the apparent impropriety of the gesture. But Jesus took the gesture in stride. It was an unusual gesture of friendship (to say the least!) but apparently that is how he took it. Jesus was so comfortable with himself and with Maryâs friendship that he was able to accept such a profoundly intimate gesture.
In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa said, âWe regard falling from Godâs friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God's friend the only thing truly worthwhile.â The Incarnate Lord has called us friends. In other words, he has invited us into a relationship. If we accept this invitation, our friendship with God in Christ will deepen. It will become intimate. We will be able to do things for God, such as spend an entire night praying at the side of a dying friend. We may even find God calling us to do things that are not only intimate but also dangerous, such as working with the hungry and homeless in a poor country of the Southern Hemisphere. But we will be able to endure the risk and the embarrassment because God has called us friends. And as our intimacy with God grows, it will become a fragrant offering, filling not just our house but the entire world with the perfume of love.