What We Can Learn from Two Conversations Between Jesus & His Mother
by Patrick Henry Reardon
I believe it significant that the evangelist Luke, affirming that “Jesus increased in wisdom,” placed that affirmation immediately after a revealing comment about Mary: “His mother continued to keep all these things in her heart” (2:51–52).
There is a subtle hint in this juxtaposition: Luke seems to imply that the sustained contemplation in Mary’s heart was in some way related to her son’s increase in wisdom. The author suggests here a provocative picture of the home in Nazareth, where Jesus and his mother, joined in a common faith during those decades of their shared life, continued to mature spiritually in one another’s company.
Given the delicacy of this subject, of course, it is important not to sail off into speculations beyond the data provided by Holy Scripture. Does the Bible give any sign of this personal and interpersonal growth of Jesus and his mother? As it touches their relationship—especially their shared faith in the Father’s purpose and the mission of the Holy Spirit—is it possible to discern in the relevant biblical texts some indication of this spiritual development? I believe it is.
It is reasonable to start with the only two conversations between Jesus and his mother recorded in the Bible. The first, narrated by Luke (2:41–52), took place in the Temple, when Jesus was twelve years old—the incident when he was lost in Jerusalem for three days and then was found. The second conversation, reported by John (2:1–11), happened at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, apparently when Jesus was about thirty years old (cf. Luke 3:23). According to this second story, Mary approached her son—now a mature man—with an implied request on behalf of some embarrassed newly-weds. Both stories are well known to readers of the Gospels, so neither needs to be repeated here in detail.
Since I propose to compare these two Gospel accounts, which describe events roughly eighteen years apart, I first mention the reliability of these first-hand sources, in order to establish the historicity of the two occasions. Luke’s source for the first story was, it would appear, Mary herself, whereas in the second instance, John mentions several witnesses, any of whom may have been his source. It is arguable, moreover, that John’s accout of the event at Cana came from his personal memory of it (John 2:2,11).
As we compare these two stories, it is important not to overlook a basic fact, which, though almost too obvious at first, is actually a bit subtle in its significance: each narrative comes down to us from a different author. That is to say, the narrative elements we may find common to the two accounts are not derived from the thematic perspective of a single writer. The similarities between them are rooted, not in a unified literary presentation, but in the recollection of real historical events.
Indeed, with respect to each author’s theological intent, the two stories are very different: Luke, along with his pervading and characteristic interest in the symbolism of the Temple, tells the story of Jesus in the Temple in specific language (for example, “third day”) he will later take up in his account of the Lord’s Resurrection. In this respect, it is important to observe that Luke introduces this conversation between Jesus and Mary by placing it at the Passover (Luke 2:41), the very time of the Resurrection.
John, on the other hand, is preoccupied with a theological motif of his own: the seven “signs” used to provide the narrative structure to Jesus’ public ministry. The wedding feast at Cana is the first of these signs (John 2:11).
Points of Similarity
In short, Luke and John are writing their stories from notably different theological preoccupations. Notwithstanding these literary and interpretive differences, their two accounts share striking points of similarity that should prompt us to compare them:
First, each conversation between Jesus and Mary is recorded by way of direct address; the two interlocutors are both explicitly quoted. Luke and John provide us with at least substantial approximations of the words of Jesus and his mother.
Second, in each encounter between them, Jesus asks Mary a question: “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” and “What does your concern have to do with me?” We should observe that these questions to Mary do not function as inquiries; they are directed, rather, to ending the conversation, not prolonging it.
It is surely significant that his mother, neither time, gives an answer to her son. If Jesus’ question serves to end the conversation, his mother is content to let it end. What Mary does, however, is very different in the two cases, and, I will argue, this difference is related to their spiritual growth and mutual understanding.
Third, both stories are told from Mary’s perspective, not that of Jesus. Thus, when the twelve-year-old boy is lost in the Temple for three days, the narrator simply leaves him there, while the narrative line continues with Mary and Joseph:
When they had finished the days, as they returned, the boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and his mother did not know it; but supposing him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought him among their relatives and acquaintances. So when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. (Luke 2:43–45)
Up to this point, the reader—like Mary and Joseph—has no idea where Jesus has been during this time.
A parallel perspective is found in the story of the wedding feast of Cana; this story is also told from Mary’s point of view. John begins the account by observing, “the mother of Jesus was there.” Only then does he mention, “Now both Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding.”
Likewise, the initiative in this narrative is taken—and then sustained—by Mary. In this first of his signs, wherein he “manifested his glory,” Jesus is said to act only at his mother’s initiative.
Fourth, and, I believe, most important, these two narratives share a common feature of psychology more difficult to label. I am hesitant to call it “contention,” because this word often conveys a tone of belligerence or disrespect. However we name it, nonetheless, both stories—in the Temple at Jerusalem and at the wedding party in Cana—portray Jesus and his mother as “not agreed.” They are not in harmony. The two conversations convey, between Mary and her son, an impression of initial opposition. Their questions to one another disclose a rough patch, as it were, a foothold of friction that serves to move the narrative forward.
To appreciate this quality, we can easily construct alternative narratives that would demonstrate the difference. Let us suppose, for instance, that when Mary asked Jesus, “Son, why have you done this to us? Look, your father and I have sought you anxiously,” he answered, “Oh, how embarrassing. Terribly sorry, I’m sure. Distracted, you understand, with these rabbinical questions, I lost all sense of time. I do promise it won’t happen in the future.”
Or again, when Mary mentioned, “They have no wine,” let us surmise that Jesus responded, “Good heavens, I failed to notice. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. Let me see what can be done about the problem.”
In neither conjecture, obviously, would there be much of a story. In other words, the patch of personal disagreement between Jesus and his mother provides the narrative foothold for each story to develop and advance.
It is in this fourth point of comparison, however, that we observe an essential difference between the two accounts—the way they end.
In the first case, when Jesus is twelve years old, his question to Mary is literally the last word in the conversation: “Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” Jesus thereby breaks off the dialogue. His question, Luke tells us, leaves Mary and Joseph confused and speechless: “But they did not understand the statement which he spoke to them.”
In the later scene at Cana, however, Mary’s response to her son is dramatically different: here it is she who breaks off the dialogue. At Jesus’ question, Mary turns away and takes resolute charge of the situation, instructing the servants, “ Do whatever he tells you.” It is the impulse of her action that precipitates the “beginning of signs that Jesus did.” Her dramatically different response, revealing the spiritual growth of the eighteen intervening years, shows that Jesus and his mother have most surely changed . . . and so has their relationship.
Now we may examine each story more closely.
Little Boy Lost
Although the story of Jesus lost and found in the Temple is chiefly significant for its Christological import, its narrative structure, as I remarked before, conveys the “action” through the eyes and understanding of Mary. Indeed, unless the reader approaches the story through Mary’s perception, he will miss much of its drama. Moreover, Luke invites us to take this approach in his final comment: “His mother continued to keep all these things in her heart.”
We observe, first, that the lost-ness in the story is objective: Jesus is not lost in the sense that he does not know where he is, but in the sense that he is missing—his mother does not know where he is. We readers, too, part company with Jesus in this scene; until Mary and Joseph find him, we don’t know where Jesus is. The story’s movement, then, is advanced by what Mary and Joseph do in seeking him.
The narrative action—taking us readers along with it—first moves north. The storyteller and his readers must leave Jesus in Jerusalem and travel towards Galilee with Mary and Joseph.
The evangelist speaks of their worried search, though he does not directly mention their anxiety—indeed, it is a detail made explicit only by Mary herself in the closing dialogue (2:48)—because the anxiety is implied in the details of the search.
Not finding the boy Jesus after a day’s journey, Mary and Joseph return south to Jerusalem—and we go back with them—to continue their pursuit in the same place they last saw Jesus: “Now so it was that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.” Jesus, we all discover, is the center of attention: “And all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.”
Understandably, the Lord’s parents are bewildered: “So when they saw him,” writes Luke, “they were amazed.” Every parent comprehends their amazement: this is the child they have raised for a dozen years. Yet, he did not accompany them back home after the Passover, as he had done on every prior trip. Mary and Joseph have searched for him frantically, but even now, when they find him, the child displays not the slightest remorse or concern for their anxiety. The mother of Jesus finds this insouciance on the part of her twelve-year-old a bit more than she is disposed to accept without complaint: “Son, why have you done this to us? Look, your father and I have sought you anxiously” (2:48).
Then, the boy, instead of apologizing and promising it will not happen again, turns the question back on his mother: “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” From any other twelve-year-old, this kind of answer would be called “back talk” and treated as impertinent.
I suspect, moreover, that Jesus’ answer to Mary was a sort of continuation of his discussion with the rabbis. Jesus, when his parents discover him in the Temple, has been engaged for three days in discourses with the rabbis; he has been asking them questions and answering theirs. In other words, Jesus has been engaged in a traditional pedagogical and rhetorical method, in which a favored device is the “counter-question”—the answering of one question by a further and more probing inquiry. We find this style of debate frequently in rabbinic literature and in the Gospels.
The boy Jesus, then, so recently exposed to this pedagogical and rhetorical method here in the Temple, spontaneously has recourse to it in order to answer his mother. When she inquires, “Why have you done this?” he responds, “Why did you seek me? Did you not know?”
Walking by Faith
No, as a matter of fact, Mary did not know, nor do she and Joseph find much reassurance in this brief dialogue with Jesus. Luke tells us, “But they did not understand the statement which he spoke to them” (2:50). Then, the three of them return to Nazareth—in silence, it would seem.
What did this mean to Mary? She is portrayed as “anxious”—her own word—amazed, and confused. Considered from her perspective, as Luke clearly intends, the story is most noticeable as a test of Mary’s faith. What happened in the Temple was the result of what she had told the angel: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”
The angel Gabriel spoke to her nearly thirteen years earlier, when she was perhaps half of her present age. Indeed, she may not have been much older than Jesus is at the time they find him in the Temple. From that day when the angel visited her, it appears, Mary has understood rather little of what transpired. Like Abraham her father, she follows God’s will in faith but can hardly guess where it is all leading. She walks obediently, day by day. The story of Jesus lost-and-found is simply the most recent occasion for Mary’s obedience in faith.
Luke’s story, then, which chronicles Jesus’ growth in wisdom, is told here through the person who witnessed that growth, and was obliged, in a very personal way, to explore its meaning. It was certainly from her that Luke learned the facts of the case.
Cana & Nazareth
The miracle at Cana, narrated by John alone (2:1–11), apparently took place shortly after Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness. About that time and—it would seem—subsequent to the arrest of John the Baptist, “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Mark 1:14; cf. Matt. 4:12; Luke 4:14). One of the villages in Galilee was Cana.
Although the sequence in John’s early chapters is notoriously difficult to accommodate to the chronology of the other Gospels, he does indicate that Jesus visited Cana after the calling of the first disciples (1:35–51; 2:2; Mark 1:16–20) and prior to the larger ministry at Capernaum (2:12; cf. Mark 1:21; Luke 4:23).
The circumstances of Jesus’ visit are not too difficult to imagine: traveling north, he arrived first at his mother’s home at Nazareth, nine miles south of Cana. He was accompanied by his earliest followers, one of whom was Nathaniel, a man who actually hailed from Cana (John 21:2).
Although now and then a regional rivalry between Nazareth and Cana prompted the citizens of one village to disparage the merits of the other (1:46), we are probably right to think such banter benign. The two places were doubtless linked—along with neighboring Bethsaida (1:41–45)—by numerous friendships, and we know that Jesus visited Cana more than once (4:46).
The Helpful Wedding Guest
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Mary was invited to a wedding in that village just to the north. Indeed, John begins his story by noting her presence there (2:1). Nor is it extravagant to imagine that she may have gone to Cana early in order to assist with the preparations. At least, this would reasonably explain why John separates her presence in Cana from the invitation extended to Jesus and his disciples.
More than one reader has gained the impression that Jesus and his friends, newly arrived at Nazareth, may have been something of an afterthought on the Cana guest list. In turn, this sudden influx of extra visitors may explain why, during the course of the celebration, the wine ran short!
If—as I guess—Mary assisted in the wedding preparations, it is not to be wondered at that she it was who noticed the wine shortage. Indeed, during the several days of feasting, this helpful wedding guest may occasionally have cast a wary eye at the beverage supply, growing a tad alarmed at its steady decline. At last the wine was gone, and Mary determined to speak with her son on the point.
What prompted the mother of Jesus to take this step? What did she expect? John does not say, and Mary’s actual expectation remains one of the real mysteries of the story.
A Mother’s Knowledge
This does not mean, however, that we are totally at sea on the matter. We do know the substance of the message Mary received from an angel more than thirty years earlier: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest . . . therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:31–32,35). Moreover, the birth and infant life of Jesus were attended by extraordinary circumstances (1:8–18,25–38; Matt. 2:1–15). In addition, Mary had heard her son—from tender years—speak of God as “my Father” (2:49).
How did Mary understand all these things? It is not at all clear to me that she did understand. At least, it would be silly to suppose that she thought of Jesus in formal creedal terms that the Christian Church would elaborate—not till centuries later—in conciliar deliberations.
Mary’s knowledge of Jesus was not of this dogmatic sort. It was, first of all, a mother’s knowledge of her child, especially a child who had lived with her well into adulthood. There was surely more, as well: it would be wrong to imagine that when the Holy Spirit, “the power of the Highest,” descended upon her to effect the conception of Jesus, the Spirit intended this descent as a transitory visit.
Mary was not just a temporary, purely physical conduit of the Incarnation. Theirs was a transpersonal relationship that transcended biology. She was truly the mother of God’s Son. When, during her pregnancy, she declared, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49), she was aware of at least this much. Day by day she measured, and now continued to measure, what this meant. If, then, she knew Jesus at all—if being the mother of God’s Son meant anything—it certainly meant she was entitled to speak to him about a shortage of wine!
No Miraculous Expectations
As Mary approached her son at Cana, her sole concern was the welfare of those who sponsored the wedding feast. She does not seem to have had anything more specific in mind. This impression is conveyed, I believe, in what she eventually says to the waiters: “Do whatever he tells you.” This “whatever” (Greek ho ti) perfectly sums up Mary’s concern. She does not request a miracle; she simply wants the problem dealt with, and she trusts Jesus to take care of it.
As the story begins, there is nothing to suggest a miracle is about to happen. John’s account is far removed from the fabulous atmosphere of later apocryphal literature, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which tells of various prodigies worked by the boy Jesus: breathing life into clay birds, stretching a piece of timber to help Joseph finish constructing a bed, even striking a playmate dead and blinding the child’s parents!
There is nothing of this sort in Holy Scripture, where the Cana miracle is identified as Jesus’ “beginning of signs.” This “beginning,” I believe, may be understood in two non-exclusive ways: The reference has a literary significance, meaning that the Cana miracle was the first of the seven specific “signs” narrated by John. The word “beginning” also means here a historical fact: this was the initial miracle actually performed by Jesus.
In truth, the other Gospels record no miracles until Jesus’ slightly later ministry in Capernaum (cf. Mark 1:21–28; Luke 4:23). In short, Jesus has done nothing, so far, that would prompt Mary to expect a miraculous response to her solicitous comment, “They have no wine.”
The Woman & the Hour
Jesus’ response has been variously translated, but I believe the New King James effort best conveys its sense: “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Two aspects of this response are in order:
First, it is important to eliminate a hint of harshness conveyed in the translation—to wit, in English it is not usually considered polite to address someone as “Woman.” However, the underlying idiom, the Aramaic word used by Jesus—’anot’a—is a formal and even decorous manner of address. Indeed, this is how Jesus habitually speaks to women in the Gospels, including a Canaanite petitioner (Matt. 15:28), a crippled woman in the synagogue (Luke 13:12), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:21), the woman accused of adultery (8:10), and Mary Magdalene at the tomb (20:13). Perhaps our English “ma’am” comes closest to the sense of the Aramaic idiom.
It is especially noteworthy that in John’s Gospel Jesus addresses his mother this way as he is dying (19:26). In this Gospel, Cana and Calvary are the only places where Mary’s son speaks to her, and the same word is used both times.
Second, Jesus explains his reluctance by adding. “My hour has not yet come.” This reference to the “hour” is important in Johannine theology, where it designates the elected time of Jesus’ glorification. On the eve of his sufferings and death, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son also may glorify you” (17:1). This is the imminent hour of which he says, “the hour is coming, yes, has now come” (16:32; cf. also 4:23; 5:25; 16:21).
These considerations of Jesus’ “hour” in Johannine theology, however, are not entirely pertinent to the historical context under consideration. We are treating Jesus’ mother here as a real person, not just a character in a work of theological literature. Our immediate question is: How did this historical Mary, in that actual moment at Cana, understand Jesus’ words, “My hour has not yet come”?
In that context, the words could only have meant, “It’s not time yet.” That is to say, Jesus was declining his mother’s suggestion that he intervene in the wine problem.
And how does Mary respond to Jesus’ objection? She ignores it! Mary does not argue the point with her son. She simply turns and boldly says to the waiters, “Do whatever he tells you.” She thus puts the pressure squarely on her son, manifestly confident that he will not disappoint her.
It is worth remarking that “Do whatever he tells you” are Mary’s last recorded words.
We know the day’s outcome: Mary’s son, at the direct instigation of his mother, transformed the water into wine. We surmise, too, that the wedding party was transformed, once the guests discovered that the host had “kept the good wine until now!”
Indeed, Jesus’ own ministry was transformed. Here it was that he “manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The “signs” have begun. Up to this point, it was possible for their contemporaries to think of Jesus and John the Baptist mainly in terms of similarity, inasmuch as both were teachers. No more, however; because “John performed no sign” (John 10:41). After the Cana event, people in the region would tell “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38).
The Human Condition
In these two stories from the Bible, we are able to trace at least a fraction in the outline of a development. This trace strengthens our sense that God’s eternal Word assumed, not only our human nature—considered abstractly and in general—but the concrete, historical circumstances of an individual human life. He made himself a subjective participant in human history, someone whose existence and experience were circumscribed by the limiting conditions of time and space—before and after, here and there, then and now.
The dogma of the Incarnation affirms that we were redeemed through the personal experiences of God’s Son in human history—the very things that the Word underwent—from the instant of his conception, through his birth and infancy, through the events and phases of his life, through his tears and laughter, through his ministry and teaching, through his obedient sufferings and death on the cross, through his Resurrection and entry into eternal glory. Human redemption “happened” in the humanity of the eternal Word, as he passed through, transformed, and deified our existence.“Imagine,” St. Augustine wrote of Jesus,
that the Almighty did not create this Man—however he was formed—from the womb of his mother, but abruptly introduced him before our eyes. Suppose he passed through no ages from infancy to youth, or that he neither ate nor slept. Would that not have proved the heretics correct? (Letters 137 [to Volusianus].3.9)
An adequate Christology, then, affirms that the Word’s becoming flesh refers to more than the single instant of his becoming present in the Virgin’s womb. He continued becoming flesh and dwelling among us, in the sense that his assumed body and soul developed and grew through the complex experiences of a particular human life.
If a concrete human life was assumed in the Incarnation, Jesus did not simply have a mother; he had this mother, to whom he relates as a real person, whose influence is crucial to his own development as a human being. She is, like himself, a person of faith. Indeed, her faith pertains very much to his own person and mission.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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