A woman in the crowd in which Jesus is teaching extols or praises Mary, his mother, saying to him, “‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you’”(Luke 1:27, NIV). He, however, replies to her, “‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’” (Luke 11:28, NIV). With respect to Jesus’ words, two things should be noted. First, what he means. Second, what he does not mean.
What Jesus Means
First, what Jesus means: He is teaching that discipleship, following his life and words, and the Father’s words, “is more important than a purely physical or biological relationship with him.”1 As he says in another place in Luke’s Gospel, “‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (Luke 8:21, ESV).
What Jesus Does Not Mean
Second, Jesus does not mean that Mary is not blessed for being his mother, because Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” (Luke 1:42, NIV). Mary is, in fact, blessed for being “the mother of … the Lord,” which means “the Mother of God” (cf. Luke 1:43, NIV). Mary herself, recognizing the great honor of conceiving Jesus Christ, God the Word, says, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – and holy is his name” (Luke 1:48b-49, NIV).
The Greek word translated “rather” suggests that Jesus is rebuking the woman for praising Mary’s relationship with him. Another translation of the Greek is “‘More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (NKJV). The same Greek word is also translated “Yes indeed” (cf. Romans 10:18, NKJV).2 To the woman, then, who praises Jesus’ mother, he says, in effect, “Yes, Mary is blessed,” but “even more blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”3 Jesus’ point is that Mary is faithfully putting God’s word into practice, applying it to her life.
Summary of Jesus’ Meaning
Thus, Jesus is not denouncing the blessedness of Mary for being his mother. Rather, he is teaching that there is an even greater reason that Mary is blessed, which is that she is his faithful disciple.4 Therefore, while Jesus admits that Mary is blessed in being his mother, he also says that she is even more blessed in being his disciple.
First Example of Mary’s Blessedness
Mary is blessed, because she hears the word of God and is obedient to it. There are several examples of Mary faithfully following God’s word and her divine son, Jesus Christ. For example, Mary hears God’s word, mediated by the angel Gabriel, “‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35, NIV). Mary is blessed, because she “keeps” God’s word, saying, “‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’” (Luke 1:38, ESV). Similarly, Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Luke 1:45, NIV). Thus, Mary consents to God’s will, conceiving and giving birth to her divine Son by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. Mary, being God’s faithful disciple, also conceives the Word in her heart, by faith, before she conceives him in her body by the Holy Spirit.
Second Example of Mary’s Blessedness
Mary, the faithful disciple of her son, is blessed, because when, dedicating him as an infant to God in the temple, she was told by righteous Simeon, under divine inspiration, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35, ESV). She keeps God’s word, being Jesus’ faithful disciple, following him to the cross and remaining there with him, joining her agony to his in his death.
Third Example of Mary’s Blessedness
Amazed at the life of her divine son, his divinity, unfolding before her, Luke twice says that after hearing God’s message about her son, seeing him and hearing his words, “‘Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’” and “his mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51, NIV). Thus, Mary is her son’s faithful disciple.
Fourth Example of Mary’s Blessedness
Mary is blessed, happy, in recognizing the divine authority of her son and being obedient to his will. That is why she says to the guests at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, “‘Do whatever he tells you’” (John 2:5b, NIV). Like Mary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!
Therefore, when the woman in the crowd praises Jesus’ mother and he replies, “‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’” (Luke 11:28, NIV), St. John Chrysostom is right in observing,
“In this answer He sought not to disown His mother, but to show that His birth would have profited her nothing, had she not been really fruitful in works and faith.”5
Bishop Kallistos Ware, a theologian in the Orthodox Church, teaches that Christians “honour the Mother on account of the Son,” not in isolation from him.6 That is to say, Christians honor Mary, because, first or foremost, they honor Jesus Christ. In short, they honor her, because of her intimate relationship with him in God’s plan of salvation. In that sense, she is blessed. But she is even more blessed in being Jesus’ faithful disciple.
- Frederick M. Jelly, Madonna: Mary in the Christian Tradition (Huntington, IN.: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1986), p. 54. Cf. The New American Bible: Saint Joseph Edition (New York, N.Y.: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1970), p. 120.
- The Orthodox Study Bible, eds. Joseph Allen, Jack Norman Sparks, et al. (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008), p. 1389.
- Frederick M. Jelly, Madonna: Mary in the Christian Tradition, p. 54.
- The Orthodox Study Bible, p. 1389.
- St. John Chrysostom, quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas. n.d. The Catena Aurea: The Gospel of Saint Luke, 11: 27-28. Translated by John Henry Parker, v. I, J. G. F. and J. Rivington London, 1842. Dominican House of Studies: Priory of the Immaculate Conception. [Web:] http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/CALuke.htm#11 [Date of access: 2 March 2018].
- Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, rev. ed. (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 262.