The writer of the Gospel of John seems to have been more interested in Jesus’ friendships than the writers of the other gospels, and this may be because the author of John was perhaps Jesus’ closest friend – the "beloved disciple." We usually identify this beloved disciple as John, although the gospel does not give him a name.
Of all the gospels only John remembers that at the Last Supper, Jesus declared his disciples to be not servants but friends. He tells them, "No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends" (John 15:15). John also tells us of the close friendship Jesus seems to have enjoyed with Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus, whom he raised from death (John 11:1-44). And, John passes on to us the somewhat disturbing story of Mary’s impulsive gesture of pouring expensive perfumed ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair (John 12:1-8).
Friendship occupies a middle ground between familial love and romantic love. The common interests that help create friendship can make friendship an easier one than some of our familial relationships. Friendship is different from kinship in that we choose our friends on the basis of common interests or experiences. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says that while lovers long to look into each other’s eyes, friends stand side-by-side looking at the shared interests that drew them together and made them friends in the first place.
So, what are we to make of Mary’s shocking gesture of pouring expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair? Whatever this act meant, it was profoundly troubling both then and now. John attributes Judas’ discomfort to his greed. In the parallel story in Luke, Simon the Pharisee is embarrassed because of the reputation of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. We may have similar reactions. Like Judas we may be bothered by the seeming waste of expensive perfume, or like Simon we may think the gesture is inappropriate. But Jesus seems to view the actions of Mary as an unusual gesture of friendship. Jesus was so comfortable with himself and with Mary’s friendship that he was able to accept such an extravagantly intimate gesture.
In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa said, "We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God's friend the only thing truly worthwhile" (Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses). Jesus, God Incarnate, has called us "friends." He has invited us into a relationship. If we accept this invitation, our friendship with God in Christ will deepen and become intimate. We will be able to do things for God that we would not otherwise do. 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 Divine.
I’ll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ronald D. Pogue
St. Andrew’s Cathedral