Like the rest of us, in His humanity Jesus was limited by hours in the day. But this was not purposeless: Jesus was to be our Example in all things. He had to model for us how to engage in balanced, healthy relationships with others. To do so, He invested His time with people strategically.
The relationships of Jesus might be mapped out as three concentric circles. The outermost circle would consist of people with whom He had casual contact—the crowds, the Nicodemus types, and even the Pharisees and scribes. He didn’t spend much quality time—didn’t develop deep community—but in His limited contact with them, He showed love. He didn’t expect much from them, though. Regarding His relationship with the fickle multitude, the Bible says, “But Jesus on His part did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for He Himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24, 25). He didn’t trust the crowds, but He cared about them. They were people to whom He gave, not really expecting to get anything in return. At best, He hoped to draw some of them into His second circle.
The second circle consisted of people Jesus was actively discipling. The twelve disciples, the seventy He sent out, the women who followed Him, and probably others fit in here. With these He spent more quality time, though primarily He was still giving, not getting. But these were distinguished from the multitude because Jesus was investing in them long-term. He therefore demonstrated a level of trust.
Jesus’ inner circle was relatively small. As far as I can tell, it consisted of seven—His mother, Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus. Not all of them understood His mission or were trustworthy, but Jesus treated them differently than others. These were people He trusted. Not only did He allow them to lean on Him, but at times He leaned on them as well. He appealed to them for support, even when He knew they would let Him down. When He needed encouragement and strength–like every other human being created in God’s relational image–He longed for assurance that He was loved too. After all, wasn’t He human? He faced the agony of every human soul, in order to be our Example.
It’s clear Jesus embraced His longing for community, and therefore the pain of love and loss, even more deeply than we do. He did not shrink from the pain of betrayal. He was tempted in all points like we are, so He experienced the bitterness of trusting untrustworthy people. Maybe what’s most amazing of all is that Jesus, knowing how much it would hurt, trusted anyway. Because He took refuge in safe relationship with His Father, He could brave any amount of unsafe relationship with sinners, for the purpose of allowing the love of His Father to flow to them.
God doesn’t just call us to self-inflicted relational agony for the joy of suffering. Jesus did not masochistically build His inner circle of Pharisees. But He did deliberately engage in vulnerable relationship with those who would hurt Him. He did this strategically, including Judas in His second circle, and Peter in His inner one. He voluntarily drew close to those who would hurt Him, modeling to us how to handle the inevitable disappointments of close, vulnerable relationships with broken people.
If I had been shown the future on the morning of my wedding, and discovered that my husband was going to cheat on me, beat me, and cause me the worst suffering imaginable, would I have had the courage to walk down that aisle joyfully? Could I have given my whole heart in vulnerable relationship, knowing that this love is going to cause me the most intense pain I’ve ever known? I know the answer to that. It’s plain I don’t love like Jesus did.
But maybe I’d like to. Maybe that’s what I was born to do—to love without expecting or demanding love in return, simply because I’m commanded to love. Maybe I am called to take up God’s challenge to “love one another,” and to trust that He will be there to wipe my tears when it hurts. Maybe this is the highest calling of Christianity, to live like sacrificial lambs, learning to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in sacrificial relationship. Maybe the greatest thing that I could ever do with my life is to cover other sinners with my skin, as the lambs outside of Eden.
Not that my sacrifice will cover anyone else’s sin, of course. But like the sacrificial lambs, my sacrifice can point others toward the love of the One whose sacrifice truly can. As I love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, that love will inevitably pour through me and spill into my relationships with others. And in that process, I begin measuring up to the standard by which God has said we will all be judged—His relational law of love.