“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
This famous phrase from Jesus has gotten much attention from the “new homophiles” who collectively contribute to the blog www.spiritualfriendship.org (see note below). The assertion seems to be that friendship, in contrast to spousal love, is the “greatest” kind of love because Jesus says so, right here in Scripture.
Eve Tushnet has said in her book “Gay and Catholic”:
“Here [in the New Testament] we find the most stirring defense of friendship in Christian history in the words of Jesus himself: “Greater love has no man than this: to give his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).” [“Gay and Catholic” 2014, p. 95]
Sounds plausible, right? Have Christians been short-shrifting friendship for centuries by lavishing attention on married love, when “friendship” is really greater? Ought we acknowledge friendship’s pinnacle in the hierarchy of love?
Is the ‘greatest love’ mentioned by Jesus really friendship?
Let’s ease into the text. And the context. First, let’s distinguish between the love of “friendship” in Greek (philia) and the sacrificial love of “charity” in Greek (agape). Jesus gives a new commandment: love (agape) one another as he has loved (agape). He then explains that the greatest example of this kind of agape-love he commands is the sacrifice of one’s life for a “friend” (philos). Jesus says that his disciples are his “friends” (philos) if they do what he commands.
In verse 19, the text suggests a distinction between the command of “agape-love” and worldy love: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love (phileo) its own…”. If Jesus’ disciples were “worldly,” they’d receive the friendship-love (philia) of the world, but they are “chosen” by Christ, commanded to the agape-love that surpasses the “philia” of the world.
In context, it’s super-clear that Jesus does not simply equate the love of friendship (philia) with the “no greater love” (agape) he is speaking of. Just because Jesus refers to “friends” doesn’t mean he has “friendship-love” in mind as the greatest. Indeed, the “philia” of the world could never be mistaken for the self-sacrifice that defines the “greatest” form of agape-love.
Is the ‘greatest love’ manifested only among ‘friends’?
Does Jesus literally mean that the greatest act of agape-love is giving one’s life for one’s friends only? What about the command to love our enemies? Wouldn’t we all agree that the supreme form of sacrificial love is Jesus’ own death on the Cross?
But that act of love was not only for “friends”—it was for Jesus’ “enemies,” too. If we are to love as Jesus loved, then there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends and enemies.
St. Paul even reminds us (Romans 5:6-10) :
“For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us….Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
It’s clear that the love (agape) Jesus has in mind necessarily goes beyond the concept of “friendship” and includes love of enemies. The passage’s use of “friends” (philos) can’t be strictly interpreted to limit its context exclusively to friendship-love. The “greatest love” really is about self-sacrifice unto death, not whether it is for a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend—or an enemy. It’s “greatest” because it’s complete self-sacrifice.
Does this “greatest love” exist only apart from marriage?
While the new-homophile writers seem to position friendship-love as “greater” than spousal love, they seem to miss the truth that married love is the full, rich mixture of all four loves identified by the Greeks: philia, agape, eros (sexual love), and storge (familial love).
Why does marriage involve a more excellent manifestation of the agape-love Jesus mentions in John 15:13? Because marriage involves a covenantal double-manifestation of the total self-gift. Spousal love contains a unique form of “reciprocity” that distinguishes it from worldly friendship-love (philia ) and even from a mutual or reciprocal “agapeic” love arising between friends
In Pope St. John Paul II’s classic 1960 work Love and Responsibility,* he makes clear that spousal love must include friendship to find its fulfillment. Then he says:
“Spousal love is something else than all the aspects or forms of love analyzed up to this point. It consists in giving one’s own person. The essence of spousal love is giving oneself, giving one’s ‘I.’ It constitutes at once something other and more than fondness, than desire, and even than benevolence. All these forms of going out toward the other person with regard to the good do not reach as far as spousal love. ‘To give oneself’ means more than merely ‘to want the good,’ even if by that the other ‘I’ became as if my own, as happens in friendship. Spousal love is something other and something more than all the forms of love analyzed so far….When spousal love enters in this inter-personal relation, then something other than friendship arises, namely the reciprocal self-giving of persons.”(p. 228)
In this light, friendship is not a vehicle that can “bear” the reciprocity of marriage, in which the spouses move beyond “wanting the good” and covenantally exchange their persons, soul and body. This is the stuff of marriage, not friendship. Friends can love unto death, even for one another. But they cannot—and should not seek to—covenantally exchange their very persons (comprising body and soul). That is reserved for the permanent, exclusive, complementary, and reciprocal union of man and woman that we call marriage.
The only form of human love capable of encompassing all four loves (philia, agape, eros, and storge) is spousal love. And this is probably why spousal love has always served as the signpost and symbol of God’s total and “nuptial” love for us and our love for Him. “Philia” is a vital and worthy form of love, as it turns out, not the “greatest love,” nor did Jesus ever really say that it was. That wasn’t the point.
Rather, when our agape is “unto death”—whether in marriage or friendship—we can know we have given the “greatest” love we can give.
[Note: While there are more examples than this, here is one quick link illustrating the thinking at the “Spiritual Friendship” blog: http://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/12/11/whats-next-for-love-and-marriage/.]
*[Credit: I saw a recent great article from Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons that pointed me in the right direction on this: https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/st.-john-paul-ii-the-2015-synod-on-the-family. ]