Debates about a historical Jesus or the veracity of the Bible (or even what "veracity" might mean in this context) are far from over, and ultimately not very helpful in terms of applying the more spiritual truths of the text in our lives. There is one school of thought that holds that the gospel stories are about the uniqueness of Jesus and why he is so very different from ordinary human beings. We are ordinary human beings, though. So, it makes the most sense to read the stories from a perspective that will give us the greatest resources that we can use in our lives.
Take, for example, the first miracle story in the gospel of John, in which the character Jesus changes water into wine. He changes it into very impressive wine, at that (as if the transmogrification was not impressive in and of itself). We don't gain much from trying to dissect how this miracle happened or even trying to determine if this miracle happened. We get a lot more from taking the story as a story and digging into what it might say about us as human beings.
Jesus and his disciples are guests at a wedding -- they are known by the family of the bride or groom well enough to have been invited. Jesus' mother is also a guest, and in a moment of pushy parenting, she presses upon her son to take care of a problem that really isn't his responsibility. In a certain sense, she asks Jesus to "over-function." Jesus sets a boundary with her, but she persists. Ultimately, for whatever reason, Jesus acquiesces and resolves the issue with extraordinary competence. This bolstered the confidence that other people had in Jesus.
Before we look at what Jesus' actions might say to us, we might first look to Jesus' mother (who is never named anywhere in the gospel of John). There are times in which we press upon others to resolve problems that are not their responsibility. Maybe we know their capability, and we want them to have a chance to shine. Maybe we want people to be impressed with us because of our association with impressive people. Maybe we have a genuine concern that the problem gets resolved, but we doubt our own capacity to address it in any meaningful way. Whatever the case, sometimes we over-function by demanding that other people over-function. Our anxiety provokes us to want the situation resolved, and we put expectations on others to resolve it so that our anxiety will go away.
Needless to say, this reactive tendency to place demands and expectations on others often doesn't stem from our deep values -- it's not a prompting of our deepest, most noble selves. We just want not to feel anxious. When we find ourselves tempted to volunteer others to resolve issues that make us anxious, we can make a few small adjustments to how we handle that anxiety. First, we can calm down. Whatever helps us to start thinking clearly in moments of anxiety needs to be our first step. That may look like taking a few deep breaths, or stepping away from the situation for a moment, or even thinking through our guiding principles. If we've taken the time to get some clarity about those principles or values, and we can frame them in short, memorable phrases, they can guide us out of anxiety.
Once we are calm, we might talk through things with the people around us -- particularly the people we are tempted to conscript into service. Something like, "This is the issue as I see it, and this situation is not what I would prefer. I think of you as a competent individual. Is there something that you would be willing to do in the current situation to help make it better?" And then, most importantly, we accept the response whatever it is. If the person says, "No, I'd prefer not to get involved," we accept it. Maybe we say, "Thanks for considering it." If the person says, "Yes, I'd like to help if I can," then we let that be a free decision rather than an obligation or compulsion. If we learn to calm down and invite people into action, with no demands or expectations, we are likely to live out our guiding principles more often.
When we look at Jesus' response to his mother, however, we see the other side of this equation. We don't know what's going on inside Jesus' head, but we may be able to relate to the situation. When we are pressed to respond to a situation that's making someone else anxious, we have at least a few possible choices.
(1) We can say no, set a boundary, and stick to it. We can choose to maintain the boundary calmly and without hostility, or we can become belligerent in how we defend that boundary. The more emotionally mature response, of course, is to calmly set our boundary and let other people be responsible for their own anxiety. It's tough to be emotionally mature when someone is persistent in making demands, though. That takes a bit of practice.
(2) We can give into someone's pressure, essentially giving up what we want in order to meet someone else's demands on us. When we do this, we give other people inappropriate power over our behavior, and we take on responsibility for someone else's anxiety. This is not an uncommon reaction, but it also isn't a very intentional or principled response. When we are intentional about living in alignment with our principles, we take responsibility for our actions and our anxiety, and we don't assume responsibility for other people's actions or anxiety.
(3) We can also choose to accommodate someone's request, even if they are being pushy, out of a sense of love or compassion rather than out of a sense of obligation. Even when someone is being forceful, we can choose to do something based on our principles. We don't have to resist something we actually want to do just because we don't like how we're being asked to do it. When we are thoughtful, we can sometimes see compelling reasons to take action based on our own deep guiding principles -- our own deepest, most noble self.
In the narrative, Jesus sets a boundary, his mother persists, and then -- we don't know why -- Jesus takes action. That, in and of itself, does not give us anything to emulate. Maybe he gave in and resented his mother's pressure. We may be tempted to draw a different conclusion based on a preconceived notion about Jesus, but the story doesn't tell us what's going on in Jesus' head. From the perspective of the author, though, we can assume a high opinion of Jesus. So, perhaps it is implied that he thought about the situation and decided from a clear and principled perspective that he wanted to help out. He could have done the same thing out of a position of obligation and giving in to his mother's demands, or out of a sincere expression of his values. From the outside, those two positions might not look any different. The difference is with regard to his integrity -- whether his actions are sourced by his authentic identity.
In our own lives, we have our own ways of turning water into wine. Our abilities and areas of competence might look extraordinary to people who don't share our training or experience. When I tell people that I am a pianist or a composer, they are often amazed at that ability, because it isn't a skill they possess. From their perspective, they are as likely to turn water into wine as they are to learn how to create music. From my perspective, I worked for many years to become adept in these musical abilities. There is nothing miraculous or mysterious about it. We all have some abilities or skills that are like that. They seem very ordinary and comfortable to us, but to someone who doesn't share that skill, it borders on miraculous.
The people who know us well -- who understand our abilities and are a bit impressed by us -- might try to convince us to act when we don't really feel like it. They might even pressure us to deal with a situation that really isn't our responsibility. When this happens, we have choices. Our typical automatic reaction to being pressured by someone is probably not our best option. When we can get back to our guiding principles, we have a better chance of responding thoughtfully and authentically to any situation.
So, when we are asked to act or intervene in our particularly skillful way, we can thoughtfully choose to say yes or no. We can consider the situation -- and our ability and willingness to engage it -- without it needing to mean something about the person doing the pressuring. If we say No to our mothers, it doesn't mean we don't love our mothers. It might just mean that they are asking us to do something that is not authentic for us. Learning to say No or Yes because of who we are rather than because we feel pressured is a huge step in developing emotional maturity and living into our authentic selves.
A Little Experiment: How do you turn water into wine? What are the areas of expertise or ability that other people find impressive? If you know what those things are, you might better understand how you can make a meaningful contribution to any situation. You can also predict the sorts of things other people might pressure you to do, and you can rehearse setting boundaries or responding thoughtfully and authentically. Practicing ahead of time might help us stay calm and less reactive in moments of pressure.
Another Little Experiment: Say no and mean no. Set a boundary with someone without getting defensive, and without being compelled to be inauthentic. Let it be about something simple, like, "No, I'd rather not eat at that restaurant today." Being willing to set simple boundaries about less important things will help us set more challenging boundaries about really important things.
One More Little Experiment: Say yes and mean yes. In alignment with your deep values -- your guiding principles -- agree to do something for someone else, without resentment or a sense that they owe you one. Go to a movie or a restaurant you don't really want to go to because you value spending time with someone. Run an errand for someone else just because you care about that person, without framing it as an inconvenience or holding it over someone's head.
When we can say Yes and No authentically, our relationships are transformed. It can even seem miraculous, like changing water (or vinegar) into wine.