READ : Luke 11:27-28
Who are they, the happy ones? Who are those persons in this world on whom heaven seems to have especially smiled? Of whom can it best be said, “They are truly blessed”? We all have our ideas, don’t we, about who the most favored ones are.
Listen to this little incident in which the question is addressed. I’m reading from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 11, beginning at verse 27:
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!” And he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
HAPPY BY ASSOCIATION
This nameless woman in the crowd had her view about the happy ones. It found expression in what she shouted above the noise of the crowd, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” In other words, Jesus’ mother, in her view, is one of the truly happy ones. To her, happiness comes by association. Many people today seem to feel as this woman did.
Now it is a wonderful thing for a woman to be the mother of a great man. Even more so, of a good man. It’s tremendously fulfilling for parents when their children succeed. When they make significant contributions, when they manifest strong character, their parents evidently rejoice. For many, life seems to find its highest meaning in what their children become. Who then could possibly be happier than Mary in giving birth to a son like Jesus?
During the 1991 college football season in the U.S.A., Desmond Howard of Michigan was the winner of the coveted Heisman trophy, traditionally given to the one esteemed by both coaches and sports writers as the best football player of the year.
When Howard received the award in New York City, he told a nationwide television audience that he was thankful to God for his two parents, for all that they had meant to him, as parents and as fine human beings. It was a touching moment. Viewers saw their reaction at that moment – tears of joy! Desmond’s mother and father are no longer married but their son’s award was felt by both to be the greatest experience of their lives. They were happy because of their association with an illustrious son.
Sometimes the association is extended from family to a whole race. The Jewish people, for example, have long celebrated their descent from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their ties with men like Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon and the prophets. Greek people today are still proud of their links with the ancient greats: Plato and Aristotle. You can’t visit Poland without being reminded of how much it means to Polish people that a great musician was one of them. You get the same sense in England about the illustrious playwright, William Shakespeare.
I suppose that every country forms a kind of identification with its national Olympic team. Every victory by a hometown hero in track and field or some other athletic contest seems a national triumph as well. As the athlete ascends the winners’ podium and his/her national anthem is played as a tribute, fellow citizens around the world fill up with joy and pride. They are happy by association.
Sometimes if we happen to know a person who makes a significant contribution in some field, we derive vicarious pleasure from that, don’t we? We feel good because of our acquaintance, our connection with this celebrated person. We feel significant, worthwhile, blessed because of who they have become. Surely the woman in the crowd was speaking the truth when she declared that Mary was supreme among the happy ones.
A TRIBUTE TO JESUS
There was something else notable in what she said. It wasn’t only a tribute to Mary. In an indirect way, she was giving high praise to Jesus Himself. Mary was a blessed person in her eyes because she had given birth to this teacher from Nazareth. So great was He that anyone connected with Him took on significance. The mother from whom He drew His life was highest on the list. For her it was a reflected glory, a derived blessedness. She was most blessed in this woman’s eyes because her son was incomparably great.
Here again we find much to commend and celebrate. Surely the woman’s words would bring joy to Jesus. She was not among His carping critics. She didn’t accuse Him as some had just done of being In league with the devil and casting out demons by infernal power. She listened to what He said with great respect. She esteemed Him highly. And isn’t that one of the dimensions, at least, of true faith, to have a high regard for Jesus, to see Him as truly great and worthy of praise?
The apostle Paul prays for his friends in Philippi that their love may abound more and more with knowledge and with all discernment so that they may “approve what is excellent.” He longs to see them, in other words, have the faculty of recognizing genuine worth when they see it, the discernment to celebrate the excellent. Well, this woman in the crowd surely had that capacity, didn’t she? She saw that among all those born of women, Jesus of Nazareth was surely among the greatest.
Mustn’t this be a joy to the heart of God? As someone has put it, “God loves to hear people speak well of His Son.” It’s His purpose that all “should honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” I say, Thank God for all those who, like. this woman, regard Jesus as great and greatly to be praised!
And yet this woman might have pronounced the same blessing on the mother of a king or of a poet or philosopher. It wasn’t clear just what she felt about Jesus, who she understood Him to be. Perhaps her enthusiasm, though justified, was on her part little more than hero worship.
At any rate, Jesus did not hear her outcry with unqualified approval. He said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
That word rather can be variously translated. Depending on the emphasis, it can confirm what was just said or correct it. It’s a kind of yes, but response, as though Jesus had said, “You’re right. There’s truth in what you say. But here is something more significant by far. Here is the major focus for your attention.”
In other words, Jesus didn’t reject what the woman said. He was not against her having pronounced a blessing on Mary, surely not against her evident esteem for Him. But to Jesus, she was missing the point, the main point, about the happy ones. According to Jesus, they are those who hear God’s Word and keep it.
What’s Jesus doing here? For one thing, He is directing attention away from the person of Mary to the practice of hearing and obeying God’s Word. He’s saying that blessedness arises not from physical kinship but from a kinship of purpose. He wants people to focus not on His family connections but on His divine mission.
Remember how at the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a series of what we call The Beatitudes, “Blessed are they who . . . blessed are those . . . blessed are these . . .”? That expressed His perspective on who the happy ones are: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful ones, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, even those persecuted for righteousness sake. In a way that overturns our ordinary notions about these things, He gives us heaven’s view of happiness.
And He’s doing the same thing here. We have our views on this subject. We pronounce blessings on those we consider happy, but God has His own way of doing this, His estimate of what happiness consists of and who is truly blessed.
Jesus would agree that Mary is among the blessed ones but for a different reason. It was surely the gift and favor of God that she was chosen to be the mother of the Savior, but the physical act of bearing a child was not her true glory. Listen to what she said when the angel brought her the unimaginable news that she, a young virgin, would conceive in her womb and bear a son and that her child would be called holy, the Son of God. “Behold,” Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She heard the word of God and submitted to it. “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Elizabeth, a relative, later celebrated Mary’s response to this divine word like this: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). That was Mary’s happiness. She not only heard God’s Word submissively; she trusted His promise. She believed that there would be a fulfillment, that the Word of the Lord would indeed prove true. And later on it was said of Mary that she “kept all these things in her heart.”
Do you see that, friends? Jesus saw His mother Mary as being blessed by God, not so much because she gave birth to Him but because she believed, obeyed and treasured the Word of the Lord. And however much He loved her as the mother who had ushered Him into the world, He celebrated her life most of all as that of a woman who feared the Lord, who trusted and obeyed.
And what about the high regard for Him that this woman in the crowd had expressed, when she talked about His mother’s blessedness? Jesus surely valued that tribute. He didn’t want to dismiss it. It was a beautiful thing that she did in pointing to His glory. Yet here again, there was a kind of “Yes, but.” Jesus never desired that people should admire Him as a great man. He had no interest in being called a prodigy or a wonder worker. It would have given Him no satisfaction to be listed in the annals of the famous. He didn’t come to make a name for Himself or to be hailed as a hero. He came as the servant of the Lord, as the Son of the Father. He was God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, sent into the world on a divine mission. If people praised Him for His character, His deeds of compassion, His works of healing and deliverance, but did not see Him as the sent One, they would have missed the point entirely.
And when He taught, it meant nothing to Jesus that He should be considered profound, that He should be praised as clever or original. He had come to speak and embody the Father’s word. People only understood what He was saying and rightly appreciated it when they realized that it was the word of the living God. And then everything depended on the way they responded to it. As they listened to Jesus, were they opening themselves to what God had to say to them and then having heard it, did they hold it fast? Did they internalize the Word, hide it in their hearts, and apply it to their lives? That was what He was looking for. That’s what made all the difference, that people should hear the word of God and keep it.
All of us are interested, I suppose, in understanding what real happiness is, but even more perhaps in experiencing it. If something in you hungers for that, for genuine blessedness, here’s the shining clue the Lord has given us: In the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the Bible, in the words and works of Jesus and supremely in His death and resurrection, His risen power and glory, God has spoken and is speaking still. When you like Mary believe that word, hide it in your heart and submit your whole life to its authority, you will have found what heaven calls real happiness. You will be among the truly blessed ones. You will have found the joy of the Lord. And that’s my wish and prayer for you today.
Prayer: Father, give us light to see that our true blessedness is not in our gains or our fame but in knowing You, in belonging to You through Christ. And let every person sharing this message so hear the word of the Lord and treasure it as through Christ to know You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.