The sword was piercing her own soul. As Simeon had predicted thirty-three years ago in the temple, Mary now understood what he’d meant as she watched her innocent Son bleeding and dying on the cross. What greater pain for a mother than to see her child hurt when she can do nothing to change it? Yet even as Jesus was dying, He was still caring for others. She’d heard Him ask for forgiveness for those who crucified Him. She’d seen Him promise paradise to the criminal next to Him on the cross. And now He uses precious energy to speak again, this time to see to her own welfare.
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.
To help our understanding of this exchange, we need to know a bit about the culture of the day. 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. There was really no way they could take paying jobs as well. That was the job of their husbands. 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, so Mary’s earthly care had passed to her eldest son, Jesus. But Jesus was dying.
Now what was Mary to do? Her care should fall to her next son or closest male relative. For Mary, 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? Well, you see, neither James nor Jude yet believed in Jesus. 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. 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 aspect to this. Jesus is setting a precedent. 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, 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, 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. It is said that “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.
Jesus’ words from the cross were not the first time He has reordered the family. Early on in His ministry, when the crowds made it difficult for Jesus even to eat, His family “went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). When they reached Jesus and He was told that they were there, He replied, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:33-35). Again, Jesus shows that the family of believers is a more intimate tie even than biological family bonds.
No matter what the makeup of your earthly family might be, 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 this wonderful family.