As I was nearing the end of the months of compiling the Sayings of Jesus into the The Words of Jesus volume and, even more, during these last five or six weeks since it has been published, I received, and have continued to receive, some fairly thought-provoking questions. I have received enough, in fact, so that I have been able to discern a certain consistency or pattern in what reporters and other folk are interested enough to ask about with predictability. And number one on the list of faq’s is the question: Which of the Sayings of Jesus did you find most surprising?
Now that’s a very reasonable question, except that I can’t exactly answer it, at least not in any straight-forward way. Much of the difficulty, I think, is that my answer, although it is very clear to me, is nonetheless not a very impressive one. That is, the Saying that most surprised me is one that I have known all my life and paid little or no attention to. Beyond that, it is only four words long and has absolutely no immediately apparent theological significance as such. To say the least, it would not convert souls or re-arrange doctrines, in the usual sense of those processes. It did, none the less, grab hold of me, as if I had never seen it before; and it also changed Jesus for me.
The Saying – it is Saying 57, Book IV – is spoken after Jesus has been on the cross for a few hours and is nearing death. Looking down from that place of torture, He sees His mother standing nearby, watching Him in extremis, and He says, “Woman, behold your son.”
Always before, to the extent that I had thought about it at all, I thought what I had been taught to think, namely that He was saying to Mary something to the effect that she, as a widow who was about to lose her oldest male child as well, must now turn to the apostle John for protection and support. Now I don’t think so.
It is true that immediately after speaking those words to Mary, He looks down upon those gathered beneath Him and says to John, “Behold your mother,” as if He were consigning Mary to John’s care….which, in fact, is pretty much what I think He was doing with John. I’m just not nearly so sure as once I was about the “Woman, behold your son,” words.
There is a particularity, an intimacy, an intensity to His calling to her directly, and it rests in that word, “Woman.” Woman. He does not address John by name, nor does He call Mary, “Mother.” No. This is starker than that. And contrary to all the neatly sketched out conclusions I have heard in sermon after sermon about how perfectly lovely it was that even dying like that, Jesus could still be concerned about his mother, the truth is that what He actually says is not just stark. It is also singularly without affection. Woman, behold your son.
She had known from the beginning that it would come to this, or to something like this. From His conception there had been the prophetic knowledge that she was privy to, and an instrument of, something upon which time and space would both pivot. Even Jerusalem’s most ancient and beloved priest, as he held her infant, had turned to her and said, “A sword will also pierce your soul.” So she had known, and now she stood beneath His dying form feeling at last the sword of Simeon’s prophecy.
But He tells her something else, something that is caught between the two of them in an intimacy beyond that of all the rest of human affairs. He is not saying, “Look at John now for help.” Why ever would He say that to her? He is saying instead, “Look at Me.”
Look at Me and understand, Woman, that your job is done. You have done it, and it is done….well done, Woman.”
Just briefly, from that cross, God stops long enough to say to His creature, “You have done what was required.”
It is finished.
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