Does Jesus ever surprise you with the ways that he responds to certain individuals in the Bible?
The following interchange certainly cries out for some explanation. Here we are in the middle of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching in public, when suddenly a woman in the crowd calls out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!” Jesus responds: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27–28).
QUESTION #1: Why is Jesus so apparently insensitive here? The term translated rather in the NIV is a rather (pun intended) strong adversative expression in Greek. This indicates to the reader that Jesus is doing some major “course correction” here. Yet it seems that this woman has simply said something nice about Jesus’ mother. What’s the big deal here? Why not an affirming response like, “Why, thank you! I’ll be sure to pass that on to my mama. She’ll really appreciate it.”
QUESTION #2: What’s the logical connection between the woman’s exclamation and Jesus’ response? Why would Jesus follow up a nice comment about his mother with a strident challenge to hear and obey the word of God? What do the two have in common? We appear to have somewhat of a non sequitur here.
The answers to these questions are to be found in family, gender roles and personal identity, as they were understood in the cultural world of first-century Mediterranean society. Anthropologists inform us that the family systems of Jesus’ day were patrilineal in their orientation.
This was true of Jewish families, and it was the case for Roman families, as well. What this means is that the male bloodline determined family membership. A father/male passed on family membership to the next generation. A mother/female did not. [Although we do family very differently in America today, a vestige of the patrilineal family construct remains in our practice of passing male surnames on to the next generation. Thus, my kids have the last name “Hellerman” (their father’s), rather than my wife’s birth surname, “Crites.”]
Now the patrilineal family system of Jesus’ day placed little girls in a very tenuous position. One Jewish writer even went so far as to assert, “The birth of a daughter is a loss” (Sirach 22:3). Why? Because in such a setting a daughter is unable to pass on family membership to the next generation. Only a son can do that. Only a son can guarantee the future of the kinship group by extending the patriline down the generational family tree. So everybody wanted to have baby boys — not baby girls.
What’s left, then, for a baby girl? Well, a baby girl is supposed to grow up, be married off into another patrilineal kinship group, and make baby boys to help guarantee the honor and future viability of that patriline. You could almost say that in such a setting a woman becomes a person — in the fullest sense of the word — only when she gives birth to a son.
Aha! Now the woman’s blessing, as recorded in Luke 11:27, makes perfect sense. This lady is essentially exclaiming to Jesus, “Boy, did yo mama become somebody special when she had you for a son!” After all, by this time in Luke’s narrative Jesus has become quite an attractive public figure, with his miracles and teachings and all. And that, in turn, makes Mary a highly esteemed son-bearer, according to the cultural values and social codes of first century Palestine.
But suddenly Jesus’ response makes sense, as well. As it turns out, there is no logical disconnect whatsoever between the woman’s blessing in v. 27 and Jesus’ response in v. 28. Jesus is well aware of the patrilineal values implied by the woman’s exclamation. And he will have no part of them. Apparently Jesus has a radically alternative program in mind for women (and for men!) that flies right in the face of the dominant culture’s family values.
Jesus forcefully responds (I paraphrase), “On the contrary! No longer will the personhood of women be defined by bearing sons. Just like a man, a woman becomes the person God intends her to be when she hears the word of God and obeys it. And, yes, that even applies to my mama.”
In conservative evangelical circles, we make much of what Jesus has to say about a person’s individual relationship with God. And so we should. But apparently Jesus also has a lot to say about cultural institutions — like family. We should pay close attention this, as well. As Jesus put it, let’s hear the word of God and obey it.