by Fr. Jack McArdle
A friend is one who is connected to another in intimate confidence, out of goodness, for mutual benefit, and independent of sexual or family love. In today's language we say that a friend is someone who really knows me and still accepts and loves me. In the Old Testament we can easily see a God of fire, brimstone, and commandments. This would be very misleading, as well, of course, as being untrue. In the book of Exodus we read that 'Moses stood before the Lord, who spoke to him as a man speaks to a friend'. The Psalmist speaks quite frequently of God as a friend. 'The Lord is the friend of those who obey him....Come, my young friends, and listen to me.....' A friend is someone who is on my side, and has my best interests at heart. Friendship is a special expression of love. There is a sense of continuity about friendship. Some people can make friends, and keep friends, and years and distance never shakes this. This points to something special within, and, I believe, that something to be of God. When we speak of God's love, we say that God loves us unconditionally. He loves us because He is good, and this is not effected by us being good, bad, or indifferent. The big difference, of course, is that, when we are good, we are open to receiving and experiencing the love of God.
In every sense of the word, and according to every definition, Jesus came to be a friend to all of us sinners. Indeed, he would bring that much further, and refer to us as his brothers and sisters. I cannot exaggerate the importance of allowing Jesus keep both feet on the ground. He came down here to be with us, and we can easily put him back out of our reach again. The Word became flesh, and we can run the risk of turning that flesh back into word again. This all has to do with religion, with law, with control, whereas Jesus is only interested in surrender, which produces spirituality. To have a friend, I must be a friend. A friend is someone who travels the road with us. When Jesus travelled with the two disciples to Emmaus, although he was a stranger to them at the beginning, they ended up as friends. It is said that a friend is someone I have never met before.
Children have an instinct for friendliness. They make friends with their pets, and they can talk for hours to imaginary friends. There is a sense of security in having a friend. A very young child can be very selective about who she goes to, or who she can trust. The instinct tells the child when a place is safe. That is why it is such a frightening betrayal of trust when a child is abducted, molested, or brutalised by someone the child had come to trust. When it comes to the children of the gospel, I think of Jesus having some sort of magnetic personality for them. There must have been abundant evidence of all that attracts children, as he spoke, laughed, and relaxed. The best image of Jesus here is one of the radiant smile, the infectious laugh, the open face, and the vibrant personality. Jesus must have been anything but sullen, dour, solemn, and all that implies a lack of friendliness. The children were attracted to him, and this was obviously on such a scale as to annoy the disciples who had more serious business, and more pressing matters to deal with. The children were getting in the way, and they had to be got out of the way. Jesus objected strongly to the stance they took. A friend always has time, and the other is always made to feel worthwhile, and important. Jesus put people first at all times, and this was often at the expense of the law, that was so important to the religious leaders of his day. If there was a choice between a human being and a law, the person always came first. This had to do with lepers, prostitutes, Samaritans, and tax collectors. His friendship was never exclusive, and it was there, and is there for anyone who is willing to accept it. I can hold out a hand of friendship forever, but we don't begin to activate that friendship until the other is willing to reach out a hand to me.
One of the greatest characteristics of Jesus was that he was a friend to sinners. This was a real shocker for the religious-minded people of his time. They insisted on expulsions, marginalizing, and even stoning to death. The sinner was well outside the boundaries of friendship for such people. Of all the criticisms they made of Jesus, the one they spoke with greatest shock was that he befriended sinners, and even ate with them. That, in their eyes, was an unforgivable sin. By doing that he had put himself outside their very exclusive circle. What made matters worse, from their point of view, is that he defended sinners, and attacked them, the religious leaders, for their attitudes, for their self-righteousness. That was the beginning of the end for Jesus, as far as they were concerned. Jesus was to pay the ultimate penalty for his friendships. What the religious leaders could not understand, however, and indeed were totally unwilling to understand, was the fact that it was for sinners that Jesus came, and it was for them that he would die. 'Greater love than this no one has, that a person should lay down his life for a friend.' Being with him must have been a most extraordinary experience for the outcasts of his day. It was obvious that he was a very good and holy man, and yet his attitude towards them was to treat them as equals. They never felt that he looked down on them in any way. It would not be possible to have any kind of friendship with another if one considers himself superior to the other. Friendship is based on what we share in common. Because of Incarnation, Jesus shared the human condition with these people, and he 'was like them in all things, but sin'.
Jesus attracted people. 'Everybody is looking for you', the apostles told him. Christianity, the message he left to be proclaimed, is all about attraction, and not about promotion. Wherever he went, huge crowds followed him. They just wanted to be with him, just as one friend enjoys being with the other. If he made any demands on them, it was obviously all for their good, and was spoken out of a genuine love, and not a desire to control. Jesus had a very clear message to deliver, and he certainly could not, or would not water it down just to suit certain people. The essence of proper communication is to combine total honesty with total kindness. This is a very difficult combination to get right, and it is really interesting to review Jesus' message, and his method of delivery against such a criterion.
In the words of Scripture 'He was all things to all men/women'. Even his mother had to wait her turn, because he was busy with those around him. Like any person, Jesus had some special friends for some special occasions. There is always a hierarchy in friendships. No matter how many friends any of us may have, we all have those few very special friends. Jesus would go from the midst of the crowds to being alone with his apostles, and from there he would go aside with Peter, James, and John for those moments of greater intimacy and revelation. They were with him when he was glorified on Tabor, and when he sweated blood in Gethsemane. John has no hesitation whatever in calling himself 'the disciple whom Jesus loved'. At the Last Supper, we are told that John leaned on Jesus' breast as Jesus spoke. In today's world, all of that could very well be whispered about, but such open intimacies between friends, be they male or female, were very acceptable in the culture of those times.
Jesus had other special friends outside of the immediate circle of apostles. Lazarus, and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, were special friends. It is implied in the gospels that he would go to them from time to time, just to get away from it all. Bethany is but a short distance outside Jerusalem, and, by going out there, he could be 'far from the madding crowd' for a day or two. The gospel tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus was told 'The one whom you love is ill'. Jesus spoke of Lazarus as his friend. When Jesus came to Bethany, Martha ran to meet him. Jesus was by far the most important person to call on her in her time of mourning. When Mary met Jesus, she said 'Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died'. Mary trusted Jesus' love sufficiently to believe that, somehow, Jesus would never have allowed Lazarus to die. When Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus, he wept openly and unashamedly. The onlookers remarked 'See how much he loved him'. Lazarus and his sisters were obviously good people, and, in the words of the Psalmist 'The Lord is the friend of those who obey him'. Later, Jesus would tell his apostles 'If you love me, you will obey me'.
It is fascinating to see Jesus befriending and defending the most marginalized in the society of his day. Speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well was something that was totally unacceptable to the Jewish mentality. Not only did he speak to her, but he took time out to be with her, and to be there for her. What he did, what he said, and the person that he was, touched her so deeply that she ran off, and brought her friends to meet Jesus. The woman taken in adultery, who was being stoned to death, was bottom of the pile as far as the religious leaders were concerned, and yet he defended and befriended her. He spoke to her with respect, and he remained with her when all the others had walked away. The stance he took on her behalf was heroic, and, indeed, reckless. Jesus was never a fair-weather friend. He is still there for all of us, when everyone else and everything else have let us down. He is 'the same yesterday, today, and always.' 'He is always faithful...' Paul reminds us, and fidelity is one of the cornerstones of friendship.
The role of friendship requires versatility. Sometimes a friend has to be bailed out of a situation, and, when we are facing difficult situations, it is vital to have a friend around, for a helping hand, a listening ear, or a comforting shoulder. One look at the widow of Naim, as she accompanied the dead body of her only son, and Jesus was fully available to her in her hour of darkness. A man was lowered through the roof on a stretcher, by his friends, and Jesus was immediately ready to respond to both their faith and their love. His friends were being tossed around on the stormy sea, and they feared for their lives, but Jesus, once again, was there as their friend. A friend is faithful, dependable, and reliable. It is when we are in trouble that we find out who our real friends are. Again and again we read that Jesus had pity on the crowds who were hungry, tired, or without any sense of belonging. He often brought his disciples aside 'to rest for a while', because he saw that they were tired. Sensitivity is part of friendship. On many occasions he had reason to correct his disciples when they failed to understand the simple basics of friendship. They were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, something that should have no part in friendship. Even when Judas used his friendship with Jesus as a means of betraying him, Jesus still called him friend.
The Last Supper, and the discourse of Jesus at that time, is a beautiful expression of his friendship. He goes on his knees, and, in humble service, he washes their feet. He says that, because he told them all about himself, they must no longer consider themselves as slaves or servants, because a master never treats his servants with such intimacy. 'You are my friends...' he told them. He laid great stress on the fact that they were to remain very close to him if they wanted to survive. His friendship would give them life, just as the branch draws its life from the vine. He is going to give them everything that is his, and they are going to share as full partners in his kingdom. By promising them the Spirit, he is enrolling them for eternity in the life of the Trinity, and he promises that 'We will come and make our abode in you...' He is not going to desert them, or abandon them in the storm. He will be with them always, even to the end of time. And, he adds, even if heaven and earth were to pass away, his word or promise to them will never pass away. This is very powerful friendship language. He prays for them to his Father, and he asks the Father to 'keep them safe whom you have given to me'. He is going to prepare a place for them, so that, one day he will return to bring them with him in an eternal friendship of love, presence and completeness.
Yes. indeed, a friend is someone who travels with us. Jesus travels with us to the very end, and then the full joy of the friendship will be realised. He offers us his joy, his peace, and his abundant life. None of us could ever claim an earthly human friendship like that. However, because Jesus came 'to do and to teach', he teaches us, and clearly demonstrates what real friendship is, before he asks us to 'do the same for each other'. 'I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. You know these things, now do them'. Only God is constant. Friendships that last, and that are life-living, are the outcome of the presence of God's Spirit. God is love, and all expressions of real love are offshoots of God's love. When Jesus asks us to love others as he loves us, he knows only too well that, of ourselves, such a task is impossible for us. That is why he promises to send the Holy Spirit. 'Then', he said 'you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.' Christian living has a witness value at its core. It is significant that, when Christians first appeared on the scene, and nobody seemed to know or understand who or what they were, the observers came to an unanimous verdict when they remarked 'See how these Christians love one another'.
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.