“When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, 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.”
We are all familiar with the events preceding this exchange. About a week earlier, Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem as “the king of the Jews.” On this day, the day of his crucifixion, he was again hailed as the “king of the Jews,” but this time there was no triumph. The Jews no longer praised him, they cried out, “Kill him! Crucify him!” To be hailed as the king of the Jews is to be a rebel, to challenge the emperor of Rome who was considered the son of heaven and who alone held power in Israel. In fact, the emperor had power over what was called as the Roman Empire which included what we know today as Morocco, Algeria, Britain, Romania and part of Hungary, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Assyria – which includes present day Iraq, Arabia and what we know now as Jordan. As a rebel, an enemy of the empire, Jesus’ human rights were violated. It was not enough that he be imprisoned or executed. He was crowned with thorns, paraded naked, whipped in public while carrying a heavy cross, tortured with the long and slow death of crucifixion, publicly humiliated and denied dignity. The humiliation of those crucified did not end at death, they were denied proper burial as their remains are taken apart and eaten by wild animals. According to the historian Josephus, as many as 500 people were crucified in one day by the Roman Empire. Jesus was just one of the many victims of state killing. They were subjected to this brutality to instill fear and hopelessness. Many of those who were crucified were abandoned by those who knew them. They died alone.
But not Jesus. Jesus did not die alone.
In the midst of the violence and anger, there were four women including his mother Mary, and the beloved disciple, John, standing near the cross.
I have heard sermons on the third word and several times, it has been interpreted as Jesus’ way of ensuring the well-being of Mary, his mother. This has been the experience of many of us who have lost our loved ones to long-term illnesses. While laying on their beds feeling very sick and weak, they would remind us, “Take care of yourself. Take care of your children, your siblings.” Despite their own pain and suffering, their concern is not for themselves but for others. Jesus’s words to Mary and John have been thought of as his ‘last words’ to his lived ones. But were they just ‘last words?’
In the written text, I need to point out that “Woman, behold your son,” and “Behold your mother,” both end with an exclamation point. When Jesus uttered his words, it was said with urgency and in a commanding tone. Jesus knew he was dying and despite everything that he had taught the twelve disciples and many more who followed him, despite the healing and forgiving he gave to those who came to him, despite the commandments and parables he shared with those who cared to hear, he would still leave behind a world that is not much better when he came to it. On the way to the cross, Jesus must have searched the crowd for the faces of his disciples and followers. Jesus needed to know that they still believed in him and everything he stood for. Jesus needed their compassion but more than this, he needed their passion to go and continue what he had begun.
Jesus’s words were not merely ‘last words.’ They were the ‘last challenge.’
By being at the foot of the cross; by not allowing Jesus to die alone, the four women and the beloved disciple gave Jesus hope for the future. Even without him. And they were not alone. They had each other. And because they had each other, they can continue the ministry of Christ together.
Jesus’ last words to Mary and John was a challenge to continue a partnership and to continue Jesus’ ministry. It was a call to action – together.
At Jesus birth, he was called Emmanuel – God with us. Not God with Me. The gospels could have narrated Jesus’ death without the last words to Mary and John. But the inclusion of this account points out that in life and in death, Jesus was not alone but valued partnerships that would empower others for genuine service to the people and to God.
How about us? Who is our John? Who is our mother? Who are our partners as we continue the ministry of Jesus Christ?
Who is our Christ today? Who is being persecuted, violated and crucified in our midst? What are the problems in society which fill us with urgency and move us to find partners who will respond?
Finally, at birth, in life and in death, it was not easy to follow Jesus. Very few people came to see his birth amd fewer stood by him near the cross. But even the son of God needed someone to be with him in his life, death, and resurrection. Today, we must ask ourselves if we really are following Jesus. Are we truly able to put ourselves on the line by standing near the cross. Or are we just watching. Looking but hiding where we are safe and protected. The challenge of Jesus to John and Mary was never to save one’s self but to take part in the saving of others.
This last challenge is not just for Mary and John. It is for us, too.
Lizette Galima Tapia-Raquel
Union Theological Seminary