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Why did Jesus respond harshly to his mother?

In response to Mary’s urgent message to her son (John 2:3) regarding a backstage wedding emergency, Jesus made what many have considered a shocking and puzzling reply (2:4).

Rather than throw up our hands in dismay at his words, we should remember the advice of nineteenth-century scholar Bishop Westcott that “the difficulties of the Bible are the most fruitful guides to its divine depths.” Although some see Jesus’s first miracle as only a concession to his mother’s request to save a family from social embarrassment, John’s choice of this miracle from the many he could have recounted (20:30–31) suggests it has greater significance than that. 

Is “Woman!” An Arrogant Put-Down?

The first part of Jesus’s reply may strike us as a condescending and disrespectful rebuke of his mother. His addressing her as “woman,” however, does not have the connotation in Greek that it does in English. Jesus uses this term of address six other times in the Gospels, and always in a context of kindness and encouragement (Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 19:26; 20:15). He addresses her again in this way from the cross when entrusting her into the care of his beloved disciple (John 19:26). As a somewhat formal but polite address, the term may gently imply a change in Jesus’s relationship to his mother. While continuing to honor her, his submission to her has been subverted by his submission to his Father’s mission for him. This is confirmed by Jesus’s question.

The Parting of the Ways

When Jesus asks, “What has this concern of yours to do with me?” he is using an idiom that can be literally rendered, “What to me and to you?” It occurs several times in the Old Testament, where we must look for its meaning. Sometimes it involves a complaint of injustice that means, “What have I done to you that you should do this to me?” (Judges 11:12; 1 Kings. 17:18; 2 Chronicles 35:21).

This is similar to its use by the demons, who ask Jesus in essence, “Why are you interfering with us?” (Mark 1:24; 5:7). A more relevant use in the Old Testament is when someone says, in effect, “That’s your business; how am I involved” (2 Kings 3:13; Hosea 14:8).

Even closer to Jesus’s use is when David refuses a proposed course of action by saying in effect, “You and I aren’t thinking alike” (2 Samuel 16:10; 19:22). Jesus’s question to his mother, however, does not amount to a refusal to help. His point is that he and his mother aren’t on the same page. While she’s concerned only about keeping her friends from a shameful social faux pas, his mission is a matter of eternal life and death, to which he next refers.

“My Hour Has Not Yet Come”

As Bible interpreters say, “Context is king!” But what context? In John 2:1–11 alone, many assume that by “my hour” Jesus is referring to the time when he is to begin making himself known publicly, revealing his glory (see 2:11). “It isn’t time,” Jesus says. But as a concession to his mother, he revises his schedule and performs this face-saving miracle. One problem with this view is that he has just distanced himself from his mother’s agenda. He has other fish to fry. So, has the eternal, divine plan of redemption been revised in response to “the mother of God” (as Mary was sometimes called by the early church fathers)? 

A better alternative is to see what is meant by Jesus’s “hour” in the rest of John’s Gospel, where it always refers to the time set by the Father for Jesus’s crucifixion and resulting exaltation (see John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23–33; 13:1; 17:1). Jesus’s signs were not just demonstrations of his divine identity; they were windows into the reason he came as the Lamb of God: to take away the sin of the world (1:35). But as we’re told in John 7:30 and 8:20, that time has not yet come. 

Water, Wine, and Blood

Nevertheless, Jesus turns the failure of the wedding wine into a window pointing to his sacrificial death on the cross. First, we have to notice the connection Jesus makes to the Jewish ritual of water purification. He does this by using the six stone water jars, which he has the servants fill (suggesting perhaps they were empty). Turning Jewish purification water into wine, especially at a wedding banquet, seems at the very least to symbolize the coming Messianic age of abundant blessing and joy (see Genesis 49:11; Isaiah 25:6; Hosea 14:7; Joel 2:24; 3:18; Amos 9:13; Matthew 26:29). 

Jesus’s reference to his “hour,” however, points not just to his exaltation, but specifically to his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. This suggests that the unusually “fine wine” he provides (2:10) points to more than Messianic joy. Although in the Old Testament wine could symbolize joy, it could also symbolize divine wrath (Psalm 60:3; 75:8; 51:17–23; Jer. 13:12–14) and is associated with blood in Genesis 49:11 and Isaiah 49:26. The cross of Christ embraces both the cup of divine wrath that Jesus drank to the dregs for us and also the cup of blessing filled with his blood, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” And Jesus said at the last supper, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).

So Jesus turned the water of temporal, external Jewish purification that didn’t really purify into an eternal cleansing of the heart (see Hebrews 9:14). He even shocked his audience by declaring figuratively in John 6:53–57 that eternal life could only be found by drinking his blood! So, at the wedding in Cana, Jesus provided an abundance of the finest wine that pointed ahead to the ultimate purification of the heart by his shed blood.

And although Jesus’s agenda differed from his mother’s, he still provided wine for the wedding. He, too, cared about the physical and emotional needs of the wedding family, and somehow his mother knew this (2:5), despite Jesus’s enigmatic reply. Nevertheless, his concerns and goals far exceeded hers.

Ray Clendenen is senior editor of Bibles and Reference Books for Lifeway Christian Resources and a member of the Christian Standard Bible translation team. He is from Dallas and attended Rice University in Houston (BA), Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM), Dropsie University in Philadelphia (MA), and the University of Texas at Arlington (PhD) and has been at Lifeway since 1992.