“While he was saying these things, a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and called out, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!’ But Jesus said, ‘On the contrary, blessed are those who listen to the message of Θεά and keep it.”

Luke 11:27-28

The woman appears to be praising Jesus by saying how wonderful (μακαρία, the feminine form of μακάριος: ”blessed”) it must be to have been the mother of such a praiseworthy child. “She must be truly blessed, the woman who had the privilege of bearing and nursing you as a child!”

Jesus responds by correcting (μενοῦν) her words. I think that to translate the first word as “on the contrary” is going too far. That implies he is contradicting her, as if to say the woman is wrong. For example, in Philippians 3:8 Paul is not contradicting what he said in 3:7 with this word but rather making his words more precise (i.e., correcting himself). Similarly, in Romans 9:20 Paul is not so denying what is implied by the rhetorical questions in 9:19 as saying that the questions themselves are inappropriate in this context. In Romans 10:18 the word is even less contradictory, implying not only agreement but more than agreement: “Yes, they did!” So, Jesus is not saying that the woman is wrong but not quite right either. She can praise his mother, but she’s missing the most important thing about her. She is blessed but not for that reason alone or first of all. The reason he says she is blessed ties in with the large context in the chapter.

Jesus says his mother is mostly blessed not for the reason of having been pregnant with him, giving him birth, and feeding him on her breasts with her milk — Jesus does not deny that this is the blessedness of motherhood in general — but because his mother is among the blessed ones who hear (shemah in Hebrew) the divine word and cherish and observe (φυλάσσω, a word which means “to guard”) it. The verbs are both active particles. Jesus is saying his mother was one of these blessed ones before he was even born. She is “blessed, ” in other words, on her own, even apart from the role she fulfilled by being his mother.

The hearers of Luke’s gospel, I’m sure, were meant to recall Mary in 1:38 (who said, “May it be to me according to your word”) whom the angel Gabriel — one of the angels of the Presence (1:19) — greeted by calling her κεχαριτωμένη (perfect passive participle), “favored one” (1:28), an action completed before Gabriel’s appearance.

Elizabeth, who says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women” in 1:42, said she is blessed because she “trusted that what [the Divine] has told her will be fulfilled” (1:45, unlike Elizabeth’s husband).

Thus, Mary’s beatitude is based not on her having given birth but on who she was prior to the conception, nativity, and infancy of Jesus — her role as mother — and who she continues to be as Jesus speaks.

By the way, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary (she was conceived without original sin), not to the conception of Jesus (her conceiving of Jesus while she was still a virgin). It was defended early on by John Duns Scotus using Luke 1:28. Mary, he argued, could have been — and was — a beneficiary of the liberation her child made accessible even before he was conceived.

I myself do not agree with the Catholic doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt and the associated idea that it can be washed away in the way in which these doctrines are formulated. (I don’t deny, however, that by virtue of birth we are involved in and burdened with the wrongdoing of our ancestors. Would that this were not so. But we are not so easily absolved of their crimes when we still benefit from them!) If original sin refers, however, to our inheriting (via early socialization) the tendency of our patriarchal forebears by our incorporation into society from infancy on — this makes more sense. That Mary, by a prevenient act of divine grace, could have grown up free of the patriarchal mindset (so that she would have been an “originary woman”), and so was able to bring her child up as one also free of the patriarchal mindset (an originary man) — I am not one to say that this could not have happened. I would love to think that it were so.

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