Have you ever had a relative die?
Do you remember the last thing that they said?
Now let me ask you this: was it important?
We all have heard the stories of famous people who prepared and practiced their last words. Because we know that people will remember them.
So if these are Jesus’ last words, the last things he ever spoke before his death, then they must be important. We need to listen to Him. Now, as much as ever.
Woman, here is your son.
Think about what Jesus is doing here. This is a man sentenced to death. He has become a symbol of Roman imperialism and oppression as he hangs on the cross, bare and vulnerable to the world. He can’t breathe—every movement is a struggle.
But he isn’t talking about that. Instead, he is worried about the suffering he sees below him. A woman, terrified for her son. A disciple, traumatized by the loss of the Teacher. And Jesus wants to heal them. And so he does what he has been doing all along: he connects these two people together. Right there on the cross, Jesus is making relationships.
Woman, here is your son.
I keep wondering about this moment. The disciples have all ran off. They’ve been gone awhile now. Scripture tells us that only the women were left, to stand and bear witness to the agony of Christ’s death on the cross. And then there is this disciple.
What is he doing there?
Why is he the only one who didn’t run?
And then I remember: of course the disciples ran. They were literally afraid for their lives. And as men, they had every reason to be. They were adult men living in a system of domination, and as disciples of Jesus they could easily have been arrested and hung right up there with him. As far as Rome is concerned, they are a threat. The only way to avoid being eliminated is to run.
The only people left at Jesus’ side at the end are the ones who aren’t a threat to the empire. The invisible women, powerless disciples who weren’t a threat.
And this beloved disciple. Standing with the women, bearing witness to the cross.
If this disciple is standing there, he, like the women, must not be a threat to the guards. So who is he?
And then it hit me: what if the beloved disciple is a child?
What would it mean that Jesus is drawing our attention to this child as he is dying on the cross? What would it mean that a child is standing here, bearing witness to the agony and the terror that Good Friday represents? What would it mean that Jesus turns to the only adults left at his side and says to them:
Woman, HERE is your Son.
Of course, the truth is that children all too often are the invisible witnesses and victims of trauma, and terror, and violence. So if Jesus’ last words are important, what would it mean to seek out, to be in relationship with these vulnerable disciples right now? How is Jesus calling US into relationship with invisible victims and vulnerable disciples?
I can’t help but think about the reality that we live on the edge of one of the biggest cities in our country, and that every day, children and vulnerable people in our region bear witness to violence, to terror, to injustice. Death is all around us.
Did you know, for example, that Philadelphia currently enjoys the highest rate of deep poverty of all large metro areas? 185,000 people right next door live on less than $10,000 a year. 60,000 of those people are vulnerable, invisible, often traumatized children. That makes our deep poverty rate is twice as high as the rest of the United States.
There are twice as many people living in deep poverty right now in Philadelphia as there are Mormons in Salt Lake City.
Think about that.
Woman, HERE is your Son.
Our poverty problem is so bad right now that Philadelphia is piloting a universal breakfast and lunch program, because if the schools don’t feed these children, they worry that they won’t eat at all. Teachers are spending their own salaries on toilet paper and fresh fruit for their kids, because they know that hungry kids can’t learn. And while the poverty rate was rising during the Great Recession, we were cutting school budgets, telling the Philly School System, that they need to be more financially efficient.
At the same time, prisons in the United States is pouring money into the prison system.
Did you know that one of the ways that prisons estimate future population needs is by looking at the high school drop out rate?
These days, it costs $36,000 a year to house an inmate. Anyone wanna guess how much we spend on each child in the Philadelphia School system?
I know what you are thinking. That isn’t fair. Schools take the summer off, so we will have to give the prisons a discount—let’s take 60 days off for the summer. But that still leaves us spending over $30,000 a year. On a system that, in many cases, is being filled with young, mostly men, who are victims of violence, injustice, and trauma, and mental illness. All of these are made worse by the reality of deep poverty.
Science tells us that children who grow up in deep poverty experience as much as a 10% decline in brain development. They are more likely to be suicidal, more likely to be depressed. They are more likely to have trouble concentrating at school, and much less likely to graduate. They are likely to live in communities where poverty has decimated families, leaving few positive role models. And they are much more likely to end up on the streets, or involved in criminal activity, or in prison.
Woman, HERE is your SON.
As he is dying on the cross, Jesus would have us look at these vulnerable disciples. Look at this child who is surrounded by death and destruction, who is suffering, who is abandoned and abused. Whose future is a question mark. If you love Jesus, be in relationship with him. Get connected to him. See him. Because Jesus sees him. Jesus loves him. Jesus would have us do something about his suffering, this injustice that is standing before us, living and breathing and bearing witness to Christ. Jesus would breathe his last breath trying to heal this child of God by putting him in relationship with another person. Jesus would see that child experience Resurrection. And so the question is for us as well: will you see the child? Will you answer Jesus with relationship?
Brothers and Sisters, They are Our Sons. Our Daughters.
Look after them.