“I NO longer call you slaves…I call you friends.” There is something that puzzles me about this statement of Jesus to his disciples. He has just performed the task of a slave by washing his disciples’ feet. He has also explained that he had done this because it is what he expects his disciples to do for each other—namely, to wash each other’s feet, to be like slaves to each other, to be always at the service of each other. And now, suddenly he is saying, “I no longer call you slaves…I call you friends.” And it is supposed to be the very essence of discipleship.
Is Jesus contradicting himself? No. If discipleship is about friendship, and friendship is about a relationship motivated by love, now he explains to them how they should learn to relate to one another in a manner motivated by love: precisely by serving each other voluntarily—not as slaves but as lovers or as friends or as brothers and sisters.
Last Mother’s Day, I saw this video about young job applicants being interviewed by a manager for a job opening. The applicants showed up by zoom, all well-dressed to apply for a job opening announced as “Director of Operations.” The manager starts explaining the qualifications for the job. He says
“The responsibilities and requirements are enormous. First, mobility. You must remain standing up most of the time, constantly bending, exerting yourself, high level of stamina.” (The interviewees react: Oh, that’s a lot! For how many hours?)
“Unlimited, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” (Reactions: Surely there must be a chance to sit down every now and then, yeah?) “No, no breaks available, maybe only when associates are done eating their lunch.” (Reactions: Is that even legal? I think that’s crazy.)
“The position is one that’s intense in requirements, one who is an expert in negotiation and personal skills, one who might have a degree in medicine, finance, culinary arts…must be able to wear several hats. You see, the associates need constant attention, so sometimes you have to stay up throughout the night for them. You should be able to work in a chaotic environment. If you have a life, you give it up. Workload keeps going up; they also demand that you keep a happy disposition.” (Reaction: that’s almost cruel, almost a very very sick, twisted joke. All encompassing? 365 days a year?) “Yes.” (No, that’s inhumane!)
“Yeah, it’s immense but the meaningful connections you make are immeasurable. Also, let’s cover salary. It will pay absolutely nothing.” (Excuse me?! No. Nobody would do that for free!) “What if I told you there’s someone that’s currently holding that position right now?” (Who?!) Moms. (All of them are now stunned. And then, after a moment of silence, they start reacting: Hahahaha. Awww. Yeah! Oh my God, yeah! Moms indeed…! Some of them are even in tears.)
I think that video captured very well what Jesus meant when he defined the disciple not as a slave but as a friend. If the relationship is motivated by love, it is one that will be ready to serve the beloved like a servant or a slave. You will do it not out of compulsion, not by force of obligation, but by an impulse from within, by the sheer desire for the good of one’s friend or beloved. You serve selflessly and are even willing to give up your life for your beloved, not involuntarily, but voluntarily.
Jesus says he had learned this from the Father, and now he wants his disciples to learn it too, by giving them an example. There is a song that originates from the Focolare movement that expresses this thought beautifully. It says,
“Offer your whole life through. And be like Mary standing ‘neath the cross. And you’ll be a servant of everybody, a servant out of love, a servant priest for all humanity.”
(Homily for Friday of the 5th Week of Easter, 20 May 2022, Jn 15:12-17)