I have never preached on this little vignette that takes place at the cross. The only time it is included in a lectionary reading is, of course, on Good Friday as a part of the whole Passion story, and it is certainly so much a part of that setting that I have never thought to pull it out for use on another occasion. But it struck me this year that it is a perfect story to highlight during the year when our theme is: “Faith, Hope, and Love Abide; But the Greatest of These Is Love.” Jesus gives us a touching example of this greatest gift in his expression of love and compassion towards his loved ones as he is dying on the cross.
At this point in the story, Jesus has been nailed to the cross. There are four soldiers assigned to this detail, so as one of the perks of the job they divide Jesus’ clothes into four parts, one for each. But the tunic is left and they don’t want to tear it, so they gamble to see which one gets it.
As this finishes, John points out the others who are at the foot of the cross bearing all of this indignity. John provides enough confusion with his list of who is present that we could spend months researching who they all actually are. He says, “Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Then he also mentions as being present “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
Some commentators say there were three women present, some say four. Those who say three list them as Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas. Those who say four say that Mary the wife of Clopas is not Mary’s sister. It is unclear in translation, but it makes sense to me that Mary would not have had a sister named Mary. Though I do recall the characters on the Newhart show who would come into the inn and the spokesman brother would say, “Hi, my name’s Larry and this is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl.” So I guess it’s not impossible. And of course “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is never named and is also debated by commentators. The default position for most people is to assume that since this is John’s gospel, John is the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Salome is frequently mentioned as being one of the women present at the cross and the tomb in the other gospels, so a number of commentators have put this together to assert that Salome was this unnamed sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. Why would this matter in the least? Well, Salome was the wife of Zebedee and the mother of the disciples James and John, so this would make James and John cousins of Jesus. This would make what Jesus is about to do a very logical thing, in addition to making this sound more and more like a southern story all the time. You know, “Momma and them were at the cross and thus and such happened.”
At any rate, Jesus looked down and saw his family and loved ones whose emotional anguish mirrored his physical anguish, and his compassion moved him outside his pain to do something for them. Looking at the disciple he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” And looking at his mother he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” The gospel concludes, “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
Mary’s husband Joseph must have been dead by this time or such a gesture would not have been necessary. But Jesus did have brothers and sisters. Matthew and Mark both list four brothers: James and Joses and Judas and Simon. They mention sisters in the plural, but they are not named. So why would Jesus not just assume his brothers and sisters would care for his mother as they should? Well, John 7 tells an interesting story in which it is noted that his brothers did not believe in him. One of the feasts was coming and Jesus was staying in Galilee rather than going to Jerusalem because he knew there were those who wanted to kill him and it was not yet the right time. The brothers goaded him to go and quit being so secretive about his claims. So maybe there was some of the whole Joseph and his brothers jealousy thing going on. Another time Jesus was teaching and someone interrupted to tell him his mother and brothers were outside and he kept on, saying, “Who are my mothers and brothers?” And the answer was those who followed in discipleship and formed his community of trust and care.
So Jesus breaks with convention in appointing a guardian for his mother before his death, wanting to make sure she continues to be surrounded by people of faith and compassion and good will. And he gives to the disciple a sacred purpose, because the biggest temptation after his death was going to be for the disciples just to go back home and pick up their lives where they had left off when Jesus invited them on this adventure. The disciple was faithful in carrying out this responsibility. A strong church tradition is that John and Mary ended up in Ephesus, and the first church built in honor of the Virgin Mary in Asia was built there and hosted the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.
I have brought a lot more church tradition and maybes and what ifs into this sermon than usual. As the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible’s article about Salome says in talking about some of these theories, “This construction of the data, though attractive, rests on supposition built on supposition and cannot be held as more than a possibility.” (Vol. 4, p. 167) Oh well. And yet at the heart of all this is a lovely story about the greatest gift of the love of a son for his mother, who has indeed poured out her love for him all his life as only a mother can. It is worth embellishing a bit.
It is a story which makes me think of Ruth and Naomi in the Old Testament. Naomi had moved from Bethlehem to Moab during a famine, with her husband and two sons. While in Moab the two sons married Moabite women, then her husband and both sons died. Heartbroken, she decided to go back to Bethlehem and start over, and she told the two daughters in law to stay in Moab among their people. But Ruth refused to be left behind. She said, “Wherever you go, I’m going. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die I will die, and I will be buried beside you.” This foreigner got it. She understood family. She understood unconditional love, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. She understood loyalty and commitment. She loved and stood by a woman whose grief had left her bitter and angry and probably not very lovable. Just like Mary Magdalene at the tomb last week, Ruth stayed. She stayed with Naomi long enough to glimpse resurrection and new life and the birth of hope. Jesus was saying to his mother and his beloved disciple, “Take care of each other; love each other; give hope and meaning to each others’ lives.” Families created by shared faith and commitment can be at least as important and powerful as families created biologically, often more so.
William Barclay writes, “There is something infinitely moving in the fact that Jesus in the agony of the Cross, when the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of his mother in the days ahead. He never forgot the duties that lay to his hand. He was Mary’s eldest son, and even in the moment of his cosmic battle, he did not forget the simple things that lay near home. To the end of the day, even on the Cross, Jesus was thinking more of the sorrows of others than of his own.” (The Daily Study Bible Series, John, Vol. 2, p. 257)
So what can we begin to glean from this story for the living of our lives? Amy Heller points out the elements of being in the kingdom of God which are illustrated in this story. The first is in the women and the disciples being there during Jesus’ hour of need. They have the courage both to face the pain and ultimate death of their loved one and to face the danger of being there at the foot of the cross. It is easier to be at a distance where you can’t really see, can’t really hear, can’t really participate, can’t really be asked to do anything. Being in the kingdom of God means being there, showing up, not being afraid to share in painful experiences and even to hold the hand and wipe the brow of the dying.
The second element of being in the kingdom of God which is illustrated in this story is being open to transformed and deepened relationships. Heller writes, “Because of Jesus, all our relationships are transformed. It means that we also have heard the voice of Jesus calling us into new relationships because of our life with him. The church is a community in which we are able to be brother and sister, mother and father together, not because of our birth, but because of Christ’s call to us. This experience of being related to one another enables us to respond to those who are marginalized.” (Feasting on the Gospels, John, Vol. 2, p. 292)
A third implication of the story which Nick Carter points out is that maybe we should pay more attention to what we will bequeath our loved ones beyond material things. (Ibid., p. 293) Will we leave them with a vengeful group of bystanders who we have walked over in order to get to the top? Will we leave them with a group of good time charleys who love to be around while the good times roll but quickly disappear when the going gets tough? Or will we leave them with kind and compassionate people with whom we have shared one another’s burdens, laughed together, cried together, supported and been supported by, prayed with, worshiped with, sung with? Have you ever thought about that before? If I died, who would be around as the most important people in the lives of my loved ones? All of us want to provide adequately for our loved ones in case of our death. The only question is whether we are focusing on the right preparations.
Carter writes, “Jesus on the cross, close to death, is in control of the situation enough to address the care of his mother. On the one hand, this is a remarkable scene at the climax of the passion story; yet, for any pastor who has tended to the last moments of dying parishioners, the compelling need they express to care for those left behind is far from remarkable. Indeed, for caregivers it seems almost an expected last stage in readying oneself for the approaching end. That it appears here only underscores Jesus’ humanity. What strikes the reader, however, is how Jesus entrusts the care of the Beloved Disciple to his mother and, in turn, entrusts her to the disciple’s care. It is an act of care that is largely without parallel in the Bible.” (Ibid., p. 293)
The first Sunday after Easter is often called “Low Sunday” because of the letdown from the big crowds, the special music, the gathered families, the celebratory occasion. God is served in small things as well as large. I’m grateful that this story reminds us that while Jesus was doing something really big, reconciling the whole world to God on the cross, he was also providing for the two people nearest and dearest to him. Love is indeed the greatest gift.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
April 3, 2016
Central Presbyterian, Anderson, SC