response to Mary is interesting on at least
two counts. His customary respectful title
of address to the females he encounters throughout
the Gospels is indeed “Woman” (see Mt 15:28; Lk 12:12; Jn 4:21; 8:10;
20:13). This usage is common in Greek writing
Yet referring to one’s mother as “Woman” without further qualification
is very unusual in Jesus’ cultural world. There is no parallel to this in either
Hebrew or Greek literature. While some scholars see a special symbolism in this
usage, a very plausible Mediterranean cultural scenario suggests other interpretations.
After birth boys and girls were routinely brought up together exclusively by
the women (mother, aunts, sisters). Since boys were highly valued in this culture,
they were pampered and spoiled by the women. A strong relationship resembling
codependency developed between mothers and sons, especially the eldest son.
When boys entered the male world at the age of puberty, they experienced a rude
awakening. This harsh hierarchical world was a contrast to the women’s world
from which the young man just emerged. To help him develop a masculine identity,
other men often punished the young man physically. “He who loves his son
will whip him often” and “beat his ribs while he is young or else he
will become stubborn and disobey you” are pieces of advice offered to fathers
by the sage Jesus Ben Sira (see Sir 30:1, 12).
As he grew into adulthood, a young man tried to weaken those strong emotional
ties with females. In a very public society like the Mediterranean world the
young man would seek to demonstrate his independence by rejecting the claims
of all women upon him, including his mother.
“What to me and to you, woman?” This phrase, literally translated,
is sometimes a response of someone who feels unjustly bothered by another (see Judg 11:12
; 2 Chr 35:21
; 1 Kgs 17:18
; Mk 1:24
; Jn 2:4
[?]). In other
instances the phrase is the answer of someone who refuses to get involved in
the affairs of someone else (see 2 Kgs 3:13
; Hos 14:8
; Jn 2:4
In the light of Mediterranean child-rearing practices described above, one plausible
cultural scenario for Jesus’ statement to his mother is that Jesus the adult
son felt unjustly bothered, perhaps even embarrassed by his mother’s comment
and implied suggestion that he get involved. His reply would then be an attempt
to put distance between himself and his mother to declare further independence.
Another equally plausible cultural scenario for Jesus’ statement is that Jesus
did not want to interfere in something he believed was none of his/their business.
On another occasion, he rejected the honorable invitation to be a mediator between
two brothers (Luke 12:13-15) because he judged that the petitioner was motivated
by greed rather than by justice denied.
Why does Jesus give in? Perhaps maternal pressure was too difficult to evade.
Even in his adulthood, his mother’s wish may have been Jesus’ command. Or perhaps
he was genuinely concerned about preserving family honor at a relative’s wedding.
The traces of Mediterranean culture embedded and hidden in segments of this story
offer us beautiful insights into Jesus the Mediterranean man, who John the evangelist
tells us early on in his Gospel “pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14).
He’s just like us in so many human ways.
John J. Pilch
J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
Copyright © 1997 by The Order of St.
Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The
Liturgical Press, Collegeville,
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 22-24.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
(A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/