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What a Friend We Have…

November 22, 2015
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Remember that old hymn, “What a Friend We Have Jesus?” The lyrics speak of him bearing our sins and griefs, knowing our weakness, being the one to whom we can take everything in prayer — our refuge and solace.

It’s a nice song, but a version written by  the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus would have taken a much different tenor. It would have spoken of Jesus as a friend in a more literal and personal kind of way, in the “favored companion” sense of the word. He was not only a superior who healed or saved or taught them. He had a mutual relationship with this family, whom he clearly liked and enjoyed being with.

Image Martha, Lazarus and Mary clipped from the movie, "The Gospel of John"

Image of Martha, Lazarus and Mary clipped from the movie, “The Gospel of John”

This friendship is unique in the Gospels. Jesus certainly spent a lot of time with his disciples, but Martha’s home is the only one that he returned to time and again (see Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-47, 12:1-11).

Jesus even referred to Lazarus as “our friend” (John 11:11), although we never actually hear the voice of Lazarus in any of the narratives. Luke and John seem much more interested in Jesus’ friendship with the sisters. You see it even in this sequence (John 11:3-5):

“The sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’”

John didn’t let it go at that. He added, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”

He put these siblings are on a very short list of individuals named explicitly as being loved by Jesus (another of whom was John himself). John really wanted us to understand the nature of this relationship.

I think, then, that these narratives bear a closer look. If it was important to Luke and John that these sisters held a special and distinctive role in the heart of Jesus, what might we learn from their relationship?

Here are some characteristics that stood out to me:

– There was freedom to act outside of culturally defined roles (as Mary sat at the feet of Jesus playing disciple instead of domestic worker).

– There was also freedom to be real and speak up and even complain (which Martha did more than once: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” and “But Lord, by this time there is a bad odor”). Martha both acknowledges the authoritative position of Jesus and says exactly what she thinks. Jesus seems ok with that.

– There were honest words spoken gently by Jesus about priorities. (“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one” and “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” Notice that his responses never belittled her or shut her down.)

– There was pain and disappointment when Jesus failed to respond to their urgent request. (Both sisters greeted Jesus with the same words when he finally showed up: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”)

– There were second chances; there was a woman asked to use her brain—to learn, think, understand, believe and grow (which we definitely see in the conversation between Jesus and Martha in John 11:21-27)

– There was recognition of and responsiveness to the needs of these women as separate individuals (in John 11 Martha got theology, Mary got tears).

– And yes, there was grieving together. Actual tears.

– But then there was a priceless gift for these bereft sisters. Their brother was miraculously returned to them. (Among all the people who died in Palestine during his ministry, why did Jesus choose Lazarus to resurrect?)

– And there was honor for Jesus and celebrating (in the form of another dinner hosted by his friends).

– There was heartfelt gratitude, vulnerability, sacrificial giving—and maybe even a bit of apology (as Mary poured a bottle of perfume worth a year’s wages over Jesus).

– There was always acceptance and safety (Jesus defended Mary against the criticism of the disciples—“Leave her alone”—as he also did when Martha criticized her: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”)

– And there was commendation (“It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial,” Jesus says. And if you interpret the stories in Mark 13:1-9 and Matthew 26:6-13 as speaking of this same event: “She has done a beautiful thing for me….Wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed.”)

I love how these women were with Jesus.

No fear.

No insecurity.

No pretense.

And I love how Jesus was with them. Considerate. Accepting. Honest. Gracious.

A brother. A friend. A teacher. Yet, still their Lord.

You can bet Luke and John had a reason for including these stories and telling them in a way that focused on the sisters. What if we understand this relationship as emblematic of the potential of any woman’s relationship with God? And not only one kind of woman either. The Son of God interacted with two very different kinds of personalities in these narratives and loved them both.

Written from within the patriarchal society of first-century Palestine, the Gospel narratives are certainly dominated by the interactions between Jesus and his male disciples. Maybe Luke and John wanted us to understand that there was more to say about Jesus. A side of him that could become apparent only when viewed through his friendships with women.

2 responses to “What a Friend We Have…”

  1. Theirs was a real relationship…with the emphasis in that phrase on the descriptive word REAL. Remember the story “The Velveteen Rabbit”? It captures REAL: messy, unpretentious, humble, and filled with love.
    Jesus, as well as the relationship he offered to that family and now also to us, above and beyond everything else, was and is REAL. Thanks, Lynne.

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