The Most Misunderstood Mother
Tell me who is the most famous mother in all the world? For this time and for all time, who is the best known, the most frequently mentioned, the most highly honored mother of all? Measured by any standard, there can be only one answer: Mary, the mother of Jesus. No other mother has ever been so known and honored by so many; and yet no other mother has ever been so misunderstood by so many.
There are those in the Roman Catholic tradition who regard Mary as virtually a divine creature. They espouse their belief in the Immaculate Conception—that Mary herself was born with a purity that sets her apart from all others, in the Perpetual Virginity—that Mary was the human vessel for God’s Son and only God’s Son; in the Bodily Assumption—that Mary did not die as others but simply was taken or assumed into heaven with all of her earthly perfection. Consequently, there are millions of people who honor, and even worship Mary as a kind of co-redeemer with Jesus Christ.
And there are those in the Protestant tradition who herald the belief that because these adulations of Mary are not found in Scripture, she should be regarded as being no different from other human agents God chooses to do His work in the world. Consequently, there are other millions of people who pay scant attention to Mary, or worse, ignore and neglect her altogether.
Frankly, I think both approaches are in error, and thus are inappropriate. I do not believe that Mary ought to be worshipped as a divine creature, nor do I believe that she ought to be set aside as being “just like everybody else.” The real truth about Mary can be found in Scripture—and I find the story sketched out there to be far more intriguing than either the Catholic veneration of her or the Protestant neglect of her. Her life, and the significance of her life, are played out on the pages of Scripture as a drama with three acts—each act sharply contrasting with the one before and each act drawing us into a deeper understanding of who she was and what she was all about.
Act One. We find the storyline in Luke 1:26-38.
Here we find Mary being prepared to become the mother of the Messiah. Interestingly enough, we are told nothing of her qualifications. She seemed to possess no special characteristics or abilities. She was one of those innumerable young maidens from the region of Galilee, probably quite young, perhaps mid-to-late teens, from an obscure little village most people had never heard of, with at best, only limited education. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appears and taps her on the shoulder and says: “You have been chosen by God for a task no one else has ever performed.”
Now the Bible says that Mary was “greatly troubled” by this news—and well she might have been. She was told that she was going to become the mother of God’s Son, and she wasn’t even married! She was betrothed to a fine man named Joseph—betrothal being a kind of binding engagement. What would this mean for them? How would she deal with the scandal of it all—the wagging tongues and the social stigma?
By the way, we know that Mary did in fact have to deal with such gossip. Did you know that the Jewish Talmud, the great repository of Jewish traditions and teachings, refers to Jesus as “the son of Panthera”? Who was Panthera? He was a Roman soldier, and so there is this not-so-subtle charge that the birth of Jesus was a result of an illicit relationship between Mary and this Roman soldier. That was a story that was generated around Nazareth and became so embedded in people’s minds that it found its way into the Jewish holy book.
So here is this young woman, who receives the angel’s tap on her shoulder and realizes that what God is asking her to do will lead to scandal, embarrassment, hardship, uncertainty, loneliness, and perhaps even death. To put it mildly, it knocked the props out from under everything in her life that was normal, predictable, and expected. Yet what does she say in response? She says: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In other words, she said: “Lord, I am your servant; whatever you ask, I will do.” What a magnificent affirmation of faith and declaration of dependence upon the Lord! I am convinced that it was that attitude of mind and heart—saying “Lord, whatever you ask I will do”—that made Mary not only a magnificent mother, but also a woman worthy of great honor!
If only mothers today would be so attuned to the faith and so dependent upon the Lord. The old adage is still true: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” New to the bestseller list is a book by Guy Odom called Mothers, Leadership and Success. The author’s premise is that the place to start correcting our nation’s ills is the crib, where mothers can provide the leadership that will lead to success for their children and consequently the nation. Modern mothers want their children to enjoy the advantages of today’s world. They want them to have good educations. They want them to be well-dressed. They want them to have the material things of life. They want them to be popular. In short, they want their children to succeed. Unfortunately, all too often, our modern definitions of success do not include God. The result is painfully obvious in our society. I wish that more mothers today could find the deep, spiritual insight Mary possessed. For if more mothers said what Mary said, “Lord, whatever you ask, I will do,” then some surprising and magnificent things will begin to happen. It may lead to difficulty. It may be tough. It may be hard. It was for Mary. But out of it will come the glory of God.
You see, Mary was chosen, I believe, not because she was better than anyone else, but simply because she was so willing to be used by God for His glory. She said: “Whatever you say, Lord, I will try to do.” As a result, Act One can be captured in a single sentence: “Mary received a son.”
Act Two. We find the action spelled out in Mark 3:31-35.
Here we find Mary struggling with the responsibility of being the mother of the Son of God. You have to wonder what that would have been like for her. The apocryphal writings—those documents which did not get included in our Bible—contain some romantic and legendary stories about what it would have been to have Jesus growing up in your home. One such story has Jesus as a little boy playing in the mud by the creek, as all little boys do, and He picked up a glob of mud and began to knead and shape it in His hands. He fashioned it into the shape of a bird. He then, so the story goes, blew on this bird-shaped glob of mud, and it came to life and flew away.
Just a harmless story. However, I wonder if Mary wondered when this boy growing up in her home was going to reveal Himself in all of His true power. Obviously, years passed, and He seemed to be more or less like all the other kids growing up in Nazareth. In fact, He even took on His earthly father’s work. He became known as the village carpenter of Nazareth. He became a man—20 years of age, then 25. He was approaching thirty, and still nothing had happened to fulfill that bright promise of the angel so many years before.
Then one day they received an invitation to a wedding in a nearby town, Mary and her Son. At the reception, they ran out of wine. For some reason, Mary decided that this might be a good time to provoke her Son into using his mighty power. Jesus did use His power but not before he turned to Mary and said: “Woman”—that wasn’t rude, but it wasn’t very loving either—”Woman, what have I to do with you?” At that point, she realized that things were going to be quite different in their relationship.
Of course, He went on to begin His ministry. He left his home in Nazareth and went to Capernaum. Soon He was attracting wide attention and vast multitudes hung on every word He spoke. Word of that trickled back to Mary, but word also came that He was making enemies. He was running roughshod over the rules and regulations of the religious authorities. In fact, some people were even whispering that He seemed to be in league with the devil.
At that point, the Bible says that Mary and her other sons went to where Jesus was teaching in an effort to get Him to come home. They stood outside and sent word into Him, saying: “Come home, give it up. Don’t let the rumors keep multiplying. Call it off. It’s not working the way the angel said it would. Come on back home where you belong.” Well, when Jesus was told that His mother was outside, calling for Him, He answered—and please feel the sting of His words—”Who is my mother?” Can you imagine what Mary must have felt like at that moment? The message, of course, was that the kingdom of God is something brand new, thicker than blood, bigger than our human relationships, grander than the things we hold near and dear. In essence Jesus was saying to her, “If you want to be my Mother, Mary, it won’t be by my coming out and obeying you—it will be by your coming in and obeying God.”
There is a painting by Holman Hunt which shows Jesus as a teenage boy working in the carpenter shop. He is working hard, stripped to the waist. In an effort to ease the strain of His work for a moment, He straightens His back and stretches His arms wide. His mother, across the room, looks up. The light of the sun coming through the door casts the shadow of the young Jesus onto the wall. Stacked against that wall are some pieces of lumber. As Mary looks, the shadow on the lumber appears to be a figure on a cross. I don’t know if there were moments like that or not for Mary as she watched Jesus grow up. I don’t know if she saw in advance what was going to happen. But I know this: There came a day when she went to Him and tried to reactivate her memories and reclaim her son—when she tried to get Him to come home and be the son He used to be—only then to hear Him say: “You are not my mother anymore.”
As painful as it must have been for her then, and as painful as it is for us to hear it now, it is still true. All parents have to face the fact that they grow up their children in order to give them away to some higher call upon their lives. So Act Two reads like this. “Mary received a son, but she lost Him.”
Act Three. The drama is played out in John 19:25.
Here we find Mary having followed her son to Jerusalem. She had not understood what He was all about. She had not understood why He had stiff-armed her as His mother. She had not understood why things were happening as they were. But still, she was confident that God had His hand upon both her and Jesus, and so she could face anything.
That “anything” turned out to be crucifixion—the most shameful and the most painful form of death in those days. Yet here in John 19 we read what has to be one of Scripture’s most beautiful verses: “Standing by the cross of Jesus was His mother…” The disciples, save John, weren’t there. The sisters and brothers of Jesus weren’t there. But His mother was there. What a shining example of that unique love which only mothers seem to possess. How does Kipling put it?
If I were hanged on the highest hill,
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine.
If I were drowned in the deepest sea,
I knew whose tears would come down to me,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine.
If I were damned of body and soul,
I know whose prayers would make me whole,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine.
Yes, Mary, His mother, was there, and Jesus, looking down from His dreadful perch of pain, tenderly and thoughtfully, used His last breaths to provide for her needs.
But, you know, it didn’t end there. There is one other reference to Mary. It’s in Acts 1:14. There we read that all of the disciples, together with Mary, became united in mind, heart, and spirit for the sake of Jesus Christ. Clearly, she had come to see that the cross was Jesus’ way of dealing with sin—hers and ours. And she had come to see that the resurrection was God’s way of bringing new life to the world. I think Mary came to realize that there were two wombs—not one. God had used her womb to begin it all—by His spirit He brought Jesus to be within her. But then God had transformed the tomb into a womb to complete it all–by His spirit He brought Jesus to a new life that would never end. You can say it in a single sentence: “Mary lost a son, but she found a Saviour.”
What does all this mean for us? It means that we, too, may have to face God’s strange surprises in life. We, too, may be called to offer painful obedience to His direction in life. We, too, may be forced to face the sting of tragedy in our walk through life. But then, because of Jesus Christ, we, too, shall know a life that we couldn’t manufacture, a victory that we couldn’t predict, and a hope we couldn’t have dreamed possible. Which says to every mother here—and to every mother’s daughter and son: When God taps you on the shoulder in life, answer with these words: “Whatever you say, Lord, your word will be my guide.” Then as you follow the Lord in your life, even though the way may lead through shadowed valleys and painful crosses, you will come out all right in the end…