Jesus’ Privileged Friends

Seemingly innocuous words spoken by Jesus carry a weight of meaning.

Bible text: John 15:13-15

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

Chapters 13-17 in the Gospel of John record the farewell discourse Jesus has with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. Many teachers and commentators on the spiritual life have turned to these chapters because they are a rich source book on the nature of the Christian life. One finds many weighty things said in them.

So when in chapter 15 Jesus says that he calls his disciples his friends, it is easy to let the words slip by without recognizing that they are weighty words, too.

That’s because we in modern America do not value friendship as much as the ancients did. We may have many friends, especially on Facebook. We may like them, and in some cases even love them deeply.

But we don’t tend to think of friendship as the highest form of human relationship. Instead we tend to give that honor to marriage. We expect to find our greatest intimacy in marriage, especially in its sexual aspect. If not in marriage, then we are likely to look for it in the relationship between parent and child.

Marriage, however, did not hold such a high status in the minds of the ancient world. It certainly did not represent a relationship of equality and free choice. Most marriages in the Jewish and in the Gentile world were arranged. The marriage partners had little say in who their marriage partner might be.

Also ancient societies regarded the wife as the inferior partner in the marriage. She was not the equal of her husband either in status or power. Marriage was hierarchal.

Friendship, on the other hand, was a very different type of human relationship. First of all, it involved a freedom of choice. Friends chose each other to be friends. If you were compelled to be someone’s friend, it was not likely that you would call the relationship true friendship.

In a friendship, too, you might come from different social classes, but in a friendship, the interaction was an equal exchange between emotional equals.

For both of these reasons, the ancients tended to regard friendship as the highest type of human relationship. It afforded the opportunity for the greatest emotional intimacy between the two or more human beings.

This carried over into the political realm. Hellenistic kings often had a circle of close associates around them known as the King’s Friends. They represented a very high honor a king might confer upon an associate to enlist him within that privileged circle. Kings might manipulate the conferring of this honor for political purposes, but still to be enlisted among the King’s Friends was to have risen to a very high status.

So when Jesus in John 15 says to his disciples that he no longer calls them servants, but friends, we need to keep in mind this concept of friendship that prevailed in the ancient world. He is raising them to a relationship of high status and intimacy with himself.

We see this clearly when Jesus says that he has made known to them everything that he has heard from his Father. He withholds no secrets from his friends. He shares with them what he has heard from God his Father. In the kingdom of God, there are no rules of confidential classification. All Jesus shares is unclassified.

When we understand the weighty meaning that lies behind Jesus’ use of the word “friend,” we begin to see the very privileged and very intimate relationship Jesus is conferring upon his disciples. This is pure grace in action.

A Word of Caution

Reading what I wrote above, I feel I need to add a word of caution, lest I be misunderstood.

When Jesus raises his disciples to the status of his privileged friends, we must remember that he says this as a part of his farewell supper with his disciples. That supper began, according to John 13:2-17, with Jesus rising in the evening, disrobing, wrapping a towel around his waist, and washing the feet of his disciples.

He explains his action with these words:

Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:12-15)

Jesus may be raising his disciples to the status of friends, but in so doing, he enlists them as partners in his life of service to the world. Privilege is redefined, therefore, as the call to service.

In calling his disciples friends, Jesus’ action gives no authorization for their thinking they can lord it over others and judge others simply because they are Jesus’ close friends. That is vitally important to remember when Christians seek to live out their faith in the political, economic, and social spheres. Christ’s kingdom operates by different rules than most of modern life.

Was Ancient Israelite Marriage So Patriarchal After All?

Scripture text: Genesis 2:24

It is an accepted truism in Christian circles that the society of ancient Israel was fundamentally patriarchal. Men ruled their families, their tribes, their villages. Women were second-class citizens.

One of the proof texts often claimed for this view of Israelite society is the story in Genesis 2 about the creation of Eve. God creates Eve by extracting a rib out of Adam’s chest. This seems to suggest that the female is derived from the male and must therefore be subordinate to the male.

That reading carries behind it the authority of none other than the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 11, he argues that women should wear veils in the worship assembly for exactly this reason that the woman was created from the male.

Time-hallowed as this reading may be, I have always been troubled by what appears a counter voice in Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. (RSV)

This is a reference to the practice of marriage. And in most patriarchal societies, marriage means a woman leaves her birth family and joins the family of her husband. When Rebekah marries Isaac, she leaves her family home in Haran and moves to Canaan to live with her new husband in Abraham’s compound (Genesis 24).

In first-century Judea, the wedding proper was the procession when the bridegroom led his betrothed from her father’s house to his. This is the social context for Jesus’ parable of the 10 wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25).

But in this verse in Genesis, we are told that it is the man who leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife. That’s not what I would expect an author infused with deeply patriarchal assumptions to write.

Now the text does not say the husband physically leaves his parents’ home. He may still live with them. Yet…and this is an important yet…in some way he is expected to leave his parents to form a new family entity with his wife.

Marriage counselors will appreciate the psychological wisdom of this statement. Many marriage problems are caused by a husband or a wife bringing their birth family into the new marriage in the form of expectations they hold or psychological bonds and hang-ups that they bring from their birth families. To become one flesh a husband and wife must make a transition from their birth families to the creation of their own new entity.

The ancient Israelite view of marriage may have been patriarchal. Yet, here in this one verse, I wonder if we don’t see the glimmers of an early Hebrew challenge to that social assumption. I’m curious what others of you think.