Jesus’ Response to “Blessed Are the Breasts”
Q: A Protestant told me that Mary can’t have the place Catholics says she does because when the woman cried out to Jesus, “Blessed are the breasts at which you nursed!” He rebuffed her, saying, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” What should I say?
A: This is a classic case of how an anti-Catholic agenda can cause one to totally miss the point of a passage. First, let’s look at the passage itself:
“As he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you nursed!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!'” (Luke 11:27-28).
Anti-Catholics assume (1) that because there is a compliment in this passage and (2) that Mary is mentioned in the compliment and (3) that the compliment appears to be rebuffed that it is Mary who is being complimented and that Jesus is rebuffing the idea that Mary ought to be honored. This is a total misreading of the passage.
First, while there is certainly a compliment in the passage, Mary is not the one being complimented. The woman says two things to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bore you” and “Blessed … are the breasts at which you nursed.” The source of Mary’s blessedness in this passage is the fact she had a Son as marvelous as Jesus. What the woman was a saying was, “Your mother is so lucky to have a Son like you!”
Who is that complimenting? If a woman came to you and said, “Your mother is so lucky to have a son like you”-or, if you are female-“Your mother is so lucky to have a daughter like you,” who would she be complimenting? Your mother? No, she’d be complimenting you.
Thus, though there is a compliment in the passage, and though Mary is mentioned in the compliment, Mary is not the one being complimented-Jesus is.
Only an anti-Catholic agenda that is blindly bent on finding verses to use against the Catholic view of Mary at every possible opportunity would even think of twisting this verse’s compliment of Jesus into an instance where Jesus chooses to publicly dishonor (publicly refuse to honor) his mother. Christ, as the one who fulfilled the Ten Commandments perfectly, perfectly fulfilled the command “Honor your father and mother,” which would be better rendered “Glorify your father and mother,” and which principally has in mind not letting one’s parents be publicly shamed through one’s actions or inaction (which is why the Pharisaical corban practice of denying them support in their old age violates the command; one’s inaction through corban lets them be publicly shamed by being reduced to destitution).
Second, the Greek word here translated “rather” (menoun) does not have anything like the adversive force in Greek that “rather” does in English. It is simply an emphatic particle normally rendered “and.” Thus, if Bibles had italics for emphasis, the passage would better be translated: “He said, ‘*And* blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!'” He is not denying what she said, he is emphatically adding something to what she said.
Jesus is not simply rebuffing the woman and rejecting her compliment; he is focusing her attention not just on his own special stature-which both she and he acknowledged-but also on her own obligation to fulfill the commandments of God-something a Messianic enthusiast might lose sight of. He wanted her response to him to be more than mere hero- or celebrity-worship; he wanted a true change of life in response to his preached message-the word of God. Thus he is not rejecting her compliment; he is rejecting any kind of mere hero-worship (the “Jesus Christ, Superstar” effect) that does not result in her changing her a life as a result of his message. He is far from rejecting the idea of his own exalted status or of the fact that his mother was very blessed to have a Son like him.
Anyone who has been using this passage to attack the Catholic view of Mary should seriously ask himself whether he cares more about finding verses against the Catholic position or about what Scripture really says and whether anti-Catholic prejudice has been blinding him to the real meaning of the Scriptures-here and elsewhere.