“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25–27).
John’s Gospel is full of words and phrases that have multiple meanings and convey a rich symbolism. Many interpreters argue that these words of Jesus from the cross to his mother and the beloved disciple should be understood symbolically and theologically, rather than historically. In fact, these words closely resemble the formulas used for rites of adoption in the ancient world. Jesus had other blood brothers who had been present alongside his mother in Cana and they would have naturally been the ones to care for their mother. Assuming that Joseph had been dead for some time, Jesus’s mother would have been in their care.
Jesus’s mother appears twice in the Gospel of John, at the beginning and end of his ministry: at the wedding in Cana and at the cross. These two scenes form a bracket around Jesus’s ministry. At the wedding scene there is a foreboding of what is to come. When she asks him to do something to remedy the problem of running out of wine, Jesus says, “Woman, my hour has not yet come,” alluding to the hour of his death. (By the way, calling her “woman” was not intended to be derogatory or degrading in any way. Jesus also addressed the woman of Samaria (4:21) and Mary Magdalene (20:15) by this same word. In each instance where this word is used, the initial response to Jesus is one of incomprehension.) From John’s perspective Jesus’s pronouncement from the cross is not a reference to ordinary family relations, but to the nucleus of a new family that finds its center at the cross.
Most of us simply ignore Jesus’s hard sayings, not knowing what to make of them. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus indicates how his message divides families. He says,
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matt 10:35–37).
Another time, the Gospels tell us that Jesus’s mother and brothers came to try to talk him into going home with them. They thought he had lost his good sense. They could see that his present course was leading him into an inevitable clash with the dominating powers of the religious establishment and that could only mean one thing: Jesus would lose. While Jesus is teaching a crowd, his family arrives. When informed of their presence and that they are inquiring about him, he says,
“Who are my mother and brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31–35).
Still another time, Jesus called a man to follow him whose father had just died. He wanted to bury his father. Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead, follow me” (Matt 8:22).
What are we to make of these sayings? About the only thing that makes sense is that Jesus had a larger vision and mission. (It may also be true that Jesus was ministering with a sense of urgency. This is debated by scholars, but he may have believed that the full realization of God’s reign/kingdom was imminent.)
Jesus envisioned a beloved community, the family of God, as constituting the core of the kingdom of God, God’s dream for the world. (God’s kingdom as understood by Jesus and his first followers could be paraphrased as God’s kin-dom.) Jesus’s commitment to this greater cause took precedence and priority over his own family.
For us it’s just the opposite. I admit, I’m not like Jesus in this area, and I suspect that most of you aren’t either. Most of us give preference to our own families and very few of us are able to embrace the possibility of the beloved community as Jesus envisioned. The first community of disciples as depicted by Luke in the book of Acts comes very close. Some interpreters think Luke’s description is more ideal than real. I’m not sure. Consider his description,
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47).
I don’t think I have ever heard a politician who claims to stand for Christian values appeal to this passage. I imagine the politicians who want to abolish welfare, social security, programs for the poor, and give tax breaks to the wealthy would like to cut this passage out of their Bibles. I’ve told my kids, “What’s mine is yours.” But I haven’t told any of my church members that. (By the way, I think that a healthy Christian spirituality will always hold in tension the radical demands of discipleship on one hand, and the radical grace of God on the other hand. It’s good to know that our failures at discipleship are met with grace, isn’t it?)
When Will Willimon was a chaplain to students and professor at Duke University he told a young woman who was a graduating senior and an active participant in their campus ministry that he wanted to meet her parents. She didn’t think that was a good idea. When he inquired, he was informed that her mother was really ticked off with him. She said, “She’s flipped out because I’m thinking about going to work with the poor. She liked the old me that she once had better than the new me who’s working with Jesus.”
In Luke’s Gospel, when Mary and Joseph bring their child to the old prophet Simeon in the temple for his blessing, he predicts that the child “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Then he warns Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35). Jesus broke the heart of his mother, and has divided many a family since.
The call of Jesus is a call to embrace a larger family and a greater cause than a single family can sustain. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God he did not envisage a conquering, domineering empire, but a loving, caring household. And at the center of this household is the family of God, the beloved community.
(These reflections were adapted from chapter 4, “A New Family” of my book, Why Call Friday Good? Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)