The First Mary (Part 1)
Bad blood between Jesus and his mother
I wrote about my approach to the gospel accounts of Jesus here. When I read them as historical sources, however imperfect they are, they reveal much about Jesus the man, and the time and places in which he lived.
Recently I was researching Jesus’ attitude to money and wealth, and you can see the results in the article linked above. As I went through my old bible I could not help noticing other things - odd things, unexpected things.
One theme in particular stands out. In several passages there are clear signs of tension in the relationship between Jesus and his mother. Sometimes it seems that Jesus resented Mary. Why this should be so is far from clear, but the evidence is unavoidable.
A passage in Luke’s gospel contains the earliest example I can find.Jesus was 12 and had become separated from Mary and Joseph while they were visiting Jerusalem. After a search lasting several days they found their son in the temple, where he was deep in discussion with several learned clerics. Jesus was apparently oblivious to the worry he had caused his parents. When Mary remonstrated with the boy, he reacted as if she, rather than he, had done something wrong.
How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?
Jesus’ brusqueness towards Mary continued into adulthood. On the only other occasion when the gospels depict mother and son speaking to each other, Jesus was equally sharp. This was at the strange event known as the Wedding Feast at Cana.
The story appears in the gospel of John only.It concerns a wedding to which Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were invited. At a certain point in the celebrations, Mary noticed that the wine had run out and mentioned this to her son. But Jesus reacted as if this was not just a casual observation. How else can his rather tart response be explained?
O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.
After pointing out the wine deficit to Jesus, Mary turned to the waiters and instructed them to “Do whatever he tells you.” It seems clear that she was not expecting her son to do anything mundane like getting the staff to order a new batch of wine. They were guests at a wedding and presumably the drink supply was a matter for the host or the venue. No, Jesus took it that his mother wanted him to intervene in a different way, a special way, and so he did.
Jesus dazzled everyone by performing what must have seemed like a magic trick. He resolved the drinks shortage by transforming the water in six large jars into wine, good wine at that. This, we are told, was “the first of his signs”, i.e. Jesus’ first miracle.
Given that most of Jesus’ miracles involved healing the sick or raising the dead, this one seems atypical. Even when he performed a similar feat, like walking on the water or calming the storm, there was a lesson bound up in the wonders he created. In both cases, Jesus wanted his disciples to realise that they could do what he had done - if they overcame their fear of evil.
When Jesus taught his followers how to pray, he included in his formula the line “Give us this day our daily bread”.Jesus believed that no one should fret about where the next meal was coming from. He brought this principle to life when he fed the multitudes in the desert. All four gospels relate how Jesus multiplied the small supply of food available to provide more than enough to satisfy the hungry thousands who had followed him into the wilderness.
This is the miracle that is most similar to Cana. In both cases Jesus conjured up food or drink out of unpromising materials in order to satisfy everyone’s needs. Yet what a gulf of meaning separates the two. In the desert Jesus wanted us to see for ourselves why we should not worry about filling our bellies. He believed that God provides for all our needs, if we just have faith.
But what was he telling us at Cana? There was no obvious lesson or teaching incorporated into his performance. It is difficult to see it as anything other than a cheap parlour trick, instigated by his mother and against Jesus’ better judgement.
The temple and Cana incidents were not one-off displays of petulance towards his mother by an otherwise dutiful son. No, these examples reflect a pattern in Jesus’ relationship with Mary that is puzzling to say the least. That pattern continued in another incident following the Cana wedding. It is related in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Shortly after embarking on his public life, Jesus was out and about preaching and healing, gathering large crowds around him. According to Mark, Jesus was so besieged that “he went home”, presumably to the village of Capernaum where we are told he lived.There he continued to address his followers inside his dwelling. As he spoke someone told him that “his mother and his brethren” were outside trying to get in. However, instead of rushing out to greet them, Jesus effectively ignored them, asking rhetorically, “Who are my mother and my brethren?” He then said a strange thing:
Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.
Was Jesus implying that his family, and his own mother Mary in particular, were not doing God’s work or following “the will of God”? In light of what Jesus was saying just before they arrived at his house, such an interpretation is not as bizarre as it seems.
Some of those who followed him to Capernaum - described in most accounts as “his family” - claimed that Jesus himself was not doing God’s work. They charged him with being “possessed by Be-el-zebul… the prince of demons”. Jesus rejected the charge without hesitation. Some of his accusers must have seen him expelling “unclean spirits” from the throngs who had been entreating him for help. So he responded with a pertinent question: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Jesus explained that if the devil was empowering him to cast out demons, it could mean only that evil was divided against itself. In that case Satan’s kingdom was clearly coming to an end.
For Jesus this was familiar ground. As I outlined here, Satan had already tried to thwart Jesus by offering him power and glory in exchange for his submission to “the ruler of this world”. Despite having rejected that pact, Jesus must have felt that he was not yet out of the woods. As he repudiated his accusers at Capernaum, Jesus identified what he believed to be the only way he could be overpowered by the forces of darkness:
But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house.
We must remember that Jesus said this inside his own home, talking to those we are told had come “to seize him” because they said that he was “beside himself”, i.e. deranged or crazy. Given the context it seems reasonable to suppose that Jesus saw these people as robbers trying to “plunder his house”. His words, therefore, could be interpreted, not as analogy or parable, but as the literal truth about a potential threat emerging as he was speaking.
In her analysis of the role of Jesus’ mother Mary, during and after her earthly life, Marina Warner had this to say about the episode I have been describing:
The sequence of events implies strongly that Jesus' "friends" have marshalled his mother and relatives to help their efforts to stop his ministry.
Is this true? Were Mary and Jesus’ siblings colluding in a conspiracy to bring Jesus down? An heretical suggestion perhaps. However, based on his reaction to his family’s arrival at this crucial confrontation, that seems to have been exactly what Jesus was thinking.
The gospel of John offers us a final insight into the relationship between Jesus and Mary. However this one is different from all the others I have described. It is the moment when the dying Jesus spoke to Mary at the foot of the cross.
Did this episode also mark the end of the bad blood between them?
More in Part 2.
e.g. John 6:5-13.
Although Jesus’ response might be construed as not having been directed specifically at Mary, I believe that she, and not his brothers and sisters, was the focus of his attention. The comment quoted is similar to another he made in a separate incident later on. This time there can be no doubt as to whom he was referring. According to Luke’s gospel (11:27-28), an unknown woman in the crowd shouted out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked”. However he did not thank the stranger for praising his mother. Instead he retorted, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
Marina Warner, Alone of all her sex: The myth and the cult of the Virgin Mary (New York, 1976), pp. 14-5. (While some versions use the term ‘friends’ in this passage, most prefer ‘family’ or ‘kinsfolk’. The literal translation of the original Greek text is "those of him" with the "those" implied. There is no noun as such.)