This woman is deeply impressed with Jesus and his ability to hold the crowd’s attention with his healing and his story telling. She does the most natural thing in the world: she thinks how proud his mom must be to have raised a child to become such a man, and she congratulates the child by blessing the mother with a beatitude: “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.”
When Jesus answers—“Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it”—it may sound at first as if he is deflecting the compliment to his mother by using it to make his own point, as if he has said that anyone who does God’s will is greater than his mother. In fact, he increases the honoring of his mother. He is saying, in effect, “Greater even than her human mothering of me is the way Miriam has heard the word of God and carried out that word.”
It helps to recall that the daily prayer of Jews was and still is, the Shema (“Hear!”), named from the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” So the whole of the life of the covenant could be summarized in the phrase “to hear the word of God and live it out.” Mary exemplified that kind of deep hearing—a total response to the word of God expressed in the Torah. It was the readiness of that deep hearing that enabled her to become his mother in the first place.
Two chapters before this reading in the Gospel of Luke, we have the vision of the transfiguration, where Peter, James and John first see and hear Moses and Elijah (who represented the Law and the Prophets who mediated the word of God to Israel) speaking with Jesus; then those two disappear and Jesus is standing alone, when the voice of the Father is heard to say, “This is my beloved son, hear him!”
For us, Jesus is the word of God. We imitate Mary by hearing and following Jesus. That’s what this business of daily reflection (on the word of God about the Word of God) is all about. Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.
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