instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What did Jesus do?

Mark 3:31-35 (with parallels Matthew 12:46-50 and Luke 8:19-21) is a hard passage for the Catholic discussing the place of Mary in the Church with a Protestant:
His mother and his brothers arrived. Standing outside they sent word to him and called him.

A crowd seated around him told him, "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you."

But he said to them in reply, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"

And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."
Even more vexing is 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."
Commenting on the passage in Mark, Theophylact offers the stock Catholic answer to why all this doesn't make veneration of Mary unbiblical:
He does not therefore say this, as denying His mother, but as showing that she is worthy of honor, not only because she bore Christ, but on account of her possessing every other virtue.
That line of argument will be more or less convincing depending on circumstances, but let me ask: What could Jesus have said that would have made the Catholic apologist's job simple?

To take the simpler passage from Luke 11, Jesus could have merely said, "Also," instead of, "Rather." Or, if you prefer to think of it this way, Luke could have written "Also" instead of "Rather"; after all, he'd already written Mary as saying all generations will call her blessed. That way, instead of Jesus correcting someone who was blessing Mary, He'd have been adding to what she said.

The obvious follow-on question is: Why didn't Jesus say that? Why, when He was presented with opportunities to preach good Catholic devotion to Mary, did He turn the conversation completely away from that devotion?

As you'd expect, I don't think the answer is that Catholic devotion to Mary is contrary to Christ's will. But neither do I think the answer suggested by Theophylact and echoed by countless others -- that He was broadening the praise of His mother beyond the physical realm into the moral and spiritual -- gets at the whole story.

When Jesus was told His mother and brothers were outside, He was in Capernaum, still in the early days of His ministry (Mark puts the story right after He chose the Twelve Apostles). No one had any real idea Who Jesus truly was (Peter's confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi comes four chapters later in Matthew, five chapters later in Mark).

Jesus' public mission was to reveal His Father, and it wasn't easy. As late as the night before He died, Philip could still say to Him, "Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."

What would have happened if, long before the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles ("and Mary the mother of Jesus") at Pentecost, long before the Apostles even knew that Jesus was the Messiah, He had directed their attention to His mother -- even to the extent of interrupting a sermon to speak with her?

It seems to me that would have only muddled His revelation and confused His disciples. The honor due to the Mother of God is a direct corollary of Jesus' self-revelation; to bring up the corollary before the primary lesson is known ill-befits the wise teacher.

So it's not just that Jesus didn't happen to respond in these situations in a manner that makes it easy to demonstrate the scriptural basis for veneration of Mary. It's that He shouldn't have responded that way. He wasn't composing a catechism. He was revealing His Father, and He left it to those to whom He revealed the Father to discover that the light of the Father reveals the light of the mother.

Catholics shouldn't try to paper over the development of Marian doctrine that can be found even within the New Testament. We shouldn't find these Gospel passages challenging to what we believe about the Mother of God, when they in part determine what we believe about her.

Instead, we should recognize that the very development that has occurred -- which I'd say Catholics must admit was intended by God to occur over time and not simply be given by Jesus as an explicit teaching -- teaches us important lessons about both the place of Mary (i.e., both logically and historically, distinctly after Jesus) and the nature of Jesus' revelation (i.e., completed but unfolding in time).