In John’s Gospel, it’s Mary who sparks Christ’s miraculous ministry, and Christ responds to her in a strange way. She does this by beseeching Him to change water into wine, leading to His first public miracle. Well, “beseeching” isn’t quite right. The actual conversation – which takes place in the presence of witnesses – is much more discrete and indirect, and easily capable of being misunderstood (even by modern Christian readers). Here’s how John describes it (John 2:1-5):
On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
What do we make of Jesus’ response to Mary’s implicit request?
I. The Wrong View: Jesus Scolding His Mother
One popular Protestant interpretation is that Jesus is “rebuking” His Mother. In the Baker exegetical commentary on John, Andreas J. Köstenberger contends that::
The underlying thrust of the phrase translated ‘Why do you involve me?’ in the TNIV is ‘What do you and I have in common (as far as the matter at hand is concerned)?’ The implied answer: ‘Nothing.’ The expression occurs elsewhere in the Gospels exclusively on the lips of demons who strongly oppose Jesus (see Matt. 8:29 pars; Mark 1:24 par.). As OT parallels make clear, the phrase always distances two parties and frequently carries a reproachful connotation. This suggests that Jesus here is issuing a fairly sharp rebuke to Mary (cf. Matt. 12:46-50), similar to his rebuke of Peter when he failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ calling (cf. Matt. 16:23).
So, according to this view, Jesus treats Mary the way that demons treated Him. James Rochford of Evidence Unseen suggests that this was because Jesus “was making a break from his family duties (and beginning to focus full-time on his public ministry), Jesus probably felt the need to sharply rebuke Mary to let her know that he was calling the shots in his public ministry—not her.”
Ironically, while this interpretation intends to minimize the importance of Mary, it has the opposite effect: it presents Mary as greater than Jesus. After all, this “scolding” interpretation would make sense if the passage stopped there, or if Mary went away, rebuked and chastened. But that’s not what happens at all. Instead, Mary responds by saying to the servants “Do whatever He tells you,” and then Jesus performs the requested miracle through these servants.
So in this Protestant interpretation, Mary made an imprudent request of Jesus, for which He rightly rebukes her: He’s not going to do a miracle just because His Mother asks Him to! But then she goes around Him by speaking to the servants, and He crumples. He ends up doing the very thing He rebuked her for asking for — an imprudent miracle — because His Mother forces Him into it by going directly to the help. This view doesn’t just make Mary a bit wicked, it makes her more powerful than Christ. Christ opposes His Mother… and loses.
Furthermore, if Mary is asking for something bad, why did Jesus do it? And if she’s not asking for something bad, why is Jesus “rebuking” her? So this “rebuke” interpretation is a non-starter.
II. The Right View: Jesus is Warning His Mother About the Cross
There is another interpretation, however: that Jesus is cautioning her. Mary has come to Christ with an implicit request for a miracle. Jesus responds by addressing her as “Woman.” A lot could be said of that title, and its implications for Mary as the New Eve (it’s the name that Adam first gives to Eve in the Garden of Eden, Genesis 2:23). For now, though, it’s sufficient to recognize that it’s not rude to call Mary “Woman”: Jesus does this again on the Cross (John 19:26-27) and Paul does it in Galatians 4:4, and in both places, it’s unambiguously positive.
But then He warns her that His “hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). That’s not a reference to the start of His earthly ministry. It’s a reference to His Passion, as we see at several points both in John’s Gospel and in the Synoptics. Look at four points during Jesus’ ministry. First, during His ministry, prior to Holy Week:
- “So they sought to arrest Him; but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30).
- “These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 8:20).
Immediately prior to the Last Supper:
- “And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’” (John 12:23-4).
- “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).
- “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
At the Last Supper:
- “And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 22:14-16).
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:20-22).
- “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me”(John 16:32).
- “When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him” (John 17:1-2).
Finally, in the Garden of Gethsemane:
- “And going a little father, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35).
- “And he came the third time, and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come; the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand” (Mark 14:41-42; cf. Matthew 26:45-46).
- “Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, ‘Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the hour of darkness” (Luke 22:52-53).
So Christ’s “hour” is the time at which He is betrayed, arrested, and killed: the moment of His greatest agony and greatest glory. That’s what He is referring to each and every time that He mentions “His hour,” and it’s what He’s warning her about.
So there is a sense in which Christ is “pushing back,” so to speak, but not because Mary has done something wrong. Rather, it’s because He wants to ensure that she knows just what she’s asking. If she gets Him involved in this miracle – a public one – He can’t stay “hidden” anymore. The hidden years will be over, and she’s going to lose Him to the masses, in a certain sense. He’ll no longer be part of the home of Nazareth: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). And embarking on this public ministry will decisively set Him on a trajectory towards the Cross.
Read in this light, in the light of the rest of the Scriptural evidence on point, Mary’s response makes sense. It’s a faithful acceptance of the fact that the Second Person of the Trinity didn’t take on humanity simply to stay at home. After all, Mary’s response is to call the servants to obey Christ (John 2:5). That would be particularly ironical if, as the first interpretation suggests, she said this while ignoring her Son’s rebuke.
One final point. Mary’s continuous faithfulness in the Gospel is critical for salvation history. Time and again, she willingly accepts the plan of God: she brings Christ into the world in the Incarnation, helps to lead Him into His public ministry at the Wedding of Cana; and follows Him to the Cross. That doesn’t make her more powerful than God (as the first interpretation would suggest), but His most willing instrument.