At the wedding at Cana, Jesus turns to Mary and says, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”
Sounds disrespectful, doesn’t it?
Or at least you could take it that way.
But Jesus wasn’t being disrespectful at all.
Here’s the story . . .
First, the translation “How does your concern affect me?” (John 2:4 in the NAB:RE) is not a literal rendering of what Jesus says in Greek.
Word-for-word, what he says is “What to me and to you?”
In context, Mary has just come up to him and informed Jesus that the people running the wedding have no wine, so you might literally translate his response as “What [is that] to me and to you?” In other words: “What does that have to do with us?”
He’s not dissing her. He’s putting the two of them–both of them–in a special category together and questioning the relevance of the fact that people outside this category don’t have wine. He’s saying that it’s not the responsibility of the two of them to make sure they have wine.
But that’s lost if you take the Greek pronoun that means “to you” (soi) and obliterate it in translation.
Part of what makes it sound like Jesus might be dissing his mother is the fact that he refers to her as “woman.”
We don’t talk to women like that today–not if we respect them, and certainly not our own mothers.
But the connotations–of respect, disrespect, or other things–that a word has in a given language are quite subtle, and we can’t impose the connotations that a word has in our own language on another.
Consider: Suppose, in English, we replaced “woman” with a term that means basically the same thing but with better connotations.
For example, the word “lady” or “ma’am.”
Suddenly what Jesus says sounds a lot more respectful.
In British circles, “lady” has distinctly noble overtones (it’s the female counterpart to the noble honorific “lord”).
And even in demotic America, a son can say, “Yes, ma’am” to his mother and mean it entirely respectfully.
So what can we learn about the connotations of “woman” as a form of address in Jesus’ time?