Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Seven Words from the Cross, Part III - Woman, here is your son... Here is your mother

This week let's reflect on Jesus' word from the cross spoken to his mother and the beloved disciple, which comes third in the traditional ordering. It goes a little something like this:

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus then saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" From that hour the disciple took her into his own. (John 19:25b-27)

Now, of all the words from the cross, this may seem the most out place. Surely others involve some interpretative difficulties (e.g., stay tuned next week on God-forsakenness). Yet even the most difficult still seem to have some direct bearing on the meaning of Jesus' death. But what significance is there in a story of Jesus finding a place for his mom to stay? It just seems out of place.

And even as it stands alone it is sort of odd. I mean, you have a guy being brutally tortured and he has the wherewithal to make arrangements for his mother. And his way of doing it is sort of abrupt: "Woman, behold!" Plus, why entrust her to one of his disciples? Why does she not go with one of Jesus' brothers, with whom his mother is often associated in the gospels? It's just sort of odd.

The out-of-place-ness of this odd story has contributed to the wide variety of interpretations that have been developed over the centuries. Let me list a few just to get the conversation going.

(1) The Etiological Interpretation. An etiological story is one that explains the origins of something. Some have interpreted this passage in conjunction with the tradition that John took Mary with him to Ephesus. Even if this tradition developed much later, one could see how some kind of etiological reading might befit the intention in this passage. It is clear from other portions of this gospel that the fourth evangelists is concerned with the authority and position of the beloved disciple (presumably John), especially vis-a-vis Peter. A story revealing that Jesus and John were so close that Jesus would entrust his mother to John could function as a one more piece of evidence securing the apostolic authority of John. I think this is an interesting line of interpretation, and should not be ignored. However, it does little to draw out the theological significance of this word from the cross (unless, perchance, I'm missing something; if so, please instruct me). So this reading alone will not do.

(2) The Family Values Interpretation. This might also be called the "Mother's Day" interpretation. The focus here is on Jesus' compassionate care for his mother at his death. Even though he is suffering, he is thinking of others before himself. He makes sure that his mother is taken care of after his death. Such a line of interpretation highlights Jesus' compassion and concern. It also serves as a example to us, that we too should take care of our families, especially the previous generations. This way of reading could also be linked with Marian piety, so as to highlight the affectionate relationship between Jesus and his mother. This line of interpretation has a lot of positive application for contemporary life. However, I have my doubts as to exegetical adequacy. In their cultural context, Jesus' addressing her as "woman," though not rude, is certainly not affectionate familial talk. Furthermore, in the literary context of John's gospel, Jesus' mother simply does not play the big role we are used to her playing, say, in Luke-Acts. She is never named "Mary." She only appears twice. Given the evidence, this line of interpretation, though perhaps not wholly wrong, lacks sufficient textual support.

(3) The Renunciation Interpretation. This way of reading the passage is directly opposed to the previous option. Instead of a story about Jesus' care for his mother, this passage can actually be read as a renunciation of family ties. Jesus at this crucial moment denies his familial relationship with his mother. He does not talk to her nor treat her as mother. She is rather among the women gathered at the cross, making her a (potential) disciple. This would fit a number of other episodes throughout the gospels that indicate a strained relationship between Jesus and his family. When they come to see him speak, he asks, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Then he points to his disciples and says, "Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and mother" (cf. Mark 3:31-34; Matt 12:46-50). Though it makes a great point about the primacy of discipleship over family ties, these were certainly harsh words to hear for Jesus' biological family. The same could be said of this word from the cross. Family ties are broken for the sake of discipleship. I think there is a necessary truth that must be heard in this line of interpretation. To ignore Jesus' repeated and absolute prioritization of discipleship over family is to miss the costliness of discipleship (cf. Luke 9:57-62). However, I am not sure if it fully illuminates the significance of this particular story. Why does he make this point at his cross? And why does he link his mother and John so explicitly? I think the general point stands as a crucial background assumption. But it does not fully explain the story.

(4) The Symbolic Interpretation. It is telling that this passage can be read in such opposed directions. I think this points to the mysterious complexity of this passage. And I think there may be a reading which takes into account the apparent contradiction between the "family values" and "renunciation" interpretations. However, doing so requires a more "symbolic" reading of the passage, which of course brings it own interpretative problems. Such a symbolic reading would first note that John's Gospel is highly symbolic. Places, characters, things, sayings, events, and even the sequence of the stories are rendered with a deeply Jewish symbolic imagination. Next, one would note that this symbolic imagination seems to apply to Jesus' mother, who is not a character in her own right (ala Luke's Mary) but some kind of cipher. Although she only appears twice, the episodes are in a parallel position within the chiastic structure of the gospel as a whole: the wedding of Cana is the second story after the prologue, whereas the passion narrative is the second to last story before the epilogue. In both, she is addressed as "woman," just like the Samaritan woman in John 4. So, in a manner similar to the symbolism of John 4, the mother of Jesus may be a symbol of Israel as God's chosen bride. As such, this old woman being "taken in" by the young man John, who is a symbol of the church, is a symbolic rendering of Jesus' claim that when he is lifted up he will draw all men to himself. Jew and Gentile are brought together as mother and son at the foot of the cross. This reading is able to draw together Johannine themes in such a way that it casts light on the meaning of the cross. And in so doing it includes the previous interpretations, so that John's authority is highlighted as a symbol of Jesus' delegation of authority to the church, Jesus' affection for his mother is highlighted as his affection for his people Israel, and Jesus' renunciation of family ties is highlighted as a symbol of the new bonds created in the church. However, after spelling it out, it sure seems difficult to sustain such a convoluted symbolic train of thought. This should not in principle rule it out, because the right interpretation may very well be a difficult one. But as a general rule, the simplest explanation is preferable. So for all its explanatory value, this line of interpretation must be flagged as cumbersome.

Any thoughts?
Do you have any interesting observations about the passage?
What lines of interpretation are missing from this typology?
Which reading do you prefer, and why?
What additional arguments and evidence could be brought to bear on evaluating these options?

1 comment:

Keith Drury said...

I think (at least for preaching) I prefer all four?