This is the fourth article in a series on Mary, the mother of Jesus. We have considered the extraordinary ways in which she is addressed at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and we have considered her song of praise. This week, we will consider two places in the gospels that showcase her role in pointing others to obey Jesus.
The first occurs in Luke 8.19-21. Luke tells us, “Then His mother and His brothers came to Him, but they could not reach Him because of the crowd. And He was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But He answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” Jesus repeats His message of radical obedience in Luke 9.57-62 and in 11.27-28, which also obliquely mentions Mary: “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!’”
Luke 8.19-21 and 11.27-28 are the passages which Mary’s detractors most commonly cite. In Luke 8, Jesus seems to disown Mary as His mother. John’s description of the crucifixion contradicts that notion: “But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19.25-27).
In Luke 11, Jesus seems to invalidate the blessings heaped on Mary in Luke 1. One can imagine Jesus contradicting Mary’s words or even the words of Gabriel, but it is impossible that Jesus is contradicting the words of the Holy Spirit in Luke 1.42. Mary is indeed “blessed among women.”
So what is Jesus doing in these passages in Luke? First, He is emphasizing the radical obedience needed to be called His disciple. Obedience to God trumps all other concerns and obligations—to family, to self, to anybody or anything. He is also declaring the extraordinary promises of God to those who obey Him.
Who is Jesus’ mother? He says in Luke 8 that His mother is the one who hears the word of God and does it. Who is blessed? Jesus says in Luke 11, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Now, who is Mary? She is the one who heard the word of God and said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1.38). By Jesus’ own words, Mary is His blessed mother.
The woman in Luke 11 offers Jesus’ mother a compliment. Jesus reframes the woman’s compliment by explaining that Mary’s obedience to God was what really made her blessed. He then makes an astounding promise: anyone who hears God and obeys Him will receive similar blessings.
Far from invalidating the blessedness of Mary, Luke is showing us how Mary was a forerunner of the Faith. When she told Gabriel, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she was pointing the way forward to obedience under her Son. She was setting the example for every believer to receive the blessings of God in the kingdom of her Son.
Mary again points to obedience in her Son in John 2, where John records Jesus’ first miracle. John tells us that “there was a wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with His disciples.” In an odd twist for John, he places Mary at the center of the action. He reports first that Mary was there, then that Jesus and His disciples were also there. Mary initiates the action: “When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine.’”
Jesus responds cryptically, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ terse response gives commentators fits and has resulted in much ink spilled, but Mary cuts through it all with simple faith and a call to obedience: “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever He tells you.’” The servants listen to Mary. The obey Jesus. John tells us the result at the end of the story: “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.” All because Mary pointed others to her Son.
Mary’s example invites us to consider our own faith: are we directing others to her Son? We can point to Jesus with our words and with our own lives, just as Mary did. For those of us who are Christians, the first step is to follow Mary’s instructions to the servants at Cana: “Do whatever He tells you.” If we are obedient, we will show others the Kingdom, and Jesus promises us the blessings of His Father.
Image: The Marriage Feast at Cana in Galilee (2001), Vasili Nesterenko