Good friends are truly one of life’s greatest treasures. To have a friend is to have someone to turn to, no matter what, someone to confide in, someone to trust and rely on. Real friends are self-giving and not concerned with what they will get in return. They are not manipulative or two-faced. They are not judgmental or conditional. Real friends are indeed a treasure.
John’s gospel is replete with Jesus’ assurances of his love for his disciples and commands for his followers to love others, but only in this week’s gospel does Jesus complicate matters by calling the disciples friends. I say “complicate” because even though we recognize friendship as something quite special, at the same time we tend to think of friendship as somehow being “less” than love — less intense, less invested — when in fact, it makes a different sort of demand on us.
While love seems to be or not be, friendship implies more choice. We love our children, our siblings, our parents just because we are in relationship with them. We speak of falling in love with our spouse or partner as something that seems somehow out of our control. But friendship is different. It is rarely as instinctive as a parent’s love for a child, nor is it as involuntary as falling in love can be. Real friendship, mature friendship isn’t automatic; it’s intentional, it takes work, and requires commitment — even to be friends with those whom we love.
Jesus calls his disciples friends, and in doing so, he upsets the usual teacher-pupil relationship, he breaks boundaries, and he brings a new dimension to the bond he has with his disciples. No longer are they master and servant. Rather they are “friends,” with all that entails.
Friendship in the first-century Mediterranean world was a serious matter. To be considered a friend was to be in a position of honor. Being a friend meant being treated as kin with the attendant obligations. To be a friend meant to look out for the welfare of the other, to put the other’s needs on an equal footing with one’s own. Friendship implied reciprocity as well — to consider someone a friend meant counting on that person to return that level of concern and care. When Jesus calls the disciples “friends” he is investing them with this concern. He has shared with them what the Father has revealed to him, and he has given them the task of going out and sharing this revelation with the world.
I’m not sure that the disciples were comforted or reassured by Jesus calling them “friends.” I’m not sure that they were ready to be friends in return. Nonetheless, in calling them friends Jesus expanded how the disciples might understand their relationship with him, and through him, their relationship with God. Not only were the disciples loved as a parent loves a child — without reservation, without expectation for anything in return, but also they were held as friends — not as children, not as servants, but as chosen ones who could be relied on, counted on, trusted. Friendship with Jesus would be friendship held to its highest level.
As disciples we too can count Jesus as a friend.. To be a true friend is to care about someone’s hurts and pains without regard to the cost to oneself, without regard for any possible return on the investment, and there is no question that Jesus does that for us. What’s more, to think of Jesus as friend means that we can find Jesus in our human friendships. We can see the face of Jesus in the faces of those who care for us.
To think of Jesus as friend means also that we can see in Jesus a model for what friendship at its best means. To think of Jesus this way challenges us to be intentional about our relationships in the world, to reach out in friendship without regard to the possible cost for ourselves, without thinking of what we might receive in return. Just as Jesus broke down boundaries by calling his disciples friends, so too might we break down barriers by reaching out in friendship to those who are different from us, the poor, the marginalized, the needy.
Good friends are truly a treasure, and in Jesus’ friendship we have the greatest treasure of all. Thanks be to God!