The Last Words from the Cross: Day Three

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. —John 19: 25-28

Christ’s third saying from the Cross depicts Jesus at one of his most human moments. Through great suffering, he sees his mother and his beloved disciple standing in a crowd, and he understands how profoundly his death is going to affect them. He knows that they will be emotionally shattered—John by losing a beloved friend and mentor and Mary by the anguish of losing her child. But Mary will likely face financial difficulties too. If Joseph is already dead (and this appears to be the case, since he is not mentioned at all in any crucifixion narrative), then Mary will have nobody to support her.

Jesus turns to his mother and says, referring to John, “Woman, behold thy son!” And then he addresses John and says, referring to Mary, “Behold, thy Mother!” And from that moment forward, the two people would be most bereft by Christ’s death had each other.

Note what Christ did not say. He didn’t say “Mary, treat John like your son; and John, care for Mary as if she were your own mother.” There are no subjunctives in these statements, no conditions, and no similies. Jesus does not extract promises from John or Mary about how they will treat the other or create a hedge of covenants and obligations around the new relationship. He doesn’t ask anybody to sign papers. He simply declares a new fact and commands Mary and John to recognize it: “Behold thy son; Behold thy mother.”

What interests me most about this passage is the way that it implicitly defines a family against existing law and custom. Both Mary and John (and everybody else in that society) were already enmeshed in complicated kinship networks that conveyed both moral and legal obligations. Somebody would have been at least theoretically responsible for taking care of Mary under Jewish law. She would have had a technical legal claim on somebody for her support. She had a “real” family out there somewhere.

But we all know how theoretical responsibilities and technical legal claims work out. They can create obligations, but they cannot create love. And that means that they can’t really create families.

Jesus’s words from the cross sound suspiciously like a marriage ceremony. Except, instead of saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” he simply pronounces them son and mother. But the end result (the creation of a new and holy relationship) and the authority for creating the relationship (he is, after all, Jesus Christ) are quite comparable. It is not important to our understanding of the story to know whether or not Christ’s action had the sanction of Roman or Jewish law. It is vitally important that we realize that the new relationship has the moral authority of love and that it is endorsed by Christ.

I see two big takeaways from the third statement from the cross. First, it tells us that families are extremely important, which most of us knew already. Second, it tells us that, rather than a legal or biological relationship, your family is who you love, which is still a radical and controversial view in many places.

Jesus is not creating a policy here, or even stating a doctrine. But there is a powerful truth at the heart of his actions, which is that we create our families through love. The consequence of this truth is that anybody you can love can become your family. Two thousand years later we are still struggling to get this right.


  1. I love this. Thank you. I agree that we create family by a network of love, and commitment and mutual support. I think that would be obvious and not controversial if we hadn’t gotten ourselves stuck boundary setting the idea of marriage.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice, thank you.

  3. Good thoughts — thank you.

  4. Thank you for this post. I particularly love the final two paragraphs. The world is a better place when we are building more family relationships.

  5. Thanks Michael
    I can’t help not stopping at the words: “Woman, behold thy son!” and feeling them as a call to Mary’s remembrance of all she has witnessed, all she has kept and pondered, of all she knew would come, and all she wished might not be so.

  6. Marion Romney noted that Jesus didn’t tell John to take her to the old folks home or the government, but showed that children were responsible for looking after their aging parents. The best kind of social security.

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