Do Catholics Regard Mary too Highly?

From the “outside looking in” on Catholicism, our devotion to Mary can often seem to be a bit overboard.  This can sometimes lead others to use Biblical texts to try to prove Jesus himself had distanced himself from Mary, thus proving we should not regard Mary as anyone special in Christ’s kingdom.  I’ve had more than one person tell me we should regard Mary as simply a “sister in the Lord” and nothing more than any other Christian.  I’ve even seen some imply there is no evidence in Scripture Mary was even “saved” and question she may not even be in heaven.  Things that as a Catholic make you go, hmm…..

One example often given is Jesus did not refer to Mary as “mother” but as “woman” when he addressed her.  As Catholics of course we understand that is a reference to Mary as being the new Eve, as was covered here.  It is important to note Scripture quite often refers to Mary as being the mother of Jesus (more than 20 times), and to believe Jesus refused to acknowledge Mary as his mother places him at odds with Sacred Scripture, which is not possible.

There are two other examples from Scripture often given to try to support the position Jesus had distanced himself from Mary.  One is Matthew 12:46-50“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood outside, asking to speak to him.  But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.’”

In his anti-Catholic work “The Gospel According to Rome,” James McCarthy has this take on that passage:  “Jesus refused to elevate Mary….  Here the Lord Jesus asserted His independence from mere human relationships.  He taught that a personal spiritual relationship with Him stemming from submission to God was of far greater importance than kinship based upon ties of the flesh.”  Regarding this passage, anti-Catholic author Eric Svendsen wrote “It is evident from many New Testament passages that Jesus effectively severed all biological ties with Mary before he went to the cross.” 

The question I would ask of Svendsen – if Jesus had truly severed all biological ties with Mary before he went to the cross, why at the foot of the cross does Sacred Scripture refer to her as the mother of Jesus (John 19:25)?  Why does Jesus place Mary in the care of John if he’d severed all biological ties with her (John 19:26-27)?  Why after even the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ does Scripture still refer to her as the mother of Jesus (Acts 1:14)?  And of most importance, how would a belief Jesus severed all biological ties with Mary align with the truth that Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15)?  If we truly believe Jesus was sinless, would that not mean he would have perfectly kept God’s commandment to honor his mother (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16)?  He himself cites the commandment to honor your mother (and father, Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20).  He also rails at the Pharisees who were telling people that it was okay to neglect the care of your parents if you were instead doing “God’s work,” and accused them of making void the word of God (Mark 7:8-13).  Yet we are supposed to believe that he “effectively severed” all ties with his mother and refused to even acknowledge her, much less honor and care for her as commanded by God? 

Another passage often cited to support the view that Jesus had distanced himself from Mary is Luke 11:27-28.  McCarthy has this to say about that passage: “Though opportunities arose during His earthly ministry to do so, Jesus never taught that Mary was to receive special honor.  Once, as the Lord spoke to a multitude, a woman in the crowd shouted out to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ (Luke 11:27).  But Jesus deflected such honor ascribed to Mary, responding instead, ‘On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it (Luke 11:28).’”

“On the contrary” — McCarthy is using a minority translation here.  Most translations, including the KJV render Luke 11:28 as “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.”  The NKJV says this: “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

“Rather” is one of those odd words.  Merriam-Webster online gives the following definitions: 1) with better reason or more propriety: more properly, 2) more readily or willingly, 3) more correctly speaking, 4) to the contrary.  When hearing the woman proclaim Mary was blessed for having giving birth to Jesus, it makes a big difference if we think his reply is “with better reason” or “more correctly speaking” a person would be blessed for hearing the word of God and keeping it, instead of “on the contrary.”

But let’s look at the reality of this.  Didn’t Mary do exactly that?  When she heard the word of God as delivered to her by the angel Gabriel, her response was “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  St. Augustine says of these passages “Therefore Mary is more blessed in receiving the faith of Christ, than in conceiving the flesh of Christ….  Thus also her nearness as a Mother would have been of no profit to Mary, had she not borne Christ in her heart after a more blessed manner than in her flesh.”

As Catholics we would agree with the conclusion of these Protestant authors in one sense.  Jesus is indeed telling us that our relationship to him by faith is more important than biological relationships.  Therefore he warned us our faith may cause us difficulties within our families, and we have to be willing to put him first (Luke 12:49-53).  We would simply disagree that in these passages he is downplaying that Mary is blessed.  Rather, he is telling us that while she is indeed blessed to be his mother, she is even more blessed because of her unfailing faith.

The Catholic understanding of these passages is also supported in another passage of Scripture.  We simply have to look at Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth, who proclaims to her “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  (Luke 1:42), as well as “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45).  Of most importance in these words of Elizabeth is to notice they are not simply a result of Elizabeth perhaps going “overboard” as some may believe Catholics do.  Elizabeth’s words were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).  And these words highlight both Mary’s blessedness as the mother of Jesus as well as her being blessed because of her faith.  And Jesus, in complete harmony with the Holy Spirit in the passages cited above is telling us while Mary is indeed blessed to be his mother, she is even more blessed because of her faith.  To try to use these passages to somehow prove that Christ was downplaying Mary puts him at odds with the Holy Spirit speaking through Elizabeth. 

There are also two Old Testament references to women who are blessed that foreshadow our understanding of Mary being “blessed among women.”  The first is Jael, and we’re told in Judges 5:24 “Most blessed of women be Ja′el, the wife of Heber the Ken′ite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.”  The second is Judith, who may not be familiar to Protestant readers as Judith is one of the books removed from their Bibles (for more information on the differences in the Old Testament canon of Scripture you can read here.)  In Judith 13:18 we read “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to strike the head of the leader of our enemies.”

One of the things both of these blessed Old Testament women have in common is they each defeated enemies of Israel by striking their heads.  When we return to Genesis 3:15, we learn of God’s plan for the redemption of humanity that places enmity between Satan and “the woman” and “her seed” and that the seed of the woman would crush the head of Satan.  But we often see statues of Mary with the serpent under her feet, which again can lead to claims that Catholics put undue emphasis on Mary.  In fact, the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible (a KJV contemporary) renders Genesis 3:15 as “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” 

Before people get too upset with that version, it may be important to note that the Hebrew does not seem to assign a specific gender to the phrase.  For this reason, the KJV renders the phrase as “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”  (Genesis 3:15 KJV).

We also need to recognize St. Paul tells us in Romans 16:19-20 “For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”  Everything Christ does for us, he also does with us.  As Mary uniquely shares with Christ the “enmity” God puts between him and Satan, she has a unique role in crushing the head of Satan.  But it is a role we all share as we participate in Christ’s redemptive work. 

So is Mary just another “sister in the Lord” and nothing more as some would claim?  As Catholics we would also point to Scripture as to how we should view Mary.  For under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41), Elizabeth also says to Mary “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  (Luke 1:43

When we look at these two women in Scripture from the eyes of the world they are hardly equals.  Mary is but a young girl and Elizabeth is her much elder kinswoman.  Age alone in the Jewish culture should have seen Mary defer all respect to Elizabeth.  Mary is betrothed to a poor carpenter.  (We know Joseph is poor because he could only afford the lesser sacrifice prescribed by the law when Jesus was presented in the temple – Luke 2:24, Leviticus 12:6-8).  Elizabeth is the wife of a priest, a descendant of Aaron, Israel’s first high priest.  Yet Elizabeth, seeing the situation with the eyes of the Holy Spirit, has the attitude that Mary’s visit to her is a great honor.  When we too see Mary with the eyes of the Holy Spirit, we come to understand that she is not simply just another “sister in the Lord” but as the “mother of our Lord” worthy of great honor and respect from us as well. 

Mary hears Elizabeth’s words of honor and immediately directs the focus to a beautiful prayer of praise to God – her Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55).  Mary always takes all honor given to her and directs it to her son.  And may we always be guided by her last recorded words in Scripture – “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).

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