The Politics of Motherhood—John 2:1-11

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In John’s account of the Wedding of Cana, the part played by Mary merits our attention. On account of the honor due to her as a mother, she wields great authority. She provides us with occasion to reflect upon the esteem in which we hold mothers today and the authority that we accord them in our lives and society.

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4 And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Presently in my family there is debate about how best to care for my aging grandmother now that she is no longer able to live on her own. While all of her children have ideas, the decision has ultimately come down to what it is that their mother wants. She is and has been the center of their family life, and even now when she is no longer able to perform many of the functions necessary to maintain a household, her words hold sway over the host of other competing claims and desires that her children might bring.

Much has been written about the pater familias of ancient Greco-Roman culture. This is the male head of the household to whom all property belonged and who brokered all formal agreements for those in his domain. However, evidence about the internal workings of the Roman household suggests that the family matriarch was far from a mere passive participant in family life herself. Rather, the mother of the family held the important role of balancing maintenance of the family and home with building social relationships and educating the children. In rare instances, when a Roman patriarch died, his household was even passed onto his wife in trust. Greco-Roman culture was no pioneer of women’s liberation to be sure; however, the mother of the family was certainly held in high esteem and likely possessed many rights and responsibilities commonly overlooked. At any rate, she certainly would have commanded the respect and obedience of her children—even and especially into adulthood.

Such respect is seen in ancient Israelite culture as well. Among God’s commands to the Israelites is the imperative, “Honor your mother and your father so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). Although Christian parents have been known to use this commandment as both carrot and stick for their disobedient adolescents, the command itself is actually addressed to the entire Israelite congregation—young and old. Indeed, many have speculated that the force of the commandment becomes more poignant when applied to adult children, such as my father and his siblings, working out how to care for their aging parents once they, in Israelite culture, are no longer able to tend the flocks or till the land.

Thus, while it is not unheard of in contemporary society for a minor to talk back to their parents, pursue different life paths than their parents had hoped, or even in extreme cases to seek parental emancipation before the legal age of eighteen, in Jesus’ society it wouldn’t have mattered whether he were 12, 18, 30, or 50: he would have been expected to honor his mother. While we hear Jesus declaring, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”(Luke 18:21; Matthew 12:48-49) in the synoptic gospels, in John’s gospel the adult Jesus and his disciples continue to keep company with Jesus’ biological family. Indeed, he and his disciples continue on from the wedding to Capernaum with his mother and brothers.

In this way, Mary, an otherwise average Galilean Jewish peasant woman, who would have had no claim to authority in any synagogue, council, or other official venue, amidst the goings on of a household marriage celebration and in the company of her son, commands exceptional power—more power, it becomes clear, than even the male host himself. Throughout his life (illustrated even, in John’s account, on the cross) Jesus shows respect and honor—even if he disagrees with the timing of—his mother. He follows her command.

This leads me to wonder: What power and authority does motherhood carry today? How does this vary from culture to culture? From family to family? With age and tradition? How does our attention to the commandment to honor one’s mother and father as adult children influence the ways in which we use our power and engage in power both in the church and society today?


The Rev. Amy Lindeman Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to 40bicycles@gmail.com.]

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