Over the past several weeks our pastor has been going over the seven last words of Christ. He, like so many other pastors across the country—perhaps the world, are doing a sermon series on those “words.” Of course, they are not words, per se, but phrases spoken by Jesus on the cross.
- “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
- “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
- “Woman, here is your son.” Then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
- “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
- “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)
- “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
- “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
Just recently, I’ve found another speaker, at another church, in another state, doing this very same series. So, in order to confuse my mind and challenge my heart, I listen to our pastor on Sunday mornings and then the other speaker during the week. Not surprisingly, their presentations are very different. The context of the passages is the same, but the unfolding of the words is particularly distinct.
Over these past several weeks I’ve been asking myself how. How can these men, reading the same passage of scripture, come away with fairly different understandings of the focus of Christ’s phrases? Actually, I suspect, how could they not? Each man, each church, each ministry has a very unique emphasis or agenda. (Yes, churches have agendas.) Nevertheless, the differences are intriguing.
I’m going to cite just one example of the different interpretations from John 19. Admittedly, I’m at a bit of a handicap because the church we attend doesn’t have the sermon on the web site yet, so I need to go from what I recall hearing. I’ll confess, that’s dangerous, because my recall button isn’t always functioning correctly. However, the other message I have listened to a couple of times, so it’s fresh in my mind. Nevertheless, I think I can be fairly accurate because I intend to use a large brush to paint the wall of what I heard.*
The focus passage is in John 19:25-27.
“…Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” (NRSV)
Now comes the large brush: In this most intimate of moments during the life of Christ AND the life of his mother, one man, based on what I came away with, highlights the confusion of Mary as though her mind is tumbling with the thought of “How can this be?” The other man sees the compassion of Christ—in his last moments of life, making sure his mother is cared for. Granted, both ideas could be valid. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One is valid if we choose to speculate on what’s going through Mary’s mind. The other is less speculative since it deals primarily with what we know from the primary text and secondary texts. Each idea might indeed serve a purpose of the principle text. But which is most likely?
On Golgotha there is a mother, who, for most of her life, has hoped against hope that her son would not sing the final verse in the song of redemption. She knew from his conception that there was something special about her child, God’s son. She knew when Simeon boldly told her that because of Jesus, a sword would pierce her soul too. She knew when he was not even a teen and he proclaimed to his parents that he should be about his father’s business. She knew the song was there. She even knew the final verse and hoped against hope that he would sing the song—but not that verse.
Yes there were times when she, along with Jesus’ brothers and sisters, thought that perhaps Jesus had lost his mind. And once, when they went to fetch him and bring him home, the sword pierced her soul again as she heard the echo of his words that those who do the will of God are his family.
Jesus is now on the cross. He knew it would end on that execution device. She, perhaps, not so much. But she did know the final verse of the song would somehow be fatal. Did that confuse her or cause her to wonder, as those who heckled him, “He saved others why can’t he save himself?” Did she secretly cry out, “Call for the angels! Call for the angels! They will rescue you!” Was she looking at the sign above his head, “King of the Jews” and wondering is this how a real king is treated? Perhaps.
Was this man: beaten nearly to death, bleeding, struggling, and grasping for every breath, focused on his own pain? Was he ever? He asked the father to forgive those who hung him there. He welcomed the insurrectionist next to him into the kingdom. Does anyone think for moment he would forget his duty as the first-born son to see that his mother was taken care of? For Jesus it was always about compassion. His entire ministry was about compassion. Whether it was giving sight to the blind, strong legs to the lame, or life to those who were dead. It was never about him. And no, it was never about her—until now.
Standing there, close enough to see the ripped flesh and pools of blood on the ground, Mary knew, one last time, what it felt like to have the sword pierce her soul. In her anguish and grief, the grief only a mother can feel, what does she hear? “Woman, here is your son.” And to John, “Here is your mother.” And her life goes on.
*Please understand, this is based on what I heard. There are always things we take away from a sermon that stick with us. Words or phrases that cause us to wonder – “Was that really what was going on?” Such is the case here.