Can you imagine the anguish of Jesus’ mother as she watched her son dying on the cross? As a mother myself, I can’t even bear it when one of my children gets hurt. The sight of their blood makes me queasy. Imagine, then, Mary standing there watching her innocent son beaten, mocked, and crucified for the sins of the whole world. She watched him suffer there for three long hours, blood streaming from his head, his hands, his feet, and she couldn’t do a thing to stop it or make it better. I can’t even imagine. Yet even in the midst of Jesus’ own excruciating agony, He sees His mother’s pain and takes the time to lovingly provide for her earthly future.
When Jesus 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!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:26-27).
Now, in order to understand this exchange, we need to know a bit about the culture of the day. You see, women in Jesus’ day weren’t likely to have jobs outside the home. The daily work of keeping a household running required more work than we in the 21st century can comprehend. Multiple times a day women had to lug heavy (probably 40 lb) buckets of water from the well to their homes to use for washing, cleaning, and drinking. The physical duties of running a household were far more demanding than ones we have today. They baked bread from scratch, even down to grinding their own flour. These women were busy. And thus, there was really no way they could take paying jobs as well. That was the job of their husbands. The husbands provided for their families financially. In Mary and Joseph’s case, Joseph was a carpenter. It was a humble profession, one that didn’t bring in big bucks, but Joseph was able to provide for his family nonetheless. But tradition has it that Joseph had died somewhere in Jesus’ teenage or early adult years. In such a case, Mary’s earthly care would fall to her eldest son, Jesus. And now Jesus was dying.
Now what was Mary to do? Well, her care would fall to her next son or closest male relative. In this case, the expected choice would be James or Jude, Jesus’ brothers (or cousins, as some have translated it). So why doesn’t Jesus leave it at that? Why change things up? Well, you see, neither James nor Jude yet believed in Jesus. Yes, by God’s grace, they came to saving faith later, after Jesus’ resurrection. James came to lead the Jerusalem churches, and historian Josephus tells us he was stoned to death by the Sadducees. Both James and Jude went on to author New Testament books, so thankfully they did come to believe in Jesus. But at this exact moment, when Jesus is dying on the cross, his brothers were nowhere to be found. Jesus would not entrust his mother’s care to those who would not also care for her spiritually. So he changes the order of things and gives Mary’s care over to His disciple, John.
While this tender exchange between Jesus, Mary, and John may seem like a sweet gesture on Jesus’ part, there’s another more important meaning behind all of this. Jesus is setting a precedent here. Yes, God places us in earthly families, and hopefully many of us have strong family bonds where we share the gift of saving faith with our loved ones. But not everyone has this advantage. Some families are estranged from one another. Some family members have fallen away from the faith, or never believed in the first place. If that is the case for you, dear one, take heart. Jesus is reordering the family. He is showing us that the spiritual family of believers supersedes the blood bonds between families. This is not to diminish the importance of earthly families. Not at all. But Jesus is expanding the definition of “family.” All believers are part of a much larger family, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. As a Lutheran homiletician notes, “Baptismal water is thicker than blood.” The waters of Holy Baptism have united us with the whole church of heaven and earth. Look around you on any given Sunday. Your fellow congregants are your family. You will spend eternity with them.
Dear one, no matter what the makeup of your earthly family, know this: Jesus has placed you into a supportive, loving Christian family united not by DNA, but by saving faith through Jesus’ blood and the waters of baptism. We share meals together at the communion rail. We recall family history every time we read the Bible and tell the salvation story. We sing together. We support each other and care for fellow family members who are hurting or in need. God is our Father and Jesus Himself is our brother. And we have the rest of eternity to spend with our wonderful extended family.