Hidden Treasures in the Greek of Scripture (Luke 11:27-28)

Without a doubt, the Orthodox love the Theotokos. She is for us a mother, an intercessor, a constant protection. We adorn our churches and homes with her icons, we pray to her, chant hymns to her, and celebrate the great moments of her life with feast days. Psalm 44:9, in its Messianic interpretation seems to validate the Orthodox understanding of the place of the Theotokos: 

παρέστη ἡ βασίλισσα ἐκ δεξιῶν σου ἐν ἱματισμῷ διαχρύσῳ περιβεβλημένη, πεποικιλμένη

“The queen stood at Your right hand, in clothes of gold and robed in varied colors.”

In this image, Christ is the king, and the Theotokos is the queen. We know this, because when James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Christ and asked Him if they could sit at his right hand and his left in the coming kingdom (Mark 10:37), Christ responds that those seats are already appointed for others.

What if there exists a direct statement by Christ that shows that He does not approve of the veneration of the Theotokos? This would be rather devastating to the Orthodox. Such a passage seemingly exists in Luke 11:27-28:

Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν τῷ λέγειν αὐτὸν ταῦτα ἐπάρασά τις φωνὴν γυνὴ ἐκ τοῦ ὄχλου εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Μακαρία ἡ κοιλία ἡ βαστάσασά σε καὶ μαστοὶ οὓς ἐθήλασας. αὐτὸς δὲ εἶπεν, Μενοῦν μακάριοι οἱ ἀκούοντες τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ φυλάσσοντες.

“It happened that while He was saying these things, a woman grew excited and said to Him from the crowd: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you sucked.’ He, however, said: ‘Nay, rather blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.’”

A woman is so overcome with admiration for Christ’s teaching that she publicly exclaims her admiration and veneration for His mother. We would expect Christ to affirm this, but instead He makes it clear that she is not blessed, rather those people are blessed who “hear the word of God and keep it,” His disciples for example. This seems to pose a problem. How can the Orthodox continue to venerate Mary, to offer her the honor that we do, when Christ Himself seems to prohibit this? 

As this so clearly seems to contradict the Orthodox position on the veneration of Mary, one could expect the Church to attempt to gloss over this passage. This is exactly not the case, however, the Church offers exactly this passage as part of the Gospel readings for many of the most important feast days of the Theotokos, such as on the feast day of the Nativity of the Theotokos (Sept. 08th), the Dormition of the Theotokos (Aug. 15th), or during the Great Paraklesis services during the Dormition Fast. The readings for feast days are chosen particularly to accompany that feast, to edify the people with a greater understanding of the theological importance of the feast. Why, then, this passage in particular, if it seems to contradict the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of our relationship with the Theotokos, and her relationship with her Son?

Much hinges on the translation of the term Μενοῦν. In many translations, this is given as “nay, rather” or “rather,” used as a disjunctive particle, placing what comes previous to the particle in opposition to that which follows. This particle, however, is also able to be translated as “indeed,” or “truly.” Two parts make up this word: Μεν – indeed and οῦν – therefore. Some translations reflect this distinction more accurately (such as the KJV) by rendering it as “yes (or yea), rather.” By keeping “rather” in the English translation, however, there is still as sense of contrast. 

In removing any sense of contrast, we see a very different passage in the translation: ‘”Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you sucked.’ He, then, said: ‘Indeed, truly blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.’” (cf. Parallel passages such as Romans 9:20 and 10:18, where this term is found as well). 

In this reading, the woman calls out from the crowd and Christ affirms her veneration, affirms that she is, indeed “blessed.” This reading is far more internally consistent with the rest of the Gospel of Luke, consistent with the picture of the Theotokos we see in Luke 1:26-56, in the stories of the Annunciation and of the visitation to Elizabeth, in which the Theotokos is referred to as blessed, both εὐλογημενη and μακαρια. In the traditional, contrasting, translation, we would have to assume a disconnect, or lack of consistency in the Gospel narrative, which would have to be explained. By translating the term as “indeed, truly” we maintain a logical internal consistency within the narrative of the Gospel in regard to the Theotokos.

What is the theological consequence of translating the passage in this way? Translating μενοῦν as a disjunctive particle only has one outcome, to declare that those who “hear the word of God and keep it” are “blessed,” with the implication that the Thetokos does not belong to this group. In the corrected translation, we see that this is not at all a repudiation of the Theotokos, but that Christ is laying out her veneration on two levels: 1. her motherhood and 2. her obedience to God. This, then, hearkens back to Luke 1:26-56, in which the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Theotokos that she is to bear the Christ. The angel calls her “blessed” and “full of grace” because of the enormity of the Incarnation, she is the only human being to ever bear God in the flesh, but this would never have come to pass if her response to God’s will had not been: “I am the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done to me according to His will.” As mother and as faithful servant, the Theotokos is the model for all Christians.

We see too, that the woman’s exclamation is in the singular. The Theotokos, in her bearing Christ is unique. Christ’s response is in the plural. While we are unable to bear God physically into the world, as the Theotokos did, we are able to “hear the word of God and keep it” and in this way to follow her example and ourselves become “blessed.”

And so, the Orthodox cry out to the Theotokos: “It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you!” 

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"All of creation is a burning bush of God's energies."
Saint Gregory Palamas