Last night, I preached on one of the Seven Last Words at University Church's Good Friday Service.
John 19: 26-27--When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
This is not what she dreamed for her child. Thirty-three years ago, an angel had told her that she would bear a child who would be called Son of the Most High, heir to David’s throne, the long-awaited Messiah! From the moment of his birth, she began to imagine what life would be like for him, all the great things that he would do, how he would lead their people out of occupation and oppression, the kingdom he would bring. She treasured these dreams in her heart.
As he was growing up, she did everything in her power to prepare him for his destiny: she made sure that he went to temple every Sabbath to learn from the rabbis. She told him the stories that bound and defined their community. She sang to him, songs of exile and unity, of mourning and celebration. She watched him grow into an intelligent, compassionate, wise man. Guided by her dreams, she called him to his ministry at a wedding in Canaa.
And such a ministry! She heard about the miracles he performed, about the crowds that congregated to hear his sermons and witnessed his fame spread exponentially. At the beginning of Passover, she saw how the crowds welcomed her son into Jerusalem—rejoicing as they would for a king! The prophecies of old were being fulfilled in her own baby boy, and the dreams that she treasured in her heart were finally coming true. The next, and last, time she sees her son, he is being crucified—condemned by both the Roman Empire and the Jewish community for treason.
What does it mean to be the mother of a guilty man? Christians claim that Jesus was sinless, but we cannot claim that he was innocent. Jesus was a criminal, guilty of the charges leveled against him: sedition, treason, and incitement. He was granted a trial, convicted according to the law, and his sentence decided by his peers. The crucifixion is almost impossible to read, and we often dull its impact by deifying Jesus and justifying it with complex legal language. Someone had to pay for our sins—our crimes against God’s law—and so our guilt was imputed to Christ. He bore the punishment that we deserve—a task only God could take on. Whether or not the laws he broke were just, our divine savior pays for his crimes and for all of ours—guilty as charged. God chose to come and suffer with us, it had to be done in order to forgive the sins of the world, he’ll rise again in three days. Perhaps. But in this moment, Jesus is a son, a brother, a friend. His suffering and death is deeply felt by the mother who loves him and watches him slowly succumb to unimaginable torture. Mary’s presence at the cross reminds us of Jesus’ humanity and that his death is not suffered alone.
What does it mean to be the mother of a guilty man? It’s a pain that even Jesus could not ease. In this passage, Jesus sees his mother and tries to comfort her, telling one of his disciples to welcome her into his own family, trying desperately to make this better, to make it bearable, but it’s impossible. Mary saw her child being lashed with a lead-tipped whip, saw him being forced on a death-march through a crowded street, watched Roman soldiers lash him to a cross and raise it up on the scorching rock of Golgotha. She watched his lips dry and chap, listened to his voice become raspier and his moans of pain grow fainter. She saw her people mock her little boy, loudly denounce his teachings, curse him and his family. She stood in the open, an object of the community’s spite just as her son was. And she doesn’t turn away. I imagine Mary pleading with the crowd to give Jesus some water, begging the soldiers to give her his clothes, weeping with sorrow and relief when it’s finally finished and her son is free from the pain and humiliation. She does not abandon her son, even when all her dreams and visions are destroyed.
What does it mean to be the mother of a guilty man? Mary is usually compared to the mothers of martyrs and innocents who have suffered and died for their righteous actions—an analogy that is both powerful and apt. But she is also the mother of a criminal who reminds us that all suffering is suffering and that our communities are harmed by the prejudice we hold towards the guilty. Offender’s guilt condemns them to the torture of the American prison system, an institution that we can all agree is deeply flawed. Some are subject to deportation—irreparably torn from their families. Some are condemned to death. They are all ostracized from their communities, and even if they are released they will never be fully reintegrated into society. Their voting rights will be stripped away, they won’t be hired for decent-wage jobs, and they are ineligible for state-sponsored economic support. They suffer.
These offenders are likely guilty of the crimes for which the State convicted them—just as Jesus was. I don’t think anyone believes that our maximum security prisons are filled with innocent people. And it’s true that there must be payment for one’s crimes. As such, it’s often difficult for us to extend our compassion to offenders and perpetrators, especially those whom the law deems worthy of the worst punishments. Last weekend, 36 people were shot in Chicago, 4 were killed. Each of these victims was someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s friend—and so were the shooters But we don’t advocate for the gangbangers, the murderers, or the terrorists. We don’t ask for their suffering in prison to be relieved or for their families to be supported in their loss. We forget that these individuals are also beloved children of God, made in the Creator’s image just as we are. We forget that they are members of our communities and as such we owe them the opportunity for restoration and transformation. Mary calls us to remember.
What does it mean to be the mother of a guilty man? Earlier this year I met an amazing woman, I’ll call her Juanita here, through my work at the Southwest Organizing Project. Juanita told me a story that is eerily similar to Mary’s. She and her husband gave birth to their first son, Marcos, here in the United States almost 20 years ago, only a few months after they had made the dangerous journey across the border. She and her husband encouraged Marcos’ interests: football and music, and made sure that he passed all of his classes. Juanita looked forward to seeing her baby boy graduate, attend college, and raise a family. But in high school his grades began to fall, he lost interest in sports and he began to flout her authority. One night, she got the call that her son had been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon; he was caught with other members of his gang. After four years in prison, Juanita welcomed Marcos home. He searched for a job, but no one would hire a convicted felon; he grew restless and angry. Six months ago, Marcos left home—Juanita knows that he’s living with other members of his gang. This is not what she dreamed for her child.
Without Juanita’s story, would we give Marcos a second thought? Would we be able to sympathize with him, to see his suffering? Would we be able to recognize him as a beloved child of God? Mary is seen today in mothers like Juanita, who call us to extend compassion to all of our brothers and sisters. Mary’s presence at the cross humanizes Jesus and shows us that suffering is suffering, whether or not an individual is innocent.