In Luke 11:27-28, Jesus gives what on the surface might appear to be a disturbing answer to an unnamed woman’s obvious praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
As [Jesus] 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 sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Many Protestants will claim that here we see Jesus making clear that there is no special reverence to be given to his mother. When the unnamed woman wants to heap “blessing” on Mary, Jesus seems to reject the notion. “Blessed rather,” he says, “are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Is Jesus really rebuking this woman for her claim that Mary is “blessed”? On the surface, this does look troubling—but only to those who choose to remain on the surface. There are at least two essential reasons why Jesus could not have meant to say his mother was not blessed.
1. Common sense. This woman expresses a profound truth that every human being knows from his core: any woman who gives birth to and nurtures a child is blessed! There is little in this life that is any more beautiful than the birthing and nurturing of a human being created in the image and likeness of God. But add to this the fact that Mary gave birth to and nurtured God in the flesh. How blessed is this? It is truly beyond words to comprehend. So of course this woman was correct in her assertion. Jesus would not—and could not—contradict that which is manifestly true to human reason and acknowledged by all of humanity!
2. Jesus cannot contradict Sacred Scripture. In Luke 1:48-49, the inspired author records these words spoken by the Blessed Mother herself:
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Mary herself was here pondering the same reality to which later that unnamed woman would speak. “Blessed is the womb that bore thee . . .”
Mary’s cousin (or relative) Elizabeth would also contribute to this conversation, her words given to us also by St. Luke under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord (Luke 1:44-45).
If Jesus is denying in Luke 11:27-28 that Mary is blessed, then he is contradicting these Holy Spirit-inspired words of Sacred Scripture. That is unthinkable.
In his great encyclical letter Redemptoris Mater, Pope St. John Paul II explains in simple terms the proper interpretation of Luke 11:27-28:
He [Jesus] wishes to divert attention from motherhood understood only as a fleshly bond, in order to direct it toward those mysterious bonds of the spirit which develop from hearing and keeping God’s word (20.3-4).
Jesus was not denying that Mary was his mother and as such was blessed; rather, he was teaching us the most important aspect of Mary’s divine maternity and, indeed, of all human motherhood. It is first and foremost spiritual. Mary is both the mother of Jesus on the biological level and the ultimate example of spiritual motherhood in the order of grace.
So is she blessed on the natural level? Absolutely! But on the spiritual level, which is the most important level that completes and perfects nature, Mary’s level of blessedness is multiplied immeasurably. Moreover, in Mary’s famous fiat of Luke 1:38—”let it be done unto me according to thy word”—she reveals what is most important not only when considering Christian motherhood, but when considering the spiritual life in general. She becomes the “model for Christians” when she “hears the word of God” from the angel “and keeps it.”
Far from teaching that Mary is not blessed, Jesus was here heaping a twofold blessing upon the Blessed Mother. Mary’s blessedness extends to the levels of nature and supernature.
The misunderstanding implied in the question is rooted in a misunderstanding of one small but important word in Luke 11. When Jesus responds to the unnamed woman’s declaration, Luke records him as saying: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
The Greek word translated blessed rather here is menoun. As the late Barclay Newman, Jr. provides in his Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament:
Menoun and menounge [which have the same meaning]: rather, on the contrary; indeed, much more.
As we have already seen, it would be impossible to translate this as “rather, on the contrary,” because that would have Jesus contradicting the plain words of Scripture. So if we want to remain faithful to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, Newman’s second meaning, “indeed, [but] much more,” has to win the day.
Moreover, menoun and menounge are used only four times in the New Testament. Of the three other usages, only one could be legitimately translated “on the contrary.” That usage is found in Romans 9:20, where St. Paul responds to those objecting to God creating men, knowing they would eventually end up in hell: “On the contrary [menounge], who are you, a man, to answer back to God?” The other two times, it means either “indeed” or “indeed, much more.” Here, in Romans 10:18, it means “indeed”:
But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed (menounge) they have; for “their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (citing Ps. 19:4).
In Phil. 3:7-8, menounge carries the connotation of “indeed, much more,” much like Luke 11:27-28:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed [menounge, much more], I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Notice that Paul moves from “whatever gain [he] had” being lost to “count[ing] everything as loss.”
Given the fact that two out of the three other times these terms are used, they mean “indeed,” or “indeed, much more,” it would be exegetically foolish to translate menoun in our main text of Luke 11:27-28 to have Jesus, somehow, denying his mother to be “blessed.”
Common sense, Sacred Scripture, and good biblical exegesis makes it very plain that Mary is “blessed,” indeed!