Yesterday’s Gospel is an easy one to stumble over as Catholics. It’s from Luke 8:19-21, while Jesus is teaching the crowds:
Then His Mother and His brothers came to Him but were unable to join Him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your Mother and Your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.” He said to them in reply, “My Mother and My brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”
A few chapters later, we hear something similar (Luke 11:27-28):
While He was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.” He replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
At first, Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit-inspired prayer to Mary sounds very similar to what the woman in the crowd shouted to Jesus in Luke 11. Both Elizabeth and the woman in the crowd talk about Mary’s blessedness. But Elizabeth, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is able to understand that Mary is blessed for is her faith, not because of Who she’s related to.
Obviously, Jesus isn’t denying that Mary is blessed. He’s not contradicting the Holy Spirit. And we shouldn’t read His words in Luke 8 or Luke 11 as a rebuke of His Mother. Instead, we should see them as an invitation.
Mary is both the biological Mother of Jesus, and His most devoted follower. But which of these two traits matters more to Jesus? Would it be better to be a faithless blood relative, or a faithful foreigner? The answer is obvious to us today, but it wasn’t always so. So what Jesus is rebuking is the idea that if you come from a holy family, you’re set.
The Old Testament contains plenty of multi-generational blessings and curses, and some people appear to have reacted by deciding that they must enjoy God’s favor, since they come from a good family. Jesus rebukes this idea with stunning clarity in John 8:39. When the people in the crowd boasted, “Our father is Abraham,” Jesus replied: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham,” and accuses them of having the devil for their father (John 8:44).
In other words, the most important fatherhood is spiritual, not biological. That’s true, whether we’re talking about God’s Fatherhood, or Abraham’s, or even the devil’s. The same is true of motherhood and brotherhood. This doesn’t diminish the biological family at all, but draws it up into something more perfect. Dads should be spiritual fathers to their kids, moms should be spiritual mothers to their kids, and children should treat one another as spiritual brethren.
Like I said, Jesus’ emphasis on faith over bloodlines is an awesome invitation. You and I can’t trace our bloodline to Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus’ point is that this doesn’t matter. Mary, with of her unparalleled faith, become the biological Mother of God, and His most devoted follower. We’re not going to become His biological kin, but we can join His family through faith.
We see this throughout the New Testament. God is our spiritual Father (Matthew 6:9), the Woman (an image of Mary and the Church) is depicted as our spiritual Mother (Revelation 12:7), and we’re each others’ spiritual brothers and sisters (1 Corinthians 7:15).
We can approach God Himself as if He were our biological Father, and so we’re urged to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). That’s (literally) awesome.