Who’s Yo Mama?
Does Jesus ever surprise you with the way he responds to certain individuals in the Bible? The following interchange certainly cries out for some explanation. 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 strong adversative expression in Greek. 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 comment about his mother with an observation about hearing and obeying God’s word? We appear to have somewhat of a non sequitur here.
The answers to these questions are found in family, gender roles, and personal identity, as they were understood in the cultural world of first-century Palestine. Family systems in Jesus’ day were patrilineal. This means 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 went so far as to assert, “The birth of a daughter is a loss” (Sirach 22:3). Why? Because a daughter was unable to pass on family membership to the next generation. Only a son could do that. 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 someone special when she had YOU for a son!
Jesus, however, will have no part of it. He has a program in mind for women (and for men!) that flies right in the face of the dominant culture’s family values. Jesus forcefully responds, On the contrary! No longer will the personhood of women be defined by son-bearing. Just like a man, a woman becomes the person God intends her to be when she hears the word of God and obeys it.
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.