"Dear Woman, why do you involve me?" Mission Without Guarantees

In the fourth of his missiology lectures (see more on his third here) Steuernagel reflected on a few passages where we see Mary interacting with her son, Jesus. In John 2:3-5 it says:

“When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.””

Here Mary is not so much mother but any one of Jesus’ disciples leveraging to make their particular requests heard (cf. Mark 10:35-40). Mary pressured Jesus to respond to this issue of having no wine at the wedding revealing her own hidden expectations about who Jesus was and what he was responsible for. Steuernagel says Mary’s request signifies “the pressure of our relationship to God, where we want to make sure nothing is off the table.” Jesus’ response to our pressuring agenda is more candid, as though to say, “We’ve run out of wine. So what?!” Jesus put distance between himself and his disciples, “Dear Woman, why do you involve me?” Steuernagel suggests that Jesus is saying, “I need to own my time, you don’t [and can’t] own me.” This is to say, in a fashion similar to postmodern theologian Peter Rollins in How (Not) To Speak of God (2006), that theology cannot and does not own God, its language can never fully apprehend the sublime. Rather Mary learns, and we learn through Mary, that God will always posses theology. For Steuernagel, “We do not own the interpretation of God’s work in history…Often we do theology in a way that responds to our agenda and not the timing of God’s work.” We have to approach God with a sense of expectancy, our theology needs to be done in such a way that our agenda, our categories and our issues are held with an open-hand ready to be scrambled, deconstructed, or even completely overturned by the Spirit. Mary learned that regardless of our relation to, or position in, power and regardless of the urgency of our requests there are no guarantees in Christian theology. That the apprehension of God is an (im)possibility is reinforced by Mark 3:31-35:

“Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.””

Mary certainly would have felt slighted at hearing Jesus speak this way. She remembered carrying him in her womb for nine months, she remembered watching him play with the other children who lived close to them, and she definitely could not forget the fear that struck her heart when she and Joseph realized he was missing (Lk. 2:41-52). So what could he possibly mean by his question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” We know that Mary responded by relinquishing control. She saw the impossibility of fully comprehending his work, while at the same time clinging to the possibility that by following him she may relate to him in a new way. Finally, we know Mary made the transition from Mother to disciple because she was with Jesus at the Cross (John 19:25). Mary’s faithfulness was not one that went for the wider path. Almost everyone else turned their backs on Jesus. Mary approached the cross on the narrow path, the path of suffering. There is no other way to the Cross. There is no simple way to manage this suffering and still reach what God calls us to. Steuernagel says, “We try to manage the suffering, ‘let’s sit down and figure out whatever we can do to not enter pain,'” but this is not the example we see in Mary. Steuernagel says,

“Theology that staggers until it arrives at the foot of the cross, confesses its inadequacy, whispers its plea for forgiveness and celebrates its encounter with the grace of God. The cross is the first and primordial place where theology must find its life direction.”

All good theology is theologia crucis – theology rooted in the Cross is characterized by forgiveness and reconciliation; “The foot of the cross is the best place to be at for forgiveness and reconciliation.” And this is where we find Mary, our theologian who embraces following in spite of suffering, releases her agenda in favor of obedience, and is transformed by the forgiveness and reconciliation of the Cross. This leads to a life transformed and committed to the work of the church. We know this because the Cross is not the last place we find Mary, “We meet Maria again at the community of believers. In that community, a new seed of God’s kingdom is present.”

Mary is no doubt a great example of a Christian disciple working through the issues that all disciples face: suffering, abandoning the self, and forgiveness and reconciliation. Yet, to press into Steuernagel’s fourth lecture, it’s hard to see where he sees this connecting to mission more broadly. Certainly, mission is characterized in part by forgiveness and reconciliation, and it is we see in Mary how we interact with Jesus as Lord with(out) hidden expectations. But how can one move from a surface level observation to a deeper reflection on Mary’s own missiological understanding of what is taking place in the journey she’s on as one of Jesus’ disciples?

I think one discernible clue is within the point above concerning the impossibility of controlling and determining the work of God in advance. Mary from what we’re told, has no clear awareness that Jesus will be crucified by the legal and religious authorities of her time. She could not determine before hand what her and her son were in for, yet she remained faithful to the very end (and beyond it). We see that Mary really did give up her “agenda” as was displayed in John 2. Whatever Mary misunderstood there, she understood by the time Jesus marched to Calvary. Yet, by laying down her own plans and ideas for who or what Jesus might turn out to be, she was offered in return no guarantees at all. In fact, she was given the exact opposite, exactly what every mother fears for her child, a wrongful and tortuous death by bigots and religious fanatics at the head of power. It was in this tragic loss, that she both lost everything – every dream, hope, a loved one and thirty-three years of mothering (who she believed was) the Messiah – and gained it all back. It is in this weakness, and the unexpected that we enter every engagement with an Other. Every seed planted, every word given, every act of justice and offering of love and hospitality cannot offer us a guarantee for return. There are no guarantees in the mission of the church, and its in this aporia between keeping what is seemingly ours and complete and utter loss that we find the hope and the possibility of unspeakable riches.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.