We all remember the story of the teacher of the law who asked Jesus, “Who is my Neighbor?” This was the question that prompted Jesus to reply with the Parable of the Good Samaritan – showing that even our enemies are neighbors when it comes to the law of God.
But what if the teacher had asked the question in a slightly different way, saying, “Who is my Friend?” Could the answer to that question also impact our understanding of the Way of Christianity? We don’t have any indication in the New Testament of that question being asked of Jesus, but we do have Jesus’ answer to it, nevertheless.
In his Gospel, Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas Iscariot, the disciple turned traitor, had led a group of soldiers and other armed men to where he knew Christ would be in order to betray him for a cash reward. As Judas approached Jesus in the dark of night and greeted him with a kiss in order to identify him to those who were to arrest him, Matthew records Jesus’ surprising words: “ ‘Do what you came for, friend.’ Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him” (Matthew 26:50).
Think about this. Jesus was not one to soften the truth. He was the one who called the Pharisees “whitened sepulchers” and a “brood of vipers” – to their faces. But at the very moment of his betrayal , Jesus did not call Judas all the things we probably would have done. He did not call Judas “Traitor!” “Enemy!” “Back-Stabber!” – he did not even call him “False Friend!” Amazingly, he just called him “friend.”
Now if we want to get technical, the word the Bible uses to record what Jesus called Judas was not philos, the Greek word usually translated “friend” and meaning “dear” in the sense of a close friend. It uses the word hetairos meaning “friend” in the sense of a comrade, one who is a friend without necessarily having any affectionate relationship. But he did call Judas by a word that means “friend” in the general sense (Matthew also uses the word in this sense in Matthew 20:13 and Matthew 22:12).
How do we apply his example? The Old Testament gives us some clues. Hebrew has a word, merea, which is very similar in meaning to the Greek hetairos – it also means friend in the sense of companion or comrade and it is found in Job’s words: “He who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty” (Job 6:14). It is the same word that is used to tell us that after Job prayed for his “friends” (the individuals who had been haranguing him), God forgave them (Job 42:10).
So if righteous Job prayed for the “friends” who mistreated him, and Christ could even call Judas “friend” as he betrayed him, can we learn a lesson from this? When we pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), do we pray grudgingly, with reservations, or do we pray for them as we would for a friend?