As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
I would love to tell you about my mother. She is truly a “excellent woman” in the Biblical sense. But my point here is to write about Jesus with reference to his mother Mary. I always bristle a bit when I read the above quote from Luke 11.27, 28. Jesus’ response to this unnamed, outspoken woman seems curt and harsh. She shouts what was obviously meant as a compliment. Jesus responded to her kind words by correcting her and teaching about the real definition of “blessedness.” I imagine that woman slinking down, hiding and going away a bit wounded. If I had been her, I would keep my thoughts to myself from then on. But actually, we should be thankful that she shouted her thoughts. She occasioned a lesson we need to hear!
It may be that Jesus saw through the syrupy religiosity which makes much of the trappings of religious fervor without the substance of true personal transformation. Many embrace a superficial sentimentality that values symbol over substance, appearance over transformation. Jesus was not going to encourage such misleading applause. His manner smacks of rebuke for which no apology was appropriate.
Perhaps this outspoken woman really did make Jesus think about his mother. Luke was particularly indebted to Mary for much of his material and his gospel account is very respectful of Mary as a real woman who had to deal with the trauma of her role in God’s saving purposes. Luke included her expression of personal faith with her well known “Let it be!” Later, Mary heard Simeon speak of the sword that would pierce her own soul because of the special son she bore. Many events of Jesus’ life were pondered and preserved by her for our benefit. Luke’s inclusion of this incident must compliment his respectful inclusion of Mary and his respect for the women in Jesus’ life.
So, reference to his own mother probably provoked his response. His mother was blessed! But not because he was her son. Jesus declares for all to hear that blessedness is not reserved for a privileged few. It belongs to any who hear and keep the word of God. Yet that generous offer is still troubling. Blessedness may be for those who “hear the word of God and keep it,” but that means, frankly, that blessedness is beyond my reach. The word of God that Jesus taught mirrored the beautiful perfection of his own life. Loving God with all our heart, soul and strength and our neighbor as our own self is costly. It requires dying to self so that I may really live.
The bar is so high that I must respond honestly with despair. Blessedness is for true hearers and keepers. The blunt force of those words drives me to abandon expectation. If we understand at all, we grasp afresh our own hopeless condition. We will never know blessedness. We do not have what it takes. Even his mother Mary could not know blessedness without a savior!
The full force of Jesus’ words is desperately necessary if we are to consciously abandon self-righteousness. When left wanting and honestly owning our failure, we will cry out for deliverance and salvation. What is wonderful to me is that hearing and keeping become reachable when one looks to Jesus to make it a reality. He is able to transform, and change all who look to him. That is the good news of the gospel. Blessedness flows from gospel transformation. Jesus knew that his own mother’s blessedness was not of herself, but of her Savior.
I do wonder if Luke learned of this exchange from Mary who pondered and preserved them. She might have been startled, even hurt by her son’s response. I bet in time she knew how truly blessed she was to have a son who could and would atone for her sin and give her grace to hear and keep God’s word. What do you think? Jesus’ teaching was blunt, to the point and clear. Do you find that it is effective?
Roger G. Collins, Grace Presbyterian Church, Byram; *English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society. Exported from Logos Bible Software; Originally published in the October 2014 Byram Banner, Byram Mississippi