Was Jesus being rude to Mary when He referred to her as “woman” in John 2:4?Question: "Was Jesus being rude to Mary when He referred to her as 'woman' in John 2:4?"
Answer: In John 2, Mary, Jesus, and some of the disciples are attending a wedding. In John 2:3, Mary tells Jesus that the host has run out of wine. Mary obviously wants Jesus to do something special to fix the situation; He had performed no miracles up to this point (John 2:11), and Mary undoubtedly thought it was time He showed who He was. Jesus’ response, read in modern English, strikes some people as abrupt, even impolite or rude. He responds, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (ESV). It’s Jesus’ addressing His mother as “Woman” that seems most rude to us.
One of the problems with translating from one language to another is that certain phrases have meanings not easily transferred. Phrases that don’t mean exactly what they say are often called “idioms,” and they can cause confusion in translation. For example, exclamations such as “heads up!” or “look out!” actually mean the opposite of their literal words—if someone yells, “Heads up!” we usually duck our heads. A native English speaker understands such idioms instinctively, but in order to translate them, we’d have to pick words that aren’t synonyms—heads up! might translate into words that mean “get down!”—or end up with a confusing phrase.
What Jesus says to His mother in John 2:4 sounds almost rude in English. However, in the original language, and in that culture, Mary would not have interpreted Jesus’ words that way. The term woman was used like we use the term ma’am. By addressing Mary this way, Jesus does distance Himself from His mother somewhat—He was exerting His independence from her wishes—but in no way was it a rude manner of speaking. Jesus lovingly uses the same word from the cross when He tells Mary that He is entrusting her to John’s care (John 19:26).
The question Jesus asks His mother isn’t rude, either. It may sound rude in the KJV: “What have I to do with thee?” (John 2:4), but it was a common idiom. In the Greek, Jesus’ question is “Ti emoi kai soi?” The phrase was used to ask of the connection between two people. The question could be translated as “What business do we have with each other?” Or, in less formal terms, “What does this have to do with me?” (ESV) or “Why do you involve me?” (NIV). Again, Jesus is expressing the fact that He is independent of His mother; as eager as Mary was to see Jesus do a miracle, she had no right to determine the time or the manner in which Jesus publicly revealed His glory. Jesus makes His point gently and without being rude, however.
Jesus concludes His statement to Mary with, “My hour has not yet come.” The reference to His “hour” or “time” (NET) means that Jesus was constantly working from a divine timetable. So, He wasn’t going to reveal His power sooner than God the Father intended (see John 5:30). One of the points Jesus made in His temptation in the desert was that there is such a thing as doing the right thing for the wrong reasons (Matthew 4:1–10). That is, it would be wrong to perform a miracle if the time and place are not according to God’s will.
Jesus did act, performing His first miracle. He turned the water into wine, but He did so in a very subtle, subdued way. Only the servants, Mary, and a few disciples even knew what He had done. The miracle was to introduce the disciples to His ability, not to show off or to go public with His power (see John 2:11).
So, Jesus isn’t being rude or dismissive in John 2:4. He’s politely pointing out that He follows God’s timing, not Mary’s; and that this is not His moment to be publicly revealed. Some of the respectful tone is lost in translation, perhaps, but Jesus was not being rude.
Recommended Resource: Jesus: The Greatest Life of All by Charles Swindoll
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Questions about John
Was Jesus being rude to Mary when He referred to her as “woman” in John 2:4?