Now, you may be thinking that I’m just trying to hook you in with a provocative title — and you would be partially right. But I hope you’ll read on.
My mother would have been 93 today if she was still alive. And I would have visited her gravesite in Statesville, but I can never find her stone in that massive sea. So I thought I would honor her this way. She gave me much and there was much that I needed that she never gave me. But she always wanted me to pursue my dreams. What better gift can a child receive than that?
Most of us owe a lot to our mothers for their caring and for their suffering, for bringing us into the world, and so much more. When I think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, I suspect that Jesus owed her more than most. It could not have been easy raising the Son of God. Freud didn’t do mothers any favors by shining a light on how crucial the first few months and years of life are for the fragile psyches of children. But Mary knew it 1900 years earlier. Wouldn’t you try to be the most perfect mother in the world, knowing how much was riding on it, as Mary must have known? She deserves all of the veneration, and then some, as seen in the hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful paintings and sculptures of Madonna and Child.
Even with all that we owe our mothers, however, they are not to be worshipped. We owe them a return on their investment of love, for sure. But we don’t owe them our lives.
Obviously, Jesus did not say the words, “Mom, go to hell.” But that was the gist of what he said to her one day, if we take the scripture literally, as well as symbolically. Jesus was out healing and teaching, and it had been a long day, maybe without time to eat or drink or rest. The crowds were immense. People of every walk in life, rich and poor, were drawn to Jesus by his message and by his personality — he was someone that could be trusted. He walked the talk, and they loved him. But Mary led Jesus’s siblings on a different mission that day — they wanted to save him. Save him from what, you may ask? Well, save Jesus from himself, evidently. They were afraid that Jesus was losing his mind — that he was “beside of himself,” in the Greek translation of the text (Mark 3:32-35). These days, we would be more blunt: he’s insane, or he’s lost his mind, or he’s gone crazy.
Because of the crowds, though, Mary could not reach her son. So word was passed from one pilgrim to another, and finally, word got to Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are outside.”
Jesus, at this point, might have said something deferential, like, “Tell my mother I’ll be home for supper,” or “Let’s catch up with each other on the Sabbath — I’m just fine. Don’t worry.” But no, Jesus was a bit of smart ass. What he said exactly was this — a riddle. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Ouch! Not what a worried mother would want to hear just then. And then, this — driving a stake deeper into Mary’s heart: “Here (pointing to the crowd) are my mother and brothers.” Double ouch!
I know some mothers and you do too, I’m sure, that if their sons or daughters talked to them that way, there would be words — and not nice ones — exchanged. I’ve seen some mothers sulk for days for much less, and I’ve seen some mothers threaten their sons or daughters with all sorts of retaliation for such disrespectful speeches. And Jesus said this in public. Was that any way to talk to the Mother of God?
Of course, Jesus wasn’t meaning Mary any disrespect, but he clearly was keeping his biological family responsibilities squarely in proportion to his spiritual family responsibilities. It’s a good lesson to us, because we sometimes confuse the two. Sometimes, even, our biological families and our spiritual families cannot co-exist. It can be a problem that way.
My own son, when he was 21, told me to go to hell. I didn’t like it, but I knew we had come to a point in our relationship, where it was time to put me in my place. I had become overbearing, implying that I didn’t trust him and his decision-making. And it was true — in that moment, I didn’t. The father part of me was terribly hurt and upset at being told where to go; but the therapist in me was silently cheering him on. He was well on his way to finding himself, and he needed, for awhile, to go his own way.
Eventually, we repaired the breach, and I’m so proud of who he became and is still becoming. It’s the privilege of a lifetime to watch our sons and daughters grow and develop into sensitive, caring, passionate human beings who are making the planet a better place to live.
As Jesus hung on the Cross, breathing his last, his mind was clear enough to ask one of the disciples to look after Mary when he was gone. He loved her and she loved Jesus. And we who follow him are so much better for it — for the way they clarified their relationship with each other and with us. We are Jesus’s “mothers and brothers” and sisters and fathers and sons and daughters and uncles and aunts. We who follow the way of Jesus are one universal family.